Robert Malley and Peter Harling
In the Middle East, U.S. President Barack Obama has spent the first year and a half of his presidency seeking to undo the damage wrought by his predecessor. He has made up some ground. But given how slowly U.S. policy has shifted, his administration runs the risk of implementing ideas that might have worked if President George W. Bush had pursued them a decade ago. The region, meanwhile, will have moved on.
It is a familiar pattern. For decades, the West has been playing catch-up with a region it pictures as stagnant. Yet the Middle East evolves faster and less predictably than Western policymakers imagine. As a rule, U.S. and European governments eventually grasp their missteps, yet by the time their belated realizations typically occur, their ensuing policy adjustments end up being hopelessly out of date and ineffective.
In the wake of the colonial era, as Arab nationalist movements emerged and took power across the Middle East,
The West's tendency to adopt Middle East policies that have already outlived their local political shelf lives is occurring once again today: despite its laudable attempt to rectify the Bush administration's missteps, the Obama administration is hamstrung by flawed assumptions about the regional balance of power.
Paradoxically, such a prism replicates the worldview of the Bush administration, which, in almost every other respect, the Obama administration has rejected. Its proponents assume the existence of a compelling Western vision of peace and prosperity, which the region's so-called moderates can rally around, even as U.S. and European credibility in the Middle East is at an all-time low. It underestimates and misunderstands the role of newly prominent actors, such as
By disregarding subtle shifts that are occurring and by awaiting tectonic transformations that never will,
LIKE FATHER, UNLIKE SON
During the 1990s, the United States arguably reached the apex of its power and prestige in the Middle East. President
The George W. Bush administration's approach to the Middle East and its response to the 9/11 attacks fundamentally altered the region's security architecture. By ridding
Although U.S. policy at the time helped put an end to the impasses that had long plagued
This proliferation of conflicts and emergence of new threats to U.S. interests occurred just as U.S. power was eroding and regional rivals were gaining strength. Serious limitations to
The "with us or against us" philosophy underpinning the U.S. war on terrorism placed
TOO LITTLE, TOO LATE
Even after the collapse of the
the United States is currently juggling many competing and at times incompatible interests. These include curbing
The Obama administration has shown some signs of adjustment. Conscious of
Indeed, Obama is pursuing policies that, had Bush implemented them during his administration, may well have worked. But the region has not stood still, and at the current pace of change, the United States risks making vital policy adjustments only after it is too late.
The Obama administration will push for an Israeli-Palestinian agreement but will likely recognize the importance of intra-Palestinian unity for that goal only after spending several more years playing
Regional actors simply do not fit into a recognizable moderate-versus-militant template.
THE MYTH OF THE MILITANT CONSENSUS
It should come as no surprise that the West is finding it increasingly problematic to manage complex situations with a rigid, one-dimensional paradigm. It is difficult to place
The moderate camp is in desperate need of what has been most lacking: a credible U.S. agenda around which its members can rally and that they can use to justify their alignment with
The allegedly pro-Iranian axis also escapes neat description. In terms of ideology, interests, practical constraints, and even sectarian identity,
What principally brings the so-called militant camp together is the need to counter what its members perceive as a U.S.-Israeli threat. The binary choice they face -- either shift allegiances or remain frozen in a hostile relationship with the West -- gives them no choice at all. On the contrary, the more that U.S., European, or Israeli pressure increases, the easier it becomes for them to disregard or downplay their disagreements. The unprecedented security coordination among
TURNING THE PAGE
Some have been quick to conclude that the United States is marginalized, that
Still, in the absence of more forceful U.S. leadership, the Middle East is fast becoming a region of spoilers, nations whose greatest imperative -- and sole possible accomplishment -- is to prevent others from doing what they themselves cannot do.
The alternative is for the United States to play the role of conductor, coordinating the efforts of different nations even as it preserves its privileged ties to
As much as anything, the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process illustrates why a new approach is needed. Pillar after pillar supporting long-standing U.S. policy on this issue -- strong, representative Israeli and Palestinian leaders; support from the Arab states; unrivaled U.S. power and credibility -- has eroded to the point where they barely matter today. The Palestinian national movement has fragmented,
The most politically active Israeli and Palestinian constituencies -- Israeli settlers and members of the Israeli religious right, on the one hand, and the Palestinian diaspora, Palestinian refugees, and Islamists, on the other -- are the least involved in discussions about an eventual settlement, even though they are precisely the groups that could derail it.
For the United States, adapting to new patterns of power would at a minimum mean accepting the need for internal Palestinian reconciliation and acknowledging that a strong, unified Palestinian partner is more likely to produce a sustainable peace agreement than a weak, fragmented one. the United States must take into account the concerns of different Israeli and Palestinian constituencies (for example, acceptance of the Jewish right to national self-determination and recognition of the historic injustice suffered by Palestinian refugees); acknowledge that meaningful Israeli-Syrian negotiations have become a necessary complement to Israeli-Palestinian talks, not a distraction from them; and grasp the necessity of including new regional actors to help achieve what is now beyond the ability of
It will not be easy for the United States to undertake such a strategic shift, nor will it be risk free. Traditional allies, feeling jilted, might lose confidence or rebel; newfound partners, getting a whiff of U.S. weakness, could prove unreliable. Still, hanging on to an outmoded policy paradigm does not offer much hope. The likely consequences would be increased regional divisions, increased tensions, and increased chances of conflict. Obama began his presidency with the unmistakable ambition of turning a page. To succeed in the Middle East, he will have to go further and close the book on the failed policies of the past.
Robert Malley is Middle East and North Africa Program Director at the International Crisis Group and served as Special Assistant to the President for Arab-Israeli Affairs from 1998 to 2001. Peter Harling heads the Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria Project at the International Crisis Group. He worked in Baghdad from 1998 to 2004 and in Beirut from 2005 to 2006, and he is now based in Damascus.
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(C) 2010 Foreign Affairs, September/October 2010