from Middle East Matters and Middle East Program

The Obama Administration’s Upcoming Arab Outreach

February 11, 2014

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President Obama meets King Abdullah of Jordan on Friday in California. The president will also travel to Saudi Arabia in March, just after Secretary of State John Kerry makes a special stop in the United Arab Emirates.

All three of these events are part of a larger whole: an attempt by the Obama administration to reassure key American Arab allies that the United States is not retreating from the Middle East or going soft on its leadership role in the world. This effort was exemplified by the extraordinary joint plea by Secretaries Hagel and Kerry recently at the Munich Security Conference to skeptical European partners.

The upcoming diplomatic outreach by President Obama to U.S. Arab partners is positive and necessary. The critical question is: will it help smooth ruffled feathers? The White House should harbor no illusions that mere back-slapping and hand-holding will suffice. If Washington is saying: “The meeting is the message,” the Arabs will instead be asking: “What have you done for us lately, and where are you heading?”

For the upcoming outreach to the Arabs to be truly effective, America’s top officials will need to bring compelling answers to three critical questions that their Arab partners will pose:

First, Iran: “What is the Obama administration’s game plan for Iran?” President Obama and Secretary Kerry will doubtlessly stress their commitment to preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons. That message won’t do.

What the Arabs really want to know is whether or not Washington is seeking a much broader modus vivendi with Iran that will lead to a new and “more balanced” security architecture in the region. Is Washington going to continue to seek Iran’s isolation and containment? Or does the United States, as the Arabs now fear, seek to engage, temper, and ultimately reincorporate Iran into its old role as a pillar of Gulf stability?

Second, Syria:  What is the United States’ objective in Syria? Is it to contain the fighting, continue to pursue some sort of diplomatic track with the regime it once called on to step down, and to give primacy to Syria’s weapons of mass destruction?

Administration calls for Assad to step down as part of a political process, and confidential assurances that limited U.S. covert assistance is now underway, will do little to convince the Arabs that the administration does not seek to get by with as little involvement as possible. Indeed, it will lead Gulf Arabs to conclude that they should redouble their efforts to pour arms and money into Syria pursuing goals clearly not aligned with U.S. interests. Cautionary words by Obama or Kerry to the Arab allies will surely fall on deaf ears.

Third, Egypt: President Obama’s silence on Egypt in his State of the Union did not go unnoticed in the Middle East, and is seen as a reflection of a hands-off approach to the Arab world’s most populous country, and main epicenter of the 2011 Arab uprisings. Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and the Emirates have all welcomed, mainly through dollar diplomacy, the July 3, 2013 coup (or military action as some prefer) that toppled the Morsi government.

They will now want to know if Washington’s policy remains the one articulated by Secretary Kerry in his last visit to Egypt in November: that Egypt is on the road to democracy. If so, they will be pleased. Hints by Obama or Kerry to quietly urge restraint by Egypt’s military will be met by subtle admonitions by their Arab hosts—however unjustified—that countries that abandon their allies in times of trouble should remain silent when things then quiet down.

When they meet with their Saudi, Jordanian, and Emirati interlocutors, Kerry and Obama will surely highlight their Sisyphusian efforts to advance the cause of Israeli-Palestinian peace, and the president will seek to assure them that he stands squarely behind his secretary of state’s mission to bring peace to the Holy Land.

The Arabs will welcome these American peace efforts and encourage them to continue. But long gone are the days when Americans could engender Arab felicitations by focusing on the peace process. Today’s Middle East turmoil has brought about threats that U.S. allies see as existential. Unless Obama and Kerry can credibly answer pressing questions on Iran, Syria, and Egypt, whatever goodwill engendered by this outreach is likely to be as enduring as the jet contrails that will follow their aircraft when they depart their meetings.