March 18, 2013

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.

But to those allies, U.S. missteps do not mean that the United States should exit the region. Quite the contrary: They believe that we have that much more responsibility to help them address the region’s problems.

With the onset of his new term, Obama has an opportunity for a fresh start. The Obama team was not wrong in 2008 that changes were needed in the U.S. approach to the Middle East; indeed, those changes had begun before 2008. But Obama officials must now look at their own first-term performance with the same critical eye and make the necessary corrections.

The administration should spend less time listening to public polling in the Middle East and more time listening to our friends and trying to understand their interests. Our allies see Iran’s regional activities, the disintegration of Syria and the rise of Islamism as threats. Their cooperation will depend less on our popularity than on convincing them that we share those interests and will act decisively.

To this end, the administration should overcome its hesitations and embrace the leadership role that only the United States can play in addressing the Middle East’s big problems. Exercising leadership means building consensus, not following it; forming coalitions, not joining them; and shaping outcomes, not reacting to them. If it seems the United States is frequently playing catch-up these days, that is partly because we have done a poor job establishing the credibility that would deter foes, reassure friends and head off independent action by either.

If Washington declines to take a leading role in addressing the Middle East’s problems, the alternative is less likely to be the “regional solutions” of which diplomats hopefully speak than a proliferation of problems as the region’s main players and outside supporters stake out their positions, often along sectarian or ideological lines.

In 2009, Obama went to Cairo and offered a “new beginning.” This time around, U.S. allies in the region, who remain vital to our national security interests, are looking for something simpler: a renewed commitment to American leadership. This would represent real, and welcome, engagement.