Michael Singh is managing director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. From 2005 to 2008, he worked on Middle East issues at the National Security Council.
President Obama’s trip to Israel and Jordan this week is about neither Israel nor Jordan. But it also isn’t quite about Iran, as some have asserted, or the Arab uprisings. His trip will be about the United States and the role we see for ourselves in the Middle East. Our allies, to a one, want more American leadership in the region and greater clarity regarding U.S. policy on vital issues; in an increasingly fractious region, it is the one talking point they all share. Their message reflects a troubling irony: A president whose foreign policy slogan was “engagement” in 2008 will, if he does not change course in his second term, leave a legacy of U.S. disengagement from the Middle East.
Obama took office four years ago with a Middle East strategy that emphasized withdrawal from Iraq, resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by getting tough on Israel, improving the U.S. image in Muslim communities and talking to hostile regimes.
This strategy failed because it was based on American politics rather than the realities of the Middle East. It was upended when it collided with the intransigence of the Iranian and Syrian regimes; the stubbornness of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; and, most of all, the deep-seated social, political and economic discontent that erupted as the Arab uprisings of 2011.
The administration did not respond to the collapse of its initial approach with a more realistic strategy. Rather, it seemed to become reactive, resulting in a confusing and contradictory hodgepodge of policies that our allies have struggled to understand.
How to explain, for example, that we tout the “military option” for dealing with Iran yet withdrew our second aircraft carrier from the Persian Gulf in February? How to understand U.S. reluctance to do anything significant to end a civil war in Syria that in two years has produced nearly as many civilian deaths and refugees as the last decade’s war in Iraq? How to reconcile our professed support for democracy and human rights with our hesitation to support oppositions in Egypt and Iran that share those values?
Americans understand instinctively that government dysfunction requires no explanation. But in the conspiracy-minded Middle East, attempts to connect the dots of U.S. foreign policy tend to yield a troubling explanation: Having withdrawn from Iraq, drawing down in Afghanistan, facing a budgetary crisis and “pivoting” to Asia, the United States appears to lack the interest to sustain a commitment to the Middle East.
In the United States, it is not uncommon to hear that America is toxic in the Middle East. After Iraq and Afghanistan, one is told, the people of the region want to see us leave. But our allies view the possibility of U.S. retreat with alarm.
This is not to say that these allies are uncritical of past U.S. policies. Many of them believe, mistakenly, that the overthrow of Saddam Hussein handed Iraq to Iran. Some have been relentlessly critical of the U.S. response to the Arab Spring, which many of them believe has served as an opening for extremists.