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Go Big or Go Home

If the United States wants its Middle East mojo back, it's going to have to pay to play.


The United States is facing the worst of all worlds in the Middle East: interventions that erode Washington’s prestige and popularity but fail to exert enough influence to secure U.S. interests. If Secretary of State John Kerry’s effort to restart Israeli-Palestinian talks is to succeed — and if the United States is to secure its interests, ranging from oil security to nuclear nonproliferation — America must once again play a leading role in the region.

In theory, the Obama administration’s strategic objective is to "pivot" to Asia, focusing on rising powers across the Pacific (with the ancillary benefit of pleasing an electorate back home that is weary of the Middle East’s seemingly endless troubles). With the exception of the Arab-Israeli peace process — where Secretary Kerry is putting his personal prestige at stake — the administration hopes to achieve this objective by more aggressively supporting Arab or European diplomacy in the Middle East, quietly securing U.S. interests by pushing its allies to do more and coordinating their actions. U.S. officials hoped this approach would cost little, minimize domestic political risk, and score points with the so-called Arab street by keeping the American presence limited.

In practice, however, the Middle East still consumes an enormous amount of U.S. government bandwidth and remains impervious to influence. The latest crisis, a coup in Egypt, has left Washington reeling over the question of whether or not to cut the $1.3 billion in military aid the United States sends Egypt annually. Missing from the debate, however, is how marginal the U.S. role has become. Before the coup, the United States tried to push the Muslim Brotherhood-led government to compromise with the opposition. But backed by $8 billion in support from tiny Qatar since President Mohamed Morsy’s election, the Brotherhood regime was free to flout U.S. entreaties.

Even after the coup, the threat of a U.S. aid cutoff remains equally underwhelming. Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates have pledged a total of $12 billion to support the new regime. And while Washington has failed to exert influence over events in Egypt, it has somehow succeeded in making itself even more loathed. Perhaps the only thing Brotherhood supporters and their opponents can agree on is that the United States is conspiring against them.

U.S. policy hasn’t gained much traction elsewhere in the region, either. In Tunisia, attention to promoting democracy has faltered as other regional crises consume Washington’s attention. Tunis needs help developing its private sector and building its economy, but development aid remains low. Even a possible free trade agreement, which would complement and accelerate economic restructuring, has not made much progress despite the fact that it would benefit U.S. commerce as well.  

Next door in Libya, U.S. efforts to help the government restore order remain small scale, with the Benghazi debacle making the United States even more reluctant to engage. Since officially ending the war in Iraq in 2011, the United States has limited its engagement to arms sales, even as the country has suffered close to 3,000 dead since April — the worst violence since 2007 — and risks spiraling into all-out civil war. As U.S. influence fades, Iran’s relative clout in Iraq grows.

The limits of U.S. influence are most painfully apparent in Syria. Even if one takes the cold-blooded approach that says 100,000 dead is not Washington’s problem, it’s long been clear that the conflict is spilling over into neighboring countries and threatening to destabilize the region. Iraq and Lebanon are already suffering greater violence, Iran and Hezbollah are deeply enmeshed in the conflict, and U.S. allies like Israel have quietly ramped up their operations in Syria.

In response to confirmed chemical weapons use by Bashar al-Assad’s regime and Hezbollah’s intervention in force, the United States announced in June that it would enter the fray with arms and training for the Syrian opposition. In so doing, Washington raised the hopes of the Syrian people, as well as expectations that it would tip the balance in favor of the rebels. But the United States has so far refused to devote the resources to back up its own policies and has failed to articulate an overall strategy. U.S. military supplies are limited to small arms; training programs have barely begun. And earlier shipments of non-lethal aid like body armor and night-vision goggles were slow to come or never arrived.

Qatar, in contrast, provided $3 billion to the rebels — including to radical Islamist forces — and is also giving them heat-seeking shoulder-fired missiles and other more advanced systems. As a result, the cautious U.S. approach achieves few of its objectives: The rebels still get the systems that make the United States queasy, jihadists grow in influence, and the opposition remains divided — in part because its friends are not working together.    

Congress, unfortunately, has made this problem worse. Lawmakers are skeptical of any increase in aid to Syrian rebels despite the fact that it could increase Washington’s leverage if used properly. Congressional objections are further delaying the already late U.S. arms promised to the Syrian opposition. Congress’s reaction to the Benghazi killings, moreover, suggests that it will crucify the administration for any and all missteps. As a result, the administration has doubled down on its cautious approach, even though mistakes or tradeoffs are inevitable when dealing with chaotic and fast-changing situations like the Middle East. Zero mistakes means paralysis, not perfection. 

The end result is not a Goldilocks solution but rather the worst of all worlds. America’s allies work at cross-purposes with one another — and even with the United States. In Egypt, Qatar backed the Brotherhood while other Gulf states backed the military coup; in Syria, the Gulf states are backing different factions of the anti-Assad forces, fragmenting rather than uniting the opposition. As the violence spreads, the jihadist presence has gone from negligible to vast. Syria has attracted large numbers of hardline Islamists from around the Muslim world, and strife there is strengthening jihadist groups in Iraq and Lebanon.

All of this underlines the extent to which the United States is now seen as a marginal player in the Middle East, a grim fact that will inevitably make it harder to bring the Israelis and Palestinians together at the negotiating table. If the United States wants to protect its interests in the Middle East, it cannot rely on allies to do its bidding — or otherwise do so on the cheap. The United States must pay to play. Some battles may not be worth fighting, but those that matter most will require high-level attention and resources. The problems of the region are getting worse, and if the United States doesn’t shore up its influence now, it will be even less relevant when it most needs to act.

Daniel Byman is a professor at Georgetown University and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He is the author of the new book Road Warriors: Foreign Fighters in the Armies of Jihad. Twitter: @dbyman

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