Reimagining the Middle East

by Emile Nakhleh

Once Iran concludes a nuclear agreement with the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany), the Middle East would be ripe for bold, creative, and courageous policy moves by the United States. Pursuing such a grand strategy, of course, will depend on a number of factors including the leadership of President Obama and his successor, American domestic politics, and the containment of the Islamic State (ISIS or IS).

Experts and policymakers now realize that arming Middle Eastern countries has not solved their internal problems or forced autocratic regimes to democratize. Nor have these massive arms sales bought the United States added influence with these regimes. Despite Washington’s prodding on behalf of human and minority rights, Egypt, Bahrain, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia mostly have ignored Washington’s entreaties on these issues.

According to the 2014 Pew Research Center poll, anti-Americanism in the Middle East, including in countries that are massively armed by the United States, is “both deep and widespread.” Supporting dictators has not bolstered America’s image in the region. Moreover, American lack of policy coherence toward Syria has inadvertently extended the Assad regime’s lease on life.

Since American policy does not seem to resonate with either dictators or publics, what should the United States do in order to protect its long-term interests in the region, reassert its values of fairness and justice, and at the same time diminish the threat of regional terrorism? As American leaders consider new policies toward the Middle East, they should realize that millions of Arab and Muslim youth languish in poorly run countries whose sole purpose seems to protect the regime and silence all opposition. These conditions incubate radicalism and terrorism and therefore are a recipe for disaster.

If American policymakers ignore intelligence and policy expert analysis of the factors that drive radicalization and terrorism—extremist ideology and domestic repressive policies—threats to Americans at home and overseas would increase dramatically.

Some have argued the United States should leave the region to fix its own problems and allow the flame of hatred and sectarianism to burn itself out. If the regional states are not interested in establishing and nurturing modern, rational, and inclusive governing systems, why should the United States sacrifice blood and treasure for such a monumental task? For instance, as San Diego State University professor Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman has argued in her plea for the United States to stay out of the religious wars in the Middle East, the Obama administration should “exit the nanny business.”

To those foreign policy wonks who have endorsed President Obama’s approach to the Middle East, American policy has come unmoored in the last three years due to a lack of strategic focus and clarity. George Washington University professor Marc Lynch, while supportive of the president, notes in Foreign Policy that “this administration has not done a good job at laying out and then executing a strategic vision for the Middle East.”

Developing a strategic vision is not easy, and withdrawal is not an option. The Middle East is a complex situation in which the United States has been involved for decades and from which it cannot possibly extricate itself so cavalierly. The United States has a military presence in or a military tie with almost every country in the greater Middle East. American economic, educational, diplomatic, and national security interests are closely tied to the entire region, regardless of religious sectarianism or ethnic diversity.

Preserving these critical interests and undercutting the appeal of radicalism and terrorism require a pro-active posture. What specific steps should the United States take to reassert its influence in the region, protect its interests, and undercut the appeal of radicalization and terrorism?

Transitioning to Democracy

The domestic maladies that drive instability, alienation, radicalization, and terrorism include inadequate education, poverty, unemployment, corruption, absence of freedom, and massive violations of human rights, including women and minority rights. Autocracy might seem secure in the short-term and might appear to be serving the short-term interests of the United States. As the Arab Spring uprisings showed us, however, citizens often challenge their dictatorships.

Autocracy can no longer guarantee domestic stability or personal security for its citizens. Although dictatorial regimes have survived the “Arab Spring,” and although Gulf ruling families and Western powers, especially the United States, are once again propping up Arab autocrats, they have failed to create stable societies, provide jobs for their people, or diminish the appeal of radicalism among their youth. They continue to rule through fear and repression.

But if history is any guide, autocracy as a stable form of government is a relic of the past. True, autocracy seems to be coming back in style, from Moscow to Cairo. But citizens continue to protest against these systems, challenging their stability.

Pushing Egypt away from Autocracy

If American leaders accept the premise that what happens in the Middle East could ultimately threaten American interests and personnel, the United States has the leverage to lean heavily on Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to open up the political system, release the thousands of political prisoners in his jails, and permit mainstream Muslim parties, including the Muslim Brotherhood, to participate in politics.

As an “Allied Officer” at the US Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, General al-Sisi wrote a mini-thesis in 2006 in which he argued that the best approach to democracy in Egypt was a partnership between the military and Islam. According to the thesis, which Judicial Watch obtained under the Freedom of Information Act in 2013, Sisi’s argument on the central role of the Caliphate and Islam in Egyptian democracy was considered “extremist” and “radical.”

Having removed the popularly elected president in a military coup and having abandoned his earlier position on the partnership with the Muslim Brotherhood, Sisi has replaced Islam with his personality cult as a modern day “Caliph” of the country. By expecting the Egyptian people to declare a bay’a or allegiance to him, Sisi has put Egypt on a potentially destructive course, which will prove detrimental to US interests and security in the region.

Restraining Saudi Arabia’s Ambitions

American credibility in the region would be immensely enhanced if the United States pressured Saudi Arabia to halt its misguided and pointless war in Yemen. Despite the daily air bombardment, al-Qaeda in Yemen has expanded its control, the Houthis remain in power, and Iran’s regional influence has not diminished.

The young Saudi defense minister Muhammad bin Salman has clearly failed in his mission. In most other countries with a similar experience, such a major unsuccessful effort would force the defense minister to resign or be fired. Saudi Arabia would bolster its regional position if the United States prevails on the Kingdom to pursue a three-pronged course of action:

  • End the war and negotiate a settlement with the different centers of power in Yemen
  • Urge the Al-Khalifa of Bahrain to start serious reform negotiations with the opposition and release peaceful protesters and the secretary general of the Wefaq party
  • Initiate talks with Iran for a Saudi-Iranian joint security partnership in the Persian Gulf.

Negotiating with Iran

Once the nuclear agreement is concluded between Iran and the P5+1, a logical diplomatic step for the United States would be to reopen its embassy in Teheran. The international community, including the United States, would expect a post-agreement Iran to observe certain norms of behavior. Such behavior would include ending support of terrorist organizations, refraining from engaging in sectarian wars or threatening its neighbors, and working toward a peaceful resolution of regional disputes.

Iran could also buttress its regional role by joining Saudi Arabia in creating a mutually beneficial Gulf regional security system. Such a “grand bargain” could spare the region untold sectarian violence and destruction. A Saudi-Iranian partnership could be a powerful deterrent against the Islamic State and other terrorist groups in the region and beyond.

From the 1950s through the 1970s, with U.S. approval, the two states collaborated in protecting Gulf security. Times have changed, and so has the Iranian political system. But in the past few months, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and both Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faysal and Interior Minister Muhammad bin Nayef have hinted at a desire to cooperate regionally against IS and other terrorist groups and to settle the Yemen conflict. The United States can help encourage this cooperation.

Resolving Deep Conflicts

Bashar al-Assad has brought untold misery and destruction to Syria and must be toppled. Regardless of Washington’s indefensible and maddening oscillation toward Assad in the past two years, he and his regime cannot possibly be a part of any solution of the Syrian tragedy. If the United States remains committed to his removal, it would be well served to devise a specific and clearly delineated strategy, in conjunction with regional states, to end his dictatorial rule. The regime has become a magnet for global jihad and radicalization.

Although some fear that what follows Assad could be even more dangerous than the current regime, Assad’s perpetrated violence is hard to surpass. Syria’s disaster is already being felt in Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, and Turkey. It’s critically important to reduce the influence of the Islamic State in the region. But once Assad leaves office and IS is contained to a small territory, the US and regional states could work together with Syrian opposition groups, including the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, to prepare for national elections and initiate economic recovery plans.

Also key to reconfiguring the Middle East is addressing the longstanding conflict between Israel and Palestine. If resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict along a two-state solution serves American, Israeli, and Palestinian interests, as successive American presidents have proclaimed, it’s time for Washington to act in furtherance of this goal. Because serious doubts about the feasibility and efficacy of the two-state solution have been growing among Israelis and Palestinians, other options for Israeli-Palestinian co-existence between the River and Sea should be considered.

President Obama six years ago said the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was unsustainable. Domestic American politics and regional policy calculations, however, have prevented him from resolving the conflict. Israeli leaders by now must realize that Israel’s growing global isolation is a direct result of its occupation of Palestinian lands. The longer the occupation lasts, the more the isolation, and the greater threat of terrorism.

Policy Breakthrough?

Although the probability of a policy breakthrough along the above suggestions may be rather small, intelligence and policy analysis indicates that domestic policies and extremist ideology, if not dealt with, will continue to radicalize alienated and angry youth and drive some of them to terrorism.

Despite the prevalence of linear policy thinking in Washington and other Western capitals, our leaders should have the courage to imagine a different and more promising Middle East. If we fail to do that, the numbers of “lone wolf” jihadists in America would grow. As this is bound to happen, the Islamic State and its successor terror groups will no longer remain a “Levant” problem but would soon morph into an “American” problem.

Unlike the Bush administration’s democracy promotion agenda, which promoted “liberty,” these policy recommendations offer a recipe against religious radicalism and extremism and for inclusive governments across the region. These recommendations also call for a partnership between Washington and the regional states. The region viewed Bush’s agenda as a prescription dictated and supervised by Washington. This reimagining of the Middle East, on the other hand, will be done by the people of the region.

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. I was with you up to Syria. Bashar al-Assad has suffered from US/Saudi/Oman support for anti-government forces, and he was re-elected last year. Any swing in US policy toward Assad is a welcome sign.

    Regarding the larger question of US foreign policy, anti-Americanism exists not only in the Middle East, it is “both deep and widespread” throughout the world, therefore the world-wide travel caution for Americans issued by State. Meddling in other countries is not popular, and should not be considered for Syria nor anywhere else. It has been a disaster especially in MENA. But I agree that the probability of a policy breakthrough may be rather small, considering the small minds in Washington.

  2. If the USA had intervene in Syria, we would have Syria becoming like Libya. It was a very good strategy from Obama not to take side so decisively. He pitted the countries in the region against each other and waited to see the outcome.
    The outcome is certainly better than Libya. Syria has still its institutions, the rebellions is fading away and the war is now against the mercenaries that Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey have sent to fight in Syria. Despite the huge amount of weapons they have sent to the ‘rebels’ , these have failed to overthrow the Syrian government.
    Obama is obviously a course to weaken seriously the GCC and Turkey.
    After bringing them to fight ISIS in Iraq and Syria , the USA has encouraged them to fight the Houthis in Yemen, knowing very well that it will be a failure.
    Soon the Saudi Arabia that was mad at the USA because the USA-Iran agreement will be begging the USA to help them out of the Yemen’s quagmire.
    Obama’s strategy has been brilliant. USA is departing from its blind cozyness with the GCC and move toward more stable and reliable countries like Iran.
    In the next few months Saudi Arabia may face the most humiliating blow it has had for decades, unless it changes immediatly it course in Syria and Yemen. But it could be already too late.

  3. This: “Soon the Saudi Arabia that was mad at the USA because the USA-Iran agreement will be begging the USA to help them out of the Yemen’s quagmire.” by Virgile.

    An even more brilliant move would be to not save the Saudi kings from themselves. They’re a spent force from the dark ages and must go. No more rescuing them, and there is plenty of oil this time around that we don’t have to worry about the temporary loss of the Saudi oil. The whole of the old, established order in the Middle East as part of Islam reforming itself and the Islamic world developing sincere democratic and inclusive values. Those who criticize the lack of military engagement are complete know-nothings because for as long as we can remember, every military engagement in the Middle East has ended up because an extremely expensive defeat. The media does not enough to discredit the same proponents of the Iraq disaster who are asking for more of the same.

Comments are closed.