The US and the Changing 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 Charles Naas

President Barak Obama is currently besieged on his Middle East policy — or lack thereof — by both liberals and conservatives.

The noise of the critics is not unusual. In the last couple of decades there has rarely been a national consensus on the role of the US in foreign affairs, particularly in the Middle East, where there is a strong domestic pressure group that rides roughshod over differing views. The president’s cautious approach to any overt stance of action is, however, fully defensible and by no means feckless and directionless as his critics hold.

It wasn’t always like this. From the end of World War II until the late 80’s and 90’s, the Cold War dominated our policies. Rarely did most Americans find fault with the overriding strategy of opposition to the ideology and expansionism of the Soviet Union. There were at times bitter arguments over specific actions or failure to follow a preferred path by one pressure group or another, but not with our aims.

In the Middle East, the US and the Soviet Union sought regional governmental backing for their policies. We used the full, complex panoply of actions expanding upon the Truman Doctrine; the Central Treaty Organization; the bilateral treaties of 1959 with Pakistan, Iran and Turkey; large economic and military assistance programs; special relationships and cooperation in intelligence; state visits; entry visas for university studies; and much more.

The US was most influential in Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, the gulf Emirates, Jordan, Saudi Arabia or Israel. Iraq, Egypt (under Nasser), Syria and Libya accepted Soviet assistance. India and Afghanistan joined the non-aligned nations. Many of the governments tried to use their favoured statuses to garner our support for their regional rivalries.

In return, we received political support, military base rights, special intelligence facilities and the consideration of our wishes when these governments decided upon controversial domestic decisions.

In days past, all of the countries except Turkey were governed by monarchs or authoritarian rulers who, with the support and loyalty of their military, permitted little public opposition to their decisions. Today, a substantial number of these leaders are gone — the Shah of Iran, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Saddam Hussain in Iraq, Ben Ali in Tunisia and Muammar Qaddafi in Libya.

The 9/11 tragedy was pretty much the last time of marked national unity. The invasion of Afghanistan to overthrow the Taliban and search for Osama bin Ladin was widely approved by the populace. Soon thereafter the Iraq conflict sharply divided the nation and Obama inherited a nation in doubt over our economy and questioning our overall strategy. What do we want to accomplish? What are our clear national interests? And, if they are definable, how do we achieve them? In addressing these questions, Obama has faced a more perplexing conundrum than any of his predecessors.

Today there is no overarching understanding of strategy nor policy priorities for the Middle East. Each nation faces severe internal regional rivalries; religion versus state issues; the old struggle of Shiism and Sunnism; democracy versus a return to one-man rule; very young populations; faltering economies; and more.

Whatever action Obama opts for in one nation is unacceptable in others and our domestic pressure groups continue to insist on the importance of their own hobby horse.

We swallowed hard when confronted with the electoral victory of the Brotherhood, an Islamist organization feared for decades. But we recognized the new government chosen in an honest election and started to try to work with it based on mutual interests. The overthrow a week ago of Mohamed Morsi has forced the Obama administration to face the dichotomy of continuing our support of the democratic decision of the Egyptian people a year ago or backing the military-takeover brought on by the millions of Egyptians who again filled the streets of Cairo protesting Morsi’s actions.

The decisions before Obama with respect to Syria are equally difficult with probably no national consensus. Do we arm the Syrian National Army faction alone or include other factions and, if so, only small arms or heavy arms? How do we ensure that the Islamic extremist al-Nusra Front does not gain control of the arms? Roughly a week ago, the Syrian National Army and al-Nusra had a serious armed clash that highlighted this issue.

US military and economic power and the appeal of our principles will always ensure that our views and assistance will be sought. But the president must deal with the fact that US influence upon governments in the Middle East and the surrounding region has significantly changed. A quick review is convincing evidence. In Pakistan, less than 10% of the population looks favourably on the US; Iran and the US have been at loggerheads for over thirty years; Nour al-Maliki in Iraq has turned down a continuing presence of the US military and is generally impervious to our advice regarding the civil conflict tearing his country apart; in Syria no one faction of the dozens of separate religious/ethnic and tribal elements speak for the revolutionaries (some want a strong US intercession and just as many factions condemn US involvement); Shia-Sunni divisions have engulfed the region; the Gulf states make decisions at times with no reference to American wishes; Egypt’s trauma is self evident; and in Tunisia — so far a success in advancing to democracy — difficult divisions remain over the issue of religiously conservative governance.

There are no simple answers to demands for a long-term strategy that comes close to being satisfactory to our domestic pressure groups or, for that matter, to the countries in the region.

Perhaps the first requirement is to search for some sort of domestic understanding of the nature of the challenges we face and the range of possible reactions. Our Congress may be too divided for the responsible Committees to undertake the effort. The Senate, however, showed the other day with the “nuclear option” on voting practices that hard as it was, compromise can be reached on tenacious matters. It remains to be seen if the same holds true for foreign affairs.

In the meantime, the president does not have the luxury of ignoring his domestic critics or the life and death trials of our strength throughout the region. He has no option but to continue to side with the informal association of Israel and the monarchical Arab states, even if the possibility of slowly improving relations with Iran’s new government on nuclear and regional issues should be at the top of his list. Although the idea of a conference on Syria has not yet gone far, there is little to lose and much to gain by continuing to advocate it. Otherwise we should understand that most of the Middle East is in a post-colonial, post-Cold War era and they must find their own solutions to the key questions and crises they face.

We can aid on the margins — only when invited.

Charles Naas

Charles Naas was Deputy Ambassador and Charge d'Affairs in Tehran during the initial stages of Iran's revolution. Preceding that he was Director of Iranian Affairs and served also in Pakistan, India, Turkey, Afghanistan, as the ME advisor at the US's UN delegation, and retired from The Policy Planning Staff.



  1. Reading many of the writings on the subject, just exactly what is expected to be the outcome? WW3? Just who is in charge? “O” is at war with those who dare expose the stripping of liberties of the citizens of the U.S., yet continue to allow P.R.-read that as propaganda in favor of the administration, but at the cost to the taxpayer[s]. The Pentagon paper of what the costs will be for the U.S. to get engaged in the Syrian civil war, is mind blowing, yet there are those beating the drums to go ahead. I wonder, if “O” took it upon his “executive creativity” or what ever the term, and announced that from this moment on, there would be a “war tax” amounting to 90% across the board, with no loop-holes, . . . . . . wishful thinking right?

  2. Excellent advice from one of the “wise men”- we’ve heard it more than once from other former diplomats who have spoken here- but how does one get an Administration that is wedded to the imperial goals of its predecessor (whether or not their tactics may have differed), and that is crippled by an AIPAC that has imbedded itself in the NSC, DOD and State Department (including the Foreign Service), develop such an overarching policy or nuanced and impartial understanding of the regional mosaic? This is not to say that others have not been quietly moving in the other direction- Dempsey and Hagel have seemed more ready to apply the breaks- but what do you do when the President’s closest advisors are Rice, Rhoads, Kerry, Power, (and, more recently, a recycled Indyk and Ross). Right now, the truck is still speeding toward the cliff, unless it is already in free fall and we and our political leaders don’t yet know it. So, maybe, more public discussion and lobbying by the “wise men” would help?

    Death, destruction, chaos and fear benefit the fellows who make their money off of it and the countries that obtain geopolitical advantage from it, and more so if it is on someone else’s nickel. Unfortunately, up to now those have been the ones with the money and power, and used their resources to influence public policy, while the people on the other side have lacked the funds, or gravitas, to make the case effectively to the general public on a day-in day-out basis. That is why it is so important that those persons who have been through the mill, and who stand to gain nothing personally, (and, therefore, are undeniably credible) stand together in a purposeful way, and, as a matter of national interest, make it their task to educate the public and influence the Government to change its policies for the better.

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