Washington Awash with Middle East Policy Scenarios

Monday, December 20, 2021
Opinion by Jean AbiNader

Analysts and commentators have identified several markers of the US’s lack of interest in regaining its leadership role in the Middle East including ex-President Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA agreement that would have limited Iran’s nuclear ambitions, his launch of the Abraham Accords that dealt out the Palestinians as players in their own futures, and our disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan under the Biden administration, among other markers. The withdrawal drama was welcomed by some, ridiculed by others, and challenged by those who see America’s role shifting away from dominance in the region.

At a recent Middle East Institute webinar, cosponsored with the Center for American Progress (CAP), analysts opined on the future US policy over the next decade. The implications of their answers varied based on their commitment to power relationship – both soft and kinetic – the primacy given to a military-based leadership strategy, weight ascribed to rising competition from Russia and China, perspectives on the ascent of the UAE, Egypt, and Turkey as challenges, and definitions of US policies in relation to conceptions of China as our most serious competitor. The report, “A More Balanced and Long-Term Approach to US Policy in the Middle East,” will be released shortly by CAP.

Brian Katulis, co-author of the report, feels that the US is deficient in two dimensions of its ME policy. The first is the absence of a long-term strategic vision that includes larger doses of soft power diplomacy and smaller doses of weapons sales and military engagement. Depending on the specific area, whether the Gulf, Yemen and Sudan, or the Levant, Egypt and North Africa, the US has much to gain from creating alliances and relationships that approach the region’s most pressing challenges holistically rather than hiving off of issues with which we are more comfortable, such as arms and training support, in vain.

A similar theme was expressed by Trita Parsi of The Quincy Institute, writing in The New Prospect. He contrasts the “Baghdad Conference for Cooperation and Partnership” approach with the model of the Abraham Accords, in which the former relies on regional economic and political relationships for leadership while the latter relies on facilitating a reconciliation between Arab dictatorships and Israel for the sake of countering Iran’s influence.

The Baghdad Conference brought together major regional players, including Iran, to discuss common economic development opportunities and needs. The US did not participate, but agreements and accommodations emerged from evolving trust among the participants. It is a beginning, and doesn’t rely on the whims of US presidential politics which, in recent years especially, has changed significantly from administration to administration. This has been a consistent weakness in US foreign policy as it is often dependent on policy directives that are prematurely reset with the installation of new Congresses and Presidents, depending on the election cycle.

On the other hand, the Abraham Accords require a continued US military presence in the region in order to fulfill its underlying Anti-Iranian platform, since the economic benefits are secondary in the policy priorities. There are credible reasons to condone a militarized US presence in the region as hard power maintains necessary pressure on parties to be supportive or face consequences. This approach, however, must be exercised with careful consideration of US credibility since no president wants to return to a ‘boots on the ground’ scenario anywhere in the Middle East. When given a strategic vision of how these newly normalized relationships will evolve, US foreign policy becomes dependent on keeping Israel at least aware of the US concern with Israel’s provocative actions that undercut prospects for conflict mitigation and resolution, either in Lebanon or Palestine.

A third voice on this topic appeared in an article in the CAP Report from Brian Katulis and Peter Juul, which introduced the assumptions in the previously mentioned report. Titled “Strategic Reengagement in the Middle East,” it argues that “The Biden Administration can rebalance America’s policy in the Middle East through diplomacy, economic statecraft, and security cooperation – all while shifting away from direct military action.”

The article begins by stating the need to better understand US interests in the region with respect to security, economics, and values. The authors offer five key pillars on which to base a reemerging and patient US policy as well as five key lessons learned from our past 50 years in the region. As the US winds down the levels of its military deployment through disengagement in the Middle East, it is vital to simultaneously build partnerships that focus beyond confrontation. The paper is worth reading both because of its thoroughness and its emphasis on how the US can adapt its leadership in a multilateral sea of leaders.

For too long, the US has approached the Middle East along three vectors: Israel, energy, and arms sales. There is so much more to these relationships that go back in earnest to the 1970s. Hundreds of thousands of Arabs have been educated in the US and have sent their children here as well. We once had a very robust public diplomacy effort that has suffered budget cuts, disabling our ability to communicate our full diplomatic vision abroad. Our diplomats are not as well trained as they should when it comes to integrating content with technology. The list of qualms goes on and on as to how to build back our foreign policy better in a new era of diplomacy in the Middle East, but it begins with an element that has not changed; it begins with building relationships with the people.


The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the American Task Force on Lebanon.