Middle East: less grand, more strategy

Middle East Institute intern Aya Fasih, recently arrived from Cairo, writes in her debut on peacefare:

With the re-election of President Obama and massive transformations ongoing in the region, the Middle East Policy Council’s 71st Capitol Hill Conference focused Wednesday on “U.S. Grand Strategy in the Middle East: Is There One?” Related questions included:

  • Is it even possible to formulate a grand strategy for the region amidst all the turbulence it is witnessing?
  • Were past U.S. grand strategies for the region successful in achieving their objectives?

The prestigious panel, comprised of Chas Freeman Jr., William Quandt, Marwan Muasher and John Duke Anthony (moderated by Thomas Mattair), identified five main points of discussion: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Iran, the Arab uprisings, the Syrian crisis, and the political-economic security of the Gulf Cooperation Council states.

Chas Freeman Jr., Chairman of Projects International, former US Ambassador to Saudi Arabia and President of the Middle East Policy Council, said the two main U.S. policies in the Middle East, unconditional support to Israel and strategic partnership with pre-revolutionary Egypt and the rentier Gulf states, were contradictory and therefore precluded any grand strategy.  Freeman underscored the costs associated with U.S. support and protection of Israel; he said that U.S. support for irresponsible and immoral policies of Israel has undermined U.S. strategic interests in the region and potential cooperation with the region’s other powers:

America may have Israel’s back, but no one has America’s back.

Continuation post-revolution of an American-Egyptian partnership is in doubt. In the aftermath of the Iraq war, Afghanistan, and “abandonment” of the peace process between the Israelis and Palestinians, the U.S.-Saudi relationship has weakened and become more “transactional.”  It should no longer be taken for granted.   In Freeman’s view, U.S. policies preclude formulation of grand strategies and leave room for only limited cooperation.

William Quandt, Professor at the University of Virginia and former staff member of the National Security Council, started by expressing suspicion of grand strategies.  The Bush 41/Clinton dual containment of Iraq and Iran failed, as did the Bush 43 strategy of replacing certain Arab regimes, starting with Iraq, with pro-Western ones. Quandt, like the other three fellow panelists, thought the U.S. needs to revise its policies, starting with the realization that “we are not all-powerful.”   A revised strategy should include:

  1. an end to U.S.-Iran animosity, which would avoid a dangerous war and benefit Iraq, Syria and Lebanon;
  2. maintenance of positive relations with NATO ally Turkey, which will also benefit Iraq and Syria;
  3. friendly relations with Egypt because of its geo-strategic importance and influence over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict;
  4. greater attention to Saudi Arabia, which faces a difficult generational transition;
  5. a negotiated end to the Syrian conflict;
  6. a renewed effort to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

John Duke Anthony, Founding President of the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations, discussed mainly the six Gulf Cooperation Council states, highlighting the vital strategic importance of the GCC for the region’s security and U.S. energy supplies.

Marwan Muasher, Vice President for Studies at Carnegie Endowment and former Jordanian Foreign Minister, Deputy Prime Minister, and Ambassador to the United States, highlighted how the U.S. must change its approach by assessing the new governments and players in the region not based on their ideology but rather on their performance. U.S. influence will not be decisive in the process of transition.  Events on the ground and competition for power among local actors will determine the outcomes.  It is crucial that the US start differentiating between different Islamist actors and parties and realize that serious differences exist among them. The clock is ticking on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  Unless the U.S. chooses to sponsor it now, peace may never be an option again.

All four panelists agreed that U.S. policies toward the vital region must undergo serious reassessment if the U.S. wants to secure its strategic interests.  The U.S. should exert extraordinary effort to solve the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, re-engage with Iran and work quickly to ensure a negotiated settlement in Syria.

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One thought on “Middle East: less grand, more strategy”

  1. A question: if the U.S. becomes (in the very near future) self-sufficient in hydrocarbons, just how great will our objective interest in the Middle East be?

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