The US and the Middle East

By Linda B. Miller, Brown University and Wellesley College, Argentia Editorial Team

The U.S. and the Arab Spring: Seasonal Adjustments?

As violence rages in Egypt and U.S. options seem to narrow daily, placing these events in a larger context that stresses continuity as well as change is essential. American foreign policy choices in the Middle East still rest on domestic and international constraints. Understanding both sets of limits is crucial. Despite announced "pivots" to Asia, the Middle East remains a focus of both opportunity and frustration in Washington.

Updated Visions or Familiar Fantasies?

For Nobel Prize winner, constitutional lawyer and community organizer President Obama, coping with the tumultuous Arab convulsions since 2011 remains a juggling act. Are traditional American means of force, sanctions and diplomacy adaptable to the lofty U.S. goals of democracy, human rights and civil society given the challenges of dealing with novel, non-territorial actors like Al Qaeda and its regional franchises as well as Congressional leaders and NGOs eager to advance their own specialized agendas? If so, how? If not, why?

In striving to comprehend the significance of demographic and technological shifts that are shaping both regional underdevelopment and jihadi fanaticism, the Obama administration has found itself attempting tradeoffs when its preferred outcomes for predictable transitions in countries like Libya and Iraq have proved elusive, when Washington's scripts have failed to convince both leaders in the Middle East and in the Senate. As the Arab Spring has proved to be a misnomer, U.S. official reactions have lurched between confusion and caution, most dramatically recently when the Egyptian military ousted President Mohammed Morsi, despite the many private and public official American pleas for restraint and inclusion as the desirable path back to elections and democracy.

Since 2011, Middle East political leaders of various backgrounds have adopted a variety of ways in order to stay in power ranging from constitutional changes to crude demonstrations of force, from cabinet shake-ups to the deployment of troops across borders. Routinely, many local leaders, notably in Syria, have blamed "foreigners" as the reason for popular protests, often paving the way for precisely what they have said they wished to avoid: the de facto splitting of their territory into hostile geographical enclaves.

Young people or social networks are also often condemned as unwelcome sources of change by those actors wanting to cling to an ever more fragile status quo. Once U.S. formal or informal allies, some regimes like Egypt under both Hosni Mubarak, Morsi and now the generals again, have wanted to retain American military assistance and foreign aid to advance their own causes, even as their leaders killed their own citizens or used other repressive means of intimidation to contain the demonstration effects of regional turbulence.

The Middle East's diverse collection of monarchies, republics, theocracies and democracies, with complex and varied histories of national identity, religious fervor, corruption, or civil culture, pose particular dangers for U.S. officials who have wanted an "Arab model" to organize American responses. Yet Turkey, once such a candidate, is also experiencing unrest. Searching for other models, say in Northern Ireland, merely points up the hard truth that local leaders with their own domestic priorities and sometimes calcified institutions are writing their own histories according to their own rules.

Convoluted Roadmaps, Sharpened Realities?

By far the most successful Middle East leaders are those who have known how to play the American game by their inclinations, those who have learned how to manipulate the inner workings of the U.S. executive and legislative branches, those who have known how and when to lobby to attain their own aims. The key example is Israel, of course, with its well-documented American diaspora base. Agile when unforeseen events have rendered Washington's ad hoc plans incomplete, if not unworkable, other local leaders have also often benefited from the American over-dependence on them as they have learned to play on both Republican and Democratic presidents' desire for stability, the better for American presidents like Obama to pursue their own contentious domestic projects like health care or immigration reform.

The newer world of instant communications, with the fitful, potentially irreversible empowerment of Arab publics, has exposed the structural gaps between American idealism and pragmatism with few concrete measures of what the United States could "deliver" in terms of arms, aid, diplomatic support or rhetorical endorsement in order to attain American goals.

A Precarious Future?

New directions for U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East will depend on a delicate rebalancing of reformulated goals, suitable means, and the ever lengthening list of obstacles that always confront outside powers. Roadmaps, like that of Secretary of State John Kerry for the renewed "peace" talks between Israel and the Palestinians, are subject to possible irrelevance, as is a "two state solution", now recast as "two states for two peoples". By downgrading Shia-Sunni tensions before the Iraq war, by trying to contain a Syrian civil war that has spilled over artificial yet recognized boundaries and created a huge humanitarian disaster for Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, could some American officials still be deluded that the U.S. is "indispensable"?

One indication that realities might be penetrating the tenacity of intra-agency turf squabbles in Washington would a clearer public statement that stresses the expectation of good governance in the Middle East as well as in Asia and Latin America. A secondary signal, even more powerful, would be a clearer outline that clarifies what is exportable and what is not to a region still struggling with old imperial legacies but also newer threats of drought and insecure food supplies related to global warming.

Promoting human security amidst the turmoil of delayed regional adaptation to globalization and urbanization will be a herculean but unavoidable task for both local actors and for the United States, for both practitioners and theorists, whose inherent tendency to work at cross purposes is a recipe for repeating mistakes of the past.

Read more in Linda B. Miller, "The U.S. and the Arab Spring: Now and Then in the Middle East", in Obama and The World: New Directions in US Foreign Policy, 2nd Edition (Routledge, 2014).

Matthew Hill