- By Will Inboden
As the broader Middle East continues to be convulsed by profound change, the Obama administration remains focused on the urgent daily tasks of crisis management. And rightly so, for tactical questions of a no-fly zone in Libya, support for political party building and election training in Egypt, pressure for political reform in Yemen and Bahrain, and other such matters will do much to shape the region’s future. But there is more to the region’s future than just these tactical decisions. The White House now has both the opportunity and the need to begin crafting a new regional strategy for the American posture in the broader Middle East. I hope that at least some officials in the administration — such as the capable staffs in the NSC’s Strategic Planning directorate, the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff, and the Pentagon’s Policy Planning shop and J5 directorate — are already exploring this question.
Doing so would help the administration regain the initiative. Thus far the Obama team has given the impression of being too often behind the curve on events in the Middle East, both in anticipating the revolutions and in responding to them. Fortunately as it reacts to each new development, the White House eventually seems to arrive at sound policies — whether support for the reformers in Egypt, or tightening the pressure on Qaddafi in Libya. Yet notice the verb in the preceding sentence: “reacts.” At some point soon, the administration will need to shift from merely reactive mode into asserting more leadership and setting the agenda.
The regional shifts are tectonic, and in this sense I am sympathetic to the Administration’s “ad-hockery.” For it is not just individual governments that are being changed, but also the entire strategic order that America’s regional posture has been based on for decades. While the precise new composition of the region remains uncertain, at a minimum it will be shifting from political homogeneity (autocracies of various flavors) and economic diversity (from the wealthy Gulf Arabs to the impoverished Maghreb) to political diversity (including democracies, autocracies, and other yet-to-be-determined regime types) and economic diversity.
Right now — as these old orders are crumbling, new governments are being formed, and public impressions are being shaped — the administration can seize the initiative to cement new partnerships and establish the principles for a new American strategic order in the region. Perhaps this might even constitute an “Obama Doctrine”?
Not all will be changed. Even while the political order shifts, most American strategic interests will remain the same, including counter-terrorism, secure energy supplies for global markets, WMD proliferation, the Israel-Palestinian peace process, and preventing any new mischief-making hegemon emerging from either inside or outside the region (such as Iran or China) .
What might such a strategy look like? I won’t presume to lay one out here, and rather suggest that the administration begin by consulting a range of regional experts, as well as doing its own in-house research and debate. But here are a few ideas and considerations that could inform a new strategy:
- Involve the GOP. A successful, enduring strategy will need bipartisan support, and the best way to ensure this is for the White House to consult with Congressional Republicans and other senior GOP leaders, both for their ideas and buy-in on the strategy. Doing so will also help secure the necessary funding for implementation.
- Maintain and display American power. While the Middle East’s protests and revolutions have been driven overwhelmingly by indigenous demands for reform and liberty, it is telling that in every case the region and the world looked towards the United States for leadership — whether in deciding which camp to support or helping maintain overall order. The particulars of the American presence will change, but the fact of it should not. Practically, this will mean the strategic reassurance represented by American military bases and commitments to the security of vital sea lanes, especially the Straits of Hormuz and the Suez Canal.
- New momentum in the counter narrative to Al Qaeda. As this New York Times story observed, the Arab revolutions have thus far dealt a serious blow to Al Qaeda’s ideological worldview. While Middle East autocracies crumble from largely non-Islamist protests, a pillar of the Al Qaeda grievance narrative crumbles as well. The Administration has not yet begun to exploit this opening in its counter-terrorism strategy (at least not publicly), but should do so soon.
- Coordination with Israel. Our closest ally in the region, Israel, has thus far found recent events more disconcerting than encouraging. This may be short-sighted on Israel’s part, but it must be taken into account nonetheless. The Administration should coordinate closely with Israel in developing the new regional strategy and ensure that it helps enhance rather than undermine Israel’s security.
- A new economic order. Amidst the political ferment, the region still faces the same persistent economic maladies, from over-reliance on petro-dollars to sclerotic state industries to under-developed human capital. A new strategy needs to include an economic dimension as well: perhaps one start is reviving the idea of a regional free-trade agreement.
Once the principles of a new American regional strategy are settled, President Obama should travel to the region to demonstrate America’s sustained commitment. He could unveil the strategy in a major speech — perhaps in Cairo again? — and help shape the trajectory of the region at a crucial time.
A closing thought. While historical analogies are always fraught and should not be overdrawn, it is nonetheless intriguing to note that while President Reagan is rightly remembered for confronting Soviet communism as strategically and morally bankrupt, when he left office in January 1989 the Soviet bloc was still largely intact. It was not until months later that the Iron Curtain began to unravel, and it was his successor President Bush 41 who expertly managed the transition to freedom in Eastern Europe. More recently, it was President Bush 43 who strategically recognized that the prevailing autocratic order in the Middle East was untenable. And now it is his successor, President Obama, who has an opportunity to manage the transition towards a new regional order.