from From the Potomac to the Euphrates and Middle East Program

American Leadership and the Middle East

February 18, 2015

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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

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It was hard to zero in on a topic to write about this week with all that is happening in the Middle East. There are now three countries that seem to be breaking apart—Libya, Yemen, and Iraq—and a certain permanence has settled over the horrific violence in Syria. The Palestinian Authority is on the verge of collapse. Egypt, along with the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, and Qatar, are now involved in the conflict among various Libyan factions. Yes, it seems that yet another proxy war is underway in the Middle East. All of this happened against the backdrop of new ISIS horrors—a seemingly weekly event. I have not had the courage to bring myself to watch the video of the twenty-one Egyptian Christians slaughtered by the so-called Islamic State on a beach in Libya. It is too gruesome. Needless to say, they were beheaded for no other reason than they were Christians, which is not to diminish the fact that a vast majority of ISIS’s victims have been Muslims.

February is now a historical marker in the Middle East. Kind of like all those other dates that anyone who works on the Middle East internalizes— January 25, March 19, June 5, July 20, August 2, October 6, and October 29. The fourth anniversary of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s fall came and went with considerably less in the way of reflection pieces than other years. The news from Egypt has been consistently distressing—insurgency, terrorism, nationalist paroxysm, authoritarianism—but it is better, by a lot, than elsewhere. More Egyptians have been killed, injured, and imprisoned in the last four years than during the previous three decades. That’s not a defense of Mubarak, but a rough metric for the Middle East broadly. Egypt’s tribulations would be the biggest story in the region if not for the seemingly endless bad news from elsewhere in the Middle East.

It is all pretty depressing. How did we get here? I am not sure anyone knows the full story, but a lot of people have intoned about “American leadership.” This is something that representatives of the Gulf countries, Israel, and Egypt as well as members of the Republican Party have been saying for some time. It now seems to be creeping across the aisle as people position themselves toward the end of the Obama era. I’ve been hearing it for a while, but I am not sure what it means and I am not sure that the people who keep saying it know what they mean. A number of months ago, I asked an Emirati who was inveighing against the Obama administration’s lack of leadership the following: What would constitute American leadership? How would the policies of the United Arab Emirates change if Washington exercised said leadership? He did not really answer the first, merely continuing to sputter about the “need for American leadership,” and in response to my second query, stated plainly that Emirati policy would not change. Hmmm. I was left to infer that American leadership would constitute, at least to my Emirati interlocutor, Washington’s support for whatever it was that Abu Dhabi was doing in the region or wants the United States to do, regardless of how Americans calculate the best way to achieve U.S. interests. I suspect I would get similar answers in Cairo, Jerusalem, and Riyadh.

Some readers might interpret this as a defense of the Obama administration’s Middle East policy. It is not. The administration has erred in a variety of ways, whether it has been treating Recep Tayyip Erdogan as a partner after it became clear he is a thug, unwillingness to consider intervention in Syria when it might have made a difference, declaring phantom “red lines,” waiting too long to walk away from Nouri al-Maliki, getting roped into a Libya intervention, assuming that the fight against terrorists was essentially over after Navy Seals put an end to Osama bin Laden’s life, or placing the United States in a position where it needs a nuclear agreement with Tehran more than Iran needs a nuclear agreement with Washington. Still, even with this critique of the last six years, I have no idea what people mean when they say the Obama administration has failed to demonstrate American leadership. If they mean something at all, I suspect people mean bombing Iran, pursuing regime change in Damascus, fixing Iraq’s politics, and putting Libya back together again. Perhaps I am being too dismissive or missing something, but it seems to me that advocates of this type of American leadership neither appreciate the unintended consequences of these actions nor comprehend the resistance of Middle Easterners to external influence at a time when they are engaged in high-stakes struggles over politics and identity.

Everyone in Washington wants to “do something.” This is based on the belief in the positive use of American power in the world. It is a laudable impulse based on Washington’s successful twentieth century fights against Nazism and communism. There are, of course, things that Washington should do in the Middle East including bringing as much force to bear on ISIS as is practical (though it won’t end the threat), protecting the sea lanes of the Persian Gulf, and helping to ensure Israel’s security. Yet somehow, despite all the evidence to the contrary, there is also the belief in Washington that the United States has the resources, diplomatic means, and wisdom to have a decisive influence on the trajectory of politics in Middle Eastern countries. There is wisdom in understanding that “doing something” for the sake of a vague notion of American leadership is not wise at all.

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