Obama, Kerry and the Mid-East: A Blueprint for Re-engagement

by Emile Nakhleh

As President Obama begins his second term and John Kerry becomes the new Secretary of State, they are faced with worrisome uncertainty in Egypt, civil war in Syria, repression in Bahrain, a moribund peace process, and a defiant Iran. In order to help create a stable Middle East and shore up American influence and security in the region, they must act boldly and precipitously.

An act of boldness would be for Secretary Kerry to hold a summit with the presidents of Egypt, Yemen, Libya, and Tunisia to devise a post-autocratic vision for the region. This vision must be grounded in tangible commitments to democracy, justice and human rights.

As representatives of the new Middle East, these leaders and their citizenry would heartily welcome engaging with the US and with other world leaders on the region’s future. Arab publics expect the US to lead up front.

Unfortunately but realistically, Arab reformers and democrats do not anticipate world leaders to act on their own without American leadership and involvement.

Washington should use its economic and military leverage with courage and consistency over the next four years to bring about a less violent Middle East for its peoples and for the international community. Following is a blueprint for a more robust diplomatic re-engagement with two key countries.


American diplomacy should help Egypt become more stable through working closely with President Mohamed Morsi and his government. The Muslim Brotherhood is the majority party in parliament, and US diplomats and other world leaders should not shy away from engaging it.

The Egyptian people, not outsiders, will determine whether the MB will be re-elected and for how long. Egyptians have made it clear that they won’t tolerate replacing an old secular dictatorship with a new Muslim one. The Muslim Brotherhood’s credibility as a majority party hinges on its ability to provide for the daily needs of Egyptian citizenry.

In communicating with the Muslim Brotherhood and other political parties, however, American and European diplomacy should strongly push for opening up the political system and respect for the rule of law.

MB leaders, including President Morsi, should speak out forcefully against the repugnant fatwas that some radical Salafi clerics have issued recently advocating violence against peaceful regime opponents, including women, secularists and Christians.

European diplomats also should work closely with the private sector to provide entrepreneurial and job creation initiatives. Historically, the MB has been pro-business and could be an effective partner in promoting economic growth in Egypt. The Islamically rooted Turkish ruling AKP could be a useful model on how to reconcile Islamic ideology with modern business practices.

Egyptian youth should be afforded the opportunity to invest in new start-ups and entrepreneurial initiatives through creative economic aid strategies. Post-Mubarak Egypt cannot move forward without massive job programs and the opportunity for Egyptian youth to build a prosperous future.

Secretary Kerry should follow up on President Obama’s Cairo speech in June 2009 by robustly engaging mainstream Islamic groups across the region in an effort to delegitimize extremists and energize moderates. As a Senator and a Presidential candidate, John Kerry supported engaging mainstream Muslim communities both for moral and national interest reasons.

When I briefed him during his Presidential campaign, he endorsed engaging mainstream Muslim majorities, arguing that military strikes alone did not fend off terrorism. Universal democratic values of good governance and tangible programs that benefit vast majorities of Muslims are much more effective in undercutting the radical message, whether in the Middle East, Africa, or South Asia.


Regional, American, and European diplomacy should take the lead in bringing the brutal civil war to an end. The understandable concern about the rise of radical, Salafi jihadism should not cripple Washington’s ability to work with the opposition to expedite the regime’s demise.

In a post-Assad environment, the secular multi-ethnic and multi-sectarian Syrian political culture could be a strong antidote against radicals and jihadists.

Washington’s inaction and inability to form an effective international coalition on behalf of the Syrian opposition has emboldened the Syrian dictator. Ensuing regime repression has created lawlessness and chaos, which in turn favors jihadists. On the other side, Hizballah and Iran have been arming and training militias to spread terror and defend the regime.

Iran has been the region’s most vociferous defender of the Syrian tyrant. The reported recent assassination of a senior Revolutionary Guard officer in Syria is an example of the deepening Iranian role and presence in that country.

If the regime is not toppled soon, Iran and Hizballah would pose an even more ominous regional threat than Assad.

Advocates of “leading from behind” in Washington use the so-called Syrian “exceptionalism” argument as a justification for non-action. Although this strategy was designed specifically for Libya, it should not be used as an excuse. Western non-action in Syria is no longer morally defensible or politically acceptable.

What to do?

Jettison the Libya analogy and arm the opposition with anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons necessary to defeat the regime. Second, Secretary Kerry should initiate immediate consultations with selected opposition groups and with neighboring states on how to establish a post-Assad government. The consulting process could be messy and contentious. But it’s necessary.

Recent media reports indicate the White House has nixed a proposal by the State Department, the Defense Department, and the CIA to arm Syrian rebels. If these reports are correct, the administration’s position is nothing short of shameful.

Pro-democracy activists in the region view the President’s statement in the State of the Union that he would maintain pressure on the Syrian dictator as hypocritical and lacking credibility. They view American posture toward the Syrian dictator as lackadaisical and cynical.

They correctly ask, “How many more thousands of Syrians have to be killed before Washington and its international partners decide it’s morally justifiable and politically prudent to act?”

Photo: President Barack Obama speaks at Cairo University in Cairo, Egypt, Thursday, . In his speech, President Obama called for a ‘new beginning between the United States and Muslims’, declaring that ‘this cycle of suspicion and discord must end’. 

Emile Nakhleh

Dr. Emile Nakhleh was a Senior Intelligence Service officer and Director of the Political Islam Strategic Analysis Program at the Central Intelligence Agency. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, a Research Professor and Director of the Global and National Security Policy Institute at the University of New Mexico, and the author of A Necessary Engagement: Reinventing America’s Relations with the Muslim World and Bahrain: Political Development in a Modernizing State. He has written extensively on Middle East politics, political Islam, radical Sunni ideologies, and terrorism. Dr. Nakhleh received his BA from St. John’s University (MN), the MA from Georgetown University, and the Ph.D. from the American University. He and his wife live in Albuquerque, New Mexico.



  1. Using assasination of one Iranian to back up the claim that Iran has been arming militias to terrorize the population is somewhat ridiculous. Farideh Farhi in another column has addressed the flimisness of such claims. Iran has no hesitation to state its support for the Syrian government, but not every claim of Western media or Syrain opposition should be taken at face value.
    I am for revolution in dictatorial countries, but those who advocate it at any cost and disregard the human misery brought by ineffective armed opposition in Syria are irresponsible. Negoatiate with Assad. In fact, no governemnt can survive by repression alone, it must have support of some segments of population. and it appears sadly that Assad has that support. In negotiationg with Assad, you are really taking into account the interests of these segments and negotiating with them. This is what democracy is, incoprporating interests of diverse segments and different views into one a unified whole. It is not a tool for revenge.

  2. Hmm..about about asking Qatar, Turkey.,Saudi Arabia to stop arming these terrorists, they are not freedom fighters.

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