U.S. Challenges in a Changed Middle East

U.S. Challenges in a Changed Middle East

Middle East expert Robert Malley discusses how the United States is crafting policy for a Middle East it may no longer be accustomed to.

November 30, 2012 11:30 am (EST)

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

The events in the Middle East continue to rapidly unfold, providing difficulties for U.S. policy in the region, whether it is the decades-long conflict between Israel and Palestine, the rise of Islamists, the conflict in Syria, or tensions with Iran. Middle East expert Robert Malley says, "With Islamists in power in Egypt, with Hamas more powerful than it was the last time it was at war with Israel [2008-09], the United States is trying to figure out its place in a region that is no longer the one it was accustomed to." And in Syria, although a negotiated end to Bashar al-Assad’s regime is preferable, "unfortunately, it almost certainly is not the most likely" way the conflict will end. He says the United States is conflicted over accepting Egyptian help in ending the recent Israel-Hamas attacks while it is also uncomfortable with the domestic policies of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The situation in the Middle East seems extremely complicated right now. A little over a week after the United States and Israel negotiated a cease-fire with Hamas, its rival, the Palestinian Authority, is getting approval for an "observer state" status in the UN. Meanwhile, the situation in Egypt, whose leader Mohamed Morsi had been praised by the United States for his work in getting the cease-fire with Hamas, is in a fight over who’s going to run the country. How do you put all of this together?

More From Our Experts

On one level, there’s a lot that’s very familiar: A war in Gaza between Hamas and Israel that ends in an Egyptian-brokered cease-fire. A Palestinian bid for an elevation of their status at the UN. An Egyptian president, who, on the one hand, acts in ways that are viewed as quite constructive by the United States when it comes to the relations between Israelis and Palestinians, and on the other hand, takes steps at home that are quite inconsistent with our view of democratic governance. We’ve seen all of that before. But the difference is that it’s taking place in a radically transformed environment where the protagonists have changed identities and worldviews. With Islamists in power in Egypt, with Hamas more powerful than it was the last time it was at war with Israel [2008-09], the United States is trying to figure out its place in a region that is no longer the one it was accustomed to.

And would you like to address the Syrian situation?

More on:

Middle East and North Africa

Politics and Government

The Syrian situation is one that also seems to be quite familiar with a civil war that is dragging on, with casualties that are mounting, and with spillover effects that are affecting not just Lebanon but also Jordan, Iraq, and Turkey. Yet at the same time, there appears to be somewhat of an inflection point. There are signs the opposition has made and is making major gains and that a tipping point could be near. Whether this will persuade the regime of the need for serious negotiations—and whether, should that happen, a newly emboldened opposition will be willing to engage—is the question. A negotiated, smooth transition—one that ultimately leads to Bashar al-Assad’s departure but preserves the basic foundations of the state and minimizes risks of sectarian violence—would almost certainly be best for Syria and the Syrian people. Unfortunately, it almost certainly is not the most likely.

Could you discuss the role of the Muslim Brotherhood? Of course, they are prominent right now in Egypt, but their Islamic brothers elsewhere are very active also.

The fact that the Muslim Brotherhood is in power in Egypt and is now rising in a number of countries in the region is something that would have been unimaginable only a few years ago. This is an organization that has fought in the trenches, fought for eighty years against very often vicious repression on the part of existing regimes. It has had the aspiration to come to power and to exercise it for eight decades or more. This is the Brotherhood’s moment, and they don’t want it to go to waste. They are engaged in a balancing act to try to consolidate their power and ensure that they can remain in power, but [also] do so in a way that will [not] alarm the outside world—in particular, the West and the United States, on which it relies for financial assistance. [They also do not want to] alarm domestic public opinion, which is by no means entirely converted to the Islamist worldview.

From a U.S. perspective, as we saw in the case of the conflict between Israel and Hamas, which Egypt brought to an end, the United States found considerable pragmatism on the part of the Muslim Brotherhood, and President Obama by all accounts worked very well with President Morsi. That’s not surprising, nor should one expect that to change in the short run. President Morsi’s and the Muslim Brotherhood’s interests, at this point, are very much to maintain a working relationship with the United States, to show the United States that it can be a reliable partner when it comes to America’s strategic interests, while at the same time ensuring that they can consolidate their power at home without undue interference from the outside world.

More From Our Experts

Is that similar to what former president Hosni Mubarak did?

Yes. Mubarak was quite pragmatic and helpful when it came to America’s interests, but also led a domestic policy that was very inconsistent with the way the United States would have liked him to govern. The question this administration will have to ask itself is to what extent it is prepared to turn a blind eye to domestic actions with which it disagrees, for the sake of preserving a relationship that is producing results that it welcomes.

In the longer run, there’s a broader question of how you deal with an organization whose worldview is inconsistent with or is at loggerheads with America’s values. This is a question that this administration and, I suspect, future administrations are going to have to grapple with. And in part, it boils down to whether one believes that over time the Muslim Brotherhood will moderate itself and will be forced to open up political space in ways that will guarantee the possibility of political transitions. Or, alternatively, whether one believes that as an organization with a deeply rooted worldview and a deeply rooted religious ideology, the Brotherhood is incapable of that kind of change—that it is merely projecting short-term moderation for the sake of longer-term strategic goals.

More on:

Middle East and North Africa

Politics and Government

How is the Brotherhood acting in Syria?

There is a Muslim Brotherhood component of the Syrian opposition, which was particularly strong in the Syrian National Congress. Part of the struggle within the Syrian opposition has been between the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists on the one hand, and non-Islamist forces on the other.

The challenge for the United States has been to work with Gulf Arab countries, which support the opposition, yet back different allies and espouse a different final objective. [These Gulf states] back the Islamist [factions], and they have no appetite for a negotiated transition. So, on the one hand, some argue that the more involved the United States is, the more it will be able to shape the opposition to its liking. On the other hand, some claim that this is a struggle that ultimately will rebound to the benefit of the more militarized, radical Islamist forces, no matter how much the United States gets involved.

That’s a difficult situation for the United States, isn’t it?

The United States is performing a balancing act when it comes to Syria. It is calling for a negotiated, smooth transition, working with the UN special envoy and—it hopes—with Russia, trying to convince the opposition to negotiate with the regime, making clear that it doesn’t want to see a collapse of the state. Yet at the same time, it is providing some support to the opposition and trying to work in partnership with countries like Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, whose goal is much more to topple the regime militarily than it is to negotiate with it over a political transition that will, over time, change the nature of the regime. The challenge is to steer the situation toward a negotiated settlement when neither the active parties on the ground nor their sponsors wish to do so.

It must be difficult for the United States to maneuver between the Sunni-Shiite dispute, which many people feel is at the heart of all of this.

Part of the problem is that the United States is engaged in struggles and in partnerships with countries in the region that have a very different objective and, frankly, a very different fight in mind than the one the United States would like to wage. Just to take the case of Syria, one of the United States’ objectives is to see it governed by a more democratic form of leadership that respects the rule of law, that respects the rights of minorities, and that respects equal rights of all. It would be a stretch to say that that’s the ultimate goal of the Gulf Arab countries, even though they support the very same opposition that we’re supporting, for whom the struggle is more about strengthening the Sunni Arab position in the region, ultimately weakening Iranian influence in the Arab world, and perhaps pivoting from Syria to Iraq, where many Sunni Gulf Arab countries have never accepted seeing a Shiite in power. Both the United States and Gulf Arab states want Assad to be toppled. But the coincidence of interests ends there.

Focus a bit more on Iran, if you can.

We don’t have a dog in the fight between Sunnis and Shiites. And even though the United States has a major interest in curbing Iran’s nuclear program and curbing its support for certain militant groups in the region, it’s goal is not to see Iran have zero influence in the region. It understands that if it’s going to reach some kind of long-term settlement with Iran, it will have to agree to some degree of Iranian influence in the region, which is precisely what a number of Gulf Arab states are dead set against because for them, this is both a Sunni-Shite struggle and an Arab-Persian struggle. As I said, for the United States, those are struggles in which it really does not have a stake. It has different struggles and different objectives in mind.

So far, it seems Israel has passively accepted the inevitable vote in the United Nations. What’s the long-term significance of this?

Israel is beginning to do what it probably should have done from the beginning, which is to minimize the impact of this vote and to look to the day after the vote, rather than focus its energies on either trying to stop it or threatening retaliation in the event it took place. It was never in a position to stop it, and retaliation would backfire because it would be more harmful to Israel to see a collapse of the Palestinian Authority than it would be to the Palestinians themselves. The indications now coming through that Israel is going to take a more measured stance in response to the vote is something that would have been welcomed months ago, but better late than never.

The challenge is going to be twofold. One: managing the immediate aftermath of the vote to ensure that neither the Israeli government nor the U.S. Congress take retaliatory actions that would turn this in a very different direction. Second, if, as Palestinian President Abbas has said, negotiations are to resume after the vote or after Israeli elections, those negotiations learn something from the failures of the past. You can’t simply go back to the recipes that were used years ago and failed under circumstances that were more propitious than the ones that exist today.

Any renewed peace effort has to take into account the rise of Islamism, the increased mistrust between Israelis and Palestinians, the coming to the surface of issues that have been relatively secondary in the past and have now become very central, such as the notion of recognizing Israel as a Jewish state or the origin and the plight of the Palestinian refugees. These are some of the existential issues that were never easy to ignore but have become much harder to set aside, given the increasing influence in Israel and in Palestine of constituencies for whom those are the central issues, and given the rise of Islamists in Palestine and the Arab world, for whom some of the solutions of the past are going to be much more difficult to accept today.


Top Stories on CFR

United States

Immigration barriers for entrepreneurs and U.S.-educated STEM graduates hurt American innovation.

Democratic Republic of Congo

The Congolese government is letting energy firms bid for access to its vast oil and gas reserves, raising concerns about the potential climate consequences.


President Biden's comment on Taiwan independence is a break from his predecessors.