Resetting U.S. Policy in the Middle East

President Bush’s review of U.S. Iraq policy may involve adjustments to broader U.S. strategy in the Mideast. Bush is hearing proposals ranging from a boost in combat forces to engaging Iran and Syria to a linkage with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Yet few expect dramatic shifts in policy.

March 3, 2008, 7:00 am (EST)

Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.

More on:

Wars and Conflict

Middle East and North Africa


This publication is now archived.


The bipartisan Iraq Study Group (ISG) report has stirred debate in Washington with a raft of policy recommendations that includes linking broader Mideast issues with the resolution of the Iraq conflict. The Bush administration has followed the report with an intense round of consultations that is expected to lead to the announcement of policy changes early next year. Bush says he is sticking to his goal of helping make Iraq a stable democracy, and seemed to rebuff some of the ISG prescriptions. But he is hearing from top advisers and Iraqi leaders that the path to this goal involves everything from “surging” U.S. military forces into the country to massive increases in reconstruction aid to turning over large areas of control to Iraqi forces. There remains great anticipation about whether a series of events—a Democrat-controlled Congress taking office, the arrival of a new defense secretary, and the intense discussion spurred by the ISG report—will lead the administration to adopt a new approach to Iraq and the Middle East as a whole. Many experts expect the changes to be tactical rather than tectonic.

What are the major Middle East policy issues up for discussion?

The stabilization of Iraq remains the top concern but experts say the extensive discussions within the administration are sure to involve broader regional issues as well. Scott Lasensky, a Middle East specialist at the United States Institute of Peace calls it “the most fundamental reconsideration of U.S. Middle East policy in terms of a public discourse” since 9/11. Henri Barkey, a former State Department policy expert on Iraq who now teaches at Lehigh University, says it is merely setting the stage for a larger shift in policy once Bush leaves office. “The major shift in American policy will come with the 2008 [presidential] elections irrespective of whether the Republicans or the Democrats win,” Barkey says.

Debate is reportedly focusing on the following areas:

  • Iraq security. The United States currently deploys about 140,000 troops in Iraq along with thousands of other staff tasked with carrying out the political, economic, and security elements of the Bush administration’s National Strategy for Victory in Iraq. The ISG report concluded this strategy was not working, calling the situation “grave and deteriorating.” Among its seventy-nine recommendations is a call for switching the emphasis of U.S. forces from combat to training and planning for the “responsible” withdrawal of combat troops by the first quarter of 2008. But President Bush, who is considering several competing reports in addition to consulting advisers, has appeared to reject the ISG’s calls for conditioning military support on the response of Iraqi officials. The administration has, however, sought to boost training of Iraqi forces but experts say such a task could take close to a decade to complete.There is intensifying debate among U.S. military officials about the need to “surge” forces into Iraq to bring some immediate stability to Baghdad and other trouble spots in the predominantly Sunni areas. The Wall Street Journal and Los Angeles Times cite a number of military advisers inside and outside the defense department who have promoted this approach to Bush. The New York Times says National Security Adviser Stephen J. Hadley also has repeatedly pressed the idea of a troop surge in Iraq. Prominent senators such as John McCain (R-AZ) are supporters of a force boost as well but the Joint Chiefs of Staff are known to be cool to the idea, doubting its ability to be effective in the long term. In any event, military officials have said only about 10,000 to 15,000 troops could be sent as part of a surge. But the incoming chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Carl Levin (D-MI), favors a phased withdrawal, as do many in the new Democratic congressional majority.
  • Iraq’s economy. Along with redeploying or boosting troop levels, some U.S. military officials have also pressed for more emphasis on the reconstruction of Iraq. Col. William C. Hix, who spent thirteen months in Iraq as chief strategist for Gen. George Casey and is now a strategist in the Pentagon, writes in a recent Hoover Digest that “counterinsurgency is in effect ‘combat nation-building,’” but says there must be a dramatic increase in nonmilitary investments in Iraq. Hix proposes another $20 billion to boost reconstruction in Iraq. But other analysts have faulted the U.S. approach to economic development in Iraq as wasteful and poorly audited. Anthony H. Cordesman, a Middle East security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told a House subcommittee on national security in July 2006: “The greatest single weakness in the aspects of U.S. strategy that the United States can directly influence lies in the economic dimension (PDF).”
  • Iraq’s politics. Bush’s consultations in December have involved leading Shiite, Sunni, and Kurd representatives from Iraq in addition to U.S. policy experts. He continues to promote a national unity government but newspaper reports say Vice President Dick Cheney’s office is arguing for what is known as the “80 percent solution,” involving strong support for Shiites and Kurds, who make up 80 percent of the country’s population. But the State Department reportedly rejects this in favor of drawing in moderate Sunni leaders to support Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Administration officials downplay reports of internal arguments.
  • Arab-Israeli peace process. Experts say there has not been so much discussion of linking Middle East issues since the immediate aftermath of the first Gulf War in 1991, in part because of the Iraq Study Group’s heavy emphasis on regional diplomacy. The United States supports the Mideast “road map” laid out by the diplomatic quartet of the United States, Russia, the European Union, and United Nations that envisions a Palestinian state coexisting peacefully with Israel. But critics of the administration say it has allowed the Israeli-Palestinian process to languish, an irritant to both European and Arab allies. Outgoing State Department Counselor Philip Zelikow drew criticism in September after telling the Washington Institute for Near East Policy that “active policy on the Arab-Israeli dispute is an essential ingredient (PDF) to forging a coalition that deals with the most dangerous problems” in the region. This view is believed to be shared among high-ranking State Department officials but caused a stir among U.S. Jewish groups and Israeli officials.  The ISG revived the Mideast linkage issue and Secretary of State Rice told the Washington Post this week the administration is committed to pursuing peace between Palestinians and Israelis. "Get ready. We are going to the Middle East a lot," Rice said. Barkey expects the Bush administration to take some small steps to push the Arab-Israeli process “just to buy a little goodwill in the Arab world.”
  • Iran. The United States and Iran broke off diplomatic relations after the 1979 Islamic revolution. The Bush administration labeled Iran part of the “axis of evil” and has generally expressed support for regime change in Tehran. This was de-emphasized earlier in 2006 as the United States promoted international diplomacy as a way of stopping Iran’s nuclear program, and even mentioned the option of direct talks with Iran. But Iran’s defiance of UN Security Council calls to freeze its uranium enrichment process, its role in promoting Hezbollah, Hamas, and Iraqi Shiite militias, and its president’s antagonism toward Israel have made the notion of political talks noxious to many administration officials. Rice told the Washington Post she was against reaching out to Iran or Syria for help in Iraq, saying that an Iranian nuclear weapons program, for example, was too high a cost for stabilizing Iraq. But ISG chairs James A. Baker, III and Lee H. Hamilton have stressed that dialogue does not mean endorsement of the Iranian regime and pointed to its constructive role in post-Taliban Afghanistan. The incoming defense secretary, Robert M. Gates, chaired a 2004 CFR Task Force that backed sustained engagement with Iranian officials to try to resolve longstanding differences and there are expectations he is open to new approaches on Iran. In arguing for dialogue, both Baker and Gates have said the United States maintained contacts with the Soviet Union through the darkest periods of the Cold War.
  • Syria. The Bush administration has shunned Syria for the past two years for supporting Hamas and Hezbollah in Lebanon and reportedly serving as a transit route for arms and insurgents into Iraq. While the two sides have diplomatic contacts, Washington declines to conduct any serious talks until Syria reduces its role in Lebanon and drops its support for what Washington calls terrorist groups. But the ISG calls for new engagement and, according to the Wall Street Journal , the group is “backed quietly by a number of senior Bush administration officials, who say it is critical for the United States to find a way of persuading Syria to abandon its close ties with Iran and drop its support for Hezbollah and other militants.” In return, the paper says, they want the White House to offer Damascus a series of economic and political incentives. Lasensky says a “cautious and tough engagement” with the Syrians could be fruitful but talks would be very difficult. Meanwhile, the Bush administration is getting pressure from some Democratic lawmakers to open dialogue with Syria. Earlier this week, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), a member of the Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees, had a meeting with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus, seeking his help in stabilizing Iraq. Sens. John Kerry (D-MA), Christopher Dodd (D-CN), and Arlen Specter (R-PA) are also expected to visit Syria soon.

Is the Bush administration going to modify its democracy promotion policy?

No. Though the ISG report omitted mention of the policy of establishing democracy in Iraq, Bush and Rice have repeatedly said it remains a centerpiece of their efforts in Iraq and the region. But Rice told the Washington Post, “We’ve not always been able to pursue [this policy] in ways that have been effective." Bush’s UN General Assembly speech in September signaled an effort to engage Arab moderates but some experts say it is the autocratic allies of the United States in the region that can offer the most immediate assistance. Lehigh University’s Barkey says to advance U.S. interests in the region, the Bush administration needs to move vigorously toward building a coalition of key countries. This could prove effective, he says, in eventually approaching the Iranians and Syrians about future cooperation. “You don’t just go to the Iranians and say ‘Hi, let’s go and talk,’” says Barkey. “You talk to your allies, you talk to the Saudis, the Turks, the Jordanians, the Kuwaitis, the Egyptians, right, and you hammer out some kind of a vision, then say to the Iranians ‘We have a way of going forward, you want to join us?’”

More on:

Wars and Conflict

Middle East and North Africa



Top Stories on CFR

Iran Nuclear Agreement

The fate of the arms control agreement is in serious doubt following the United States’ withdrawal and Iran’s noncompliance, but some see an opening for renewed diplomacy in 2021.


Prime Minister Suga will keep working to upgrade Japan’s military amid increasing pressures from China, North Korea, and Russia.

Southeast Asia