Succeed or Fail?: What Obama Must do in the Middle East

President Barack Obama sits in the Oval Office on his first day in office, Jan. 21, 2009. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

by Robert E. Hunter

Every US president since Harry Truman has sought to disentangle his administration from the Middle East, and all have found themselves sucked back into the region and its problems. So will it be in President Obama’s second term. A year or so ago, his team launched what was variously called the “Tilt to Asia” or the “rebalancing” in that direction. But like it or not, before that long-term agenda can seriously get off the ground, the president and his top officials will have to deal with the immediacy of the Middle East, from one end to the other.

The United States has more or less withdrawn from Iraq, but that country is still far from stable — that is, not being a potential source of problems for the US and the West in the future. Obama has set a rough timeline for transferring lead responsibility for security in Afghanistan to the Afghans themselves, though sizeable US and some allied military elements will remain. Even so, the prospects for “success” — defined in terms of a country that will be proof against a renewed Taliban insurgency and with a modicum of internal political developments — is hardly a good bet. Likewise in neighboring Pakistan, which looms as a potential headache of such major proportions (nuclear weapons, Islamist militancy, etc.) that Washington tries to ignore it.

The civil war in Syria is intensifying, but no one, in the US or elsewhere, seems to have good ideas about what to do, and there is precious little planning about what happens after President Assad departs the scene. Will the civil war be limited to Syria? Will it become another Lebanon, with decades of internal strife and third-party attacks on other countries, including Turkey and Israel? Or will the situation become even worse, as part of a slow-burning civil war of sorts across the region, as Sunni states like Turkey, Jordan, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia try to rebalance the “loss” of Shi’ite-majority but formerly Sunni-dominated Iraq, plus competitions with Iran and other struggles, such as the suppression of the Shi’a majority in Bahrain (supported, for our sins, by the US) and the Shi’a majority in the oil-rich Saudi Eastern Province progress.

Then there is Iran. During the US political campaign, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu extracted pledges from both candidates that “containment” of a potential nuclear-armed Iran would be unacceptable, and the re-inaugurated president has reiterated his pledge that he will do what is necessary to stop such a development. Unfortunately, this puts the US president in a place where no president and no great power should ever go: where being able to decide, in the US national interest, whether or not to go to war depends on the “good behavior” of two other countries with agendas and interests of their own, Iran and Israel.

Meanwhile, the bloom is off the rose of the Arab Spring, Egypt is in incipient turmoil, young and unemployed populations across the region are experiencing their revolution of rising but frustrated expectations, and the region as a whole continues to experience its long-standing deficit in representative governance. And then there is Islamist militancy, here in Yemen, Somalia, and Sudan, there in Mali, tomorrow somewhere else – although how much that really matters to US security is an open question now that a decade of homeland security seems to have bought protection for our nation, so long as no terrorist gets his hands on a nuclear weapon (a most unlikely scenario).

Did I mention the Palestine question? Secretary of State John Kerry says that not moving to resolve that problem would be a catastrophe. Hyperbole, most likely, but somehow the US reputation is on the line in the region if we are unable to deliver any kind of positive change, which for nearly 34 years has proved to be a Sisyphean task. Finally, the US, as the world’s “indispensable nation,” has to show that it can lead and be seen as responsible for its own and others’ security — at least in some key parts of the globe. And, at the same time, it needs to get on with its most important national security challenge: to strengthen the US economy, rebuild its crumbling infrastructure, provide education and health care to its people, and deal with budget and debt questions of considerable magnitude.

Thus, as Lenin would ask, Shto delat? What is to be done? There are no answers that are guaranteed to pay off, but here are some ideas.

First, the US government and its people need to understand that we can’t let go of the Middle East, as much as we are tired of war — did anyone mention pledges regarding an Iranian bomb? Our fate here, Kismet, was settled a couple of generations ago, and, try as we might, we still have national security interests in the region that others will not just pick up, even if — as is no doubt true – there are limits to what we and others can do to shape the massive internal upheavals that are taking place from the Strait of Gibraltar to the Hindu Kush.

Second, this administration needs to start seeing the entire region as an integrated whole, rather than as a series of disparate crises that are somehow loosely related to one another. There can be no progress on Israel-Palestine so long as Israel is terrified of Iran, worried about Egypt and Syria, and isolates Gaza from any relief for its economic and social misery. A quieting down of the terrorist/Islamist threat cannot even begin so long as rich people in Saudi Arabia continue to support the doctrines and bankroll the fighters that are spreading instability and fear among secular populations. Afghanistan will never cease being a source of concern unless all relevant external countries are willing to agree on some framework for its future, if only for it to be proof against excessive external meddling — and this also means that the US must return to its practice after 9/11 of trying to find common interests with Iran in Afghanistan, which was scotched by the strategic folly that was called the Axis of Evil.

Third, the US needs finally to understand that security in this region, as we have learned there and elsewhere, must be a combination of military forces, appropriately applied (and appropriately limited), along with the triumvirate of governance-reconstruction-development. We know the lessons and have since Bosnia in 1995. But US agencies are still “stove-piped,” the money for non-military activities is not there, and we continue to judge the contributions of our European allies to shared security in terms of defense budgets rather than in terms of what they can do to help societies progress – where several of them are better at it than we are. Further, we need to begin developing a long-term plan for a potentially all-inclusive new security structure for the Persian Gulf region, to replace the jerry-built structure shattered by wars there from 1979 to 2003 and beyond.

Fourth, we need finally to see Iran with clear eyes. The issue is not just nuclear weapons or the lack thereof. Deep and long-lasting regional competitions for influence are at the heart of the matter, and we have been sucked into them, wittingly or not. And in the last three administrations, we have been unwilling to put on the table a negotiating position that has a chance to succeed, by recognizing that the security interests of the US, Israel, and Iran must all be considered. No country can negotiate seriously when it is under military threat, facing sanctions that only help to strengthen the regime domestically, and with no serious proposals on the “plus” side. Ironically, those who most talk about going to war with Iran also tend to be those who most oppose the US’ dealing directly with Iran and putting a realistic set of proposals on the table. A first-year graduate student in strategic studies could dissect that approach. We are not even prepared to propose areas of clear common interest, such as freedom of the seas, an Incidents at Sea Convention — such as we concluded with the Soviet Union during the dark days of the Cold War — and formal Iranian membership in the effort to counter piracy at sea.

Fifth, we will have to prioritize and also be clear about what really matters to us – to the USA – and what doesn’t, in the process developing some “strategic patience.” All the while, however, we have to remember that others look to us for leadership and steadfastness. A curse, perhaps, but our curse.

Most important, however, are two things that the first Obama administration, like the Clinton and Bush II administrations, did not do but can no longer avoid. The first is to recognize that, 22 years after the end of the Cold War, it is time to relearn how to “think strategically” about new circumstances and to abandon reflexive, outdated approaches to considering the world, our place in it, and how to respond in the US national interest. Easier said than done, but we did it in the past. Regrettably, we have become sclerotic in our methodology, with too many of our think tanks and “policy planning staffs” producing brilliant tactical suggestions but little strategic wisdom or “actionable “ guidance on major redirections for policy.

Related to this, indispensable to success, is for President Obama and his team to search for, engage, and listen to those people in the country – some in relatively junior positions in the government, most outside — who know the Middle East and Southwest Asia region from one end to the other, who can think strategically, who can handle the need for making intelligent tradeoffs, and who do know how to embed choices and decisions in US domestic politics – which, incidentally, need to come second, not first, as has been the case for at least the last three administrations.

Quite a list of tasks. But the last-named is the most immediate and probably the most consequential: “Hire good people and listen to them.” If the administration gets that right — and that will be clear one way or another in the next few weeks — success for US interests in the Middle East will still not be guaranteed. But if the administration gets that wrong, failure is assured.

Photo: President Barack Obama sits in the Oval Office on his first day in office, Jan. 21, 2009. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza) 

Robert E. Hunter

Robert E. Hunter served as US ambassador to NATO (1993-98) and on the National Security Council staff throughout the Carter administration, first as Director of West European Affairs and then as Director of Middle East Affairs. In the last-named role, he was the White House representative at the Autonomy Talks for the West Bank and Gaza and developer of the Carter Doctrine for the Persian Gulf. He was Senior Advisor to the RAND Corporation from 1998 to 2011, and Director of the Center for Transatlantic Security Studies at the National Defense University, 2011-2012. He served on the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board and is a member of the American Academy of Diplomacy.



  1. The writing and the line of argument on based on paternalistic assumptions. That, the “Big Guy” United States, should keep the order – an order that is based on US hegemony – in the rest of the world. It also surreptitiously masks the fact that some of those countries are US protectorates and vassals. I am speaking of GCC countries. US elbowed out and supplanted British Imperialism in the Middle East in the years immediately following the 2nd World War. UK, by design, made tiny tribes along the southern shores of the Gulf into “countries” and nations. These vulnerable countries had to rely on UK for protection. Transfer of this “responsibility” to US in 1960’s and esp. after the Shah’s downfall cemented US hegemony in the Gulf and hence in the region. This is the elephant in the room. One side of the “deep and regional competitions” Mr. Hyunter is citing is US. It is a clever ploy to pretend that US is an innocent bystander and not a party to the conflict and later argue that US must be involved because its presence is needed. I guess according to this line of reasoning, the fifth fleet is there with the sole purpose of fighting the pirates in the Gulf!

  2. I agree.
    America needs a new policy approach in the Middle East.
    This approach should be able to compete with Russia’s approach to the Middle East.
    Changes occurred in the countries of the region.
    But these changes are not yet deep.
    Rate it off with Iran is better than war.
    Iran is a valuable political

    Is more valuable than the Arabic countries.
    Because the control of Iran, Russia loses one

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