Daniel W. Drezner

The White House Hasn’t Ended the Debate about U.S. Strategy in the Middle East. It’s Only Started It.

The White House Hasn’t Ended the Debate about U.S. Strategy in the Middle East. It’s Only Started It.

I think it’s safe to say that the Middle East is in flux.  It’s during moments like these, when uncertainty seems to be pretty high, that a grand strategy is useful.  A key point of a good grand strategy is to guide action when new circumstances present themselves.  I wrote about Obama’s grand strategy a few years ago — has his thinking changed?  What is the United States foreign policy machinery currently thinking? 

Courtesy of the White House staff leaking an explanation the New York Times’ Mark Landler, we have something in the way of an answer.  Susan Rice has a plan

Each Saturday morning in July and August,Susan E. Rice, President Obama’s new national security adviser, gathered half a dozen aides in her corner office in the White House to plot America’s future in the Middle East. The policy review, a kind of midcourse correction, has set the United States on a new heading in the world’s most turbulent region.

At the United Nations last month, Mr. Obama laid out the priorities he has adopted as a result of the review. The United States, he declared, would focus on negotiating a nuclear deal with Iran, brokering peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians and mitigating the strife in Syria. Everything else would take a back seat.

That includes Egypt, which was once a central pillar of American foreign policy. Mr. Obama, who hailed the crowds on the streets of Cairo in 2011 and pledged to heed the cries for change across the region, made clear that there were limits to what the United States would do to nurture democracy, whether there, or in Bahrain, Libya, Tunisia or Yemen.

The president’s goal, said Ms. Rice, who discussed the review for the first time in an interview last week, is to avoid having events in the Middle East swallow his foreign policy agenda, as it had those of presidents before him….

[NSC coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa Philip] Gordon took part in the Saturday sessions, along with two of Ms. Rice’s deputies, Antony J. Blinken and Benjamin J. Rhodes; the national security adviser to the vice president, Jake Sullivan; the president’s counterterrorism adviser, Lisa Monaco; a senior economic official, Caroline Atkinson; and a handful of others.

It was a tight group that included no one outside the White House, a stark contrast to Mr. Obama’s Afghanistan review in 2009, which involved dozens of officials from the Pentagon, the State Department, and the Central Intelligence Agency. Ms. Rice said she briefed Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel over weekly lunches.

Some priorities were clear. The election of Hassan Rouhani as president of Iran presents the West with perhaps its last good chance to curb its nuclear program. Mr. Rouhani has a mandate to ease sanctions on Iran and has signaled an eagerness to negotiate.

But other goals appear to have been dictated as much as by personnel as by policy. After vigorous debate, the group decided to make the Middle East peace process a top priority — even after failing to broker an agreement during the administration’s first term — in part because Mr. Kerry had already thrown himself into the role of peacemaker.

More than anything, the policy review was driven by Mr. Obama’s desire to turn his gaze elsewhere, notably Asia.

Now, on the strategic level, there’s some compelling logic to having the president focus more on the Pacific Rim than the Middle East.  The whole point of the rebalancing strategy in the first place was to prioritize scarce U.S. resources towards those parts of the globe that are deemed economically dynamic and strategically significant.  That’s the Pacific Rim, and it sure as hell ain’t the Middle East.   

That said, there are some reasons to be perturbed after reading Landler’s article.  Walter Russell Mead has pointed out one possible logical flaw:

There’s… a tension between the top two objectives. The tougher the US is on Iran, the more leverage it has pushing Israel toward concessions on the Palestinians. The more risks the administration takes and concessions it makes to get a deal with Iran, the tighter the Israelis are tempted to circle the wagons. Pursuing both objectives simultaneously risks a car crash, but then the Middle East is littered with wrecked cars from this and past administrations.

This is a good point, and it would trouble me more if I believed that the White House really cared that much about the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.  Landler’s article suggests, however, that this is not the case.  Rather, it seems clear that the administration has put that item on its strategic priorities list because John Kerry has leaned in.  From the White House perspective, it seems like the WMD issue — which covers both Iran and Syria — is the only priority.

Is this a good strategy? Well, no…. because this isn’t so much a strategy as a list of presidential priorities.   On the one hand, the priorities seem just about right.  Iran is the most important issue for the United States in the Middle East. A world in which Iran’s nuclear program is no longer perceived as a threat opens up all sorts of intriguing possibilities.

Establishing priorities is a useful starting point for developing a regional strategy — but it can’t end there.  I can only hope the NSC is also thinking about the following:

1)  The means to achieve success in Iran and Israel/Palestine;

2)  Response strategies in case negotiations with Iran or those between Israel and Palestine break down/never start up.  Or, in the case of Iran, next steps if a deal is actually brokered — just how far can/should an Iranian/American rapprochement go? 

3)  Wild card contingencies — what happens if Al Qaeda establishes a safe haven in Syria?  What happens if the Egyptian government disintegrates?  What happens if Saudi Arabia or Israel decide that they don’t trust the Iranians no matter what deal they sign? 

4)  Coordinating the rest of the foreign policy bureaucracy.  Remember them?  It’s fine for the White House to establish the administration’s foreign policy priorities.  But it sure would help if there was some better interagency policy coordination about what to do on these issues.  Not to mention….

5)  The back seat stuff.  Just because President Obama doesn’t want to devote his scarce time to democratization in the Middle East means the rest of the U.S. foreign policy machinery can kick back and go on cruise control.  Indeed, it is precisely when the president is not engaged on an issue that it matters what the rest of the government is doing. 

And the U.S. government needs to be doing something on these other questions.  The thing about being the most powerful country in the world is that the idea of complete non-intervention is an illusion.  There’s always an incentive for one actor or another to pull you back in.  The only way that the United States can cope with this is to articulate policies and strategies even in those areas where President Obama doesn’t care.  It’s the only way the U.S. can pursue its foreign policy rather than simply react to others’ foreign policy. 

Am I missing anything?