The Obama Administration: Facing Challenges in the Middle East

The Obama administration faced a set of urgent, complex, and intractable challenges in the Middle East.  It had to curb Iran's nuclear program, reduce the American military role in Iraq while stabilizing the country, find a more effective way to deal with Middle Eastern sources of terrorism, resurrect a moribund Arab-Israeli peace process, and re-establish American leadership in a key region where the vast majority of the people saw Washington as the cause of their problems, not the solution. With so many other challenges demanding President Obama's attention, this was never going to be an easy task, nor one that could possibly be completed in the first year of a new administration.

Certainly, the administration deserves credit for embracing these challenges and declaring a willingness to tackle them in ways very different from its predecessor.  However, across the board, the results have yet to match the promise of its ambitious rhetoric. This is very much a work in progress. It has arguably done best on Iran, where it did enact a new approach, only to see Iran's domestic dynamics change dramatically in a way that now calls into question the viability of that new policy. On Iraq too, the administration is clearly marching in a different direction, but it is not yet clear that its approach will deliver the stability that American national interests demand. And the breakthrough to Arab-Israeli peace that was to be the engine of the administration's strategy has yet to materialize resulting in considerable disillusionment in the region.

Iran.  On Iran, the Obama administration quickly adopted the best policy available, one of "carrots and sticks" in which the Islamic Republic would be offered engagement and real economic and political incentives to cease its pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability, or face harsh international sanctions if it refused. Unfortunately, no sooner had the administration begun to put this policy into practice than the disputed June 2009 Iranian presidential elections effectively obviated its entire premise by bringing to power a much harder line regime in Tehran, one uninterested in better relations with the West and more concerned with internal challenges. The administration's "strategic reset" of relations with Russia and patient and painstaking efforts with China, have brought laudable international cooperation against Iran so far. However, this newfound solidarity is unlikely to translate into sanctions powerful enough to convince a hardline Iranian regime to suspend its uranium enrichment or even ship its stockpile of low enriched uranium out of the country. Moreover, the administration has been frustratingly meek in its support for the new Iranian opposition or in condemning the regime's violent repression. This restraint has been driven by the increasingly chimerical hope that Tehran will seek meaningful compromise and engagement with the West but it comes at a price:  the Iranian opposition depends on support from the international community to demonstrate that the regime is isolated abroad as well as at home. And by avoiding real pressure on Iranian human rights violations in favor of engagement with a regime that appears to have little interest in meaningful compromise, the Obama administration risks getting neither. 

Iraq. Iraq too has been a mixed bag. There the Obama administration needed to drawdown American troops and push forward an Iraqi political system that by 2009 had become paralyzed while preventing a slide back into sectarian warfare, all too common in states that have undergone a major intercommunal civil war.

Despite the occasional bombing outrage, overall levels of violence continue to fall. The administration also succeeded in prodding the various Iraqi factions to enact an election law that provides for a reasonably good system of "open-list" elections. It quashed a bid to put the security agreement by which U.S. troops are to remain in country till the start of 2012 to a popular referendum that almost certainly would have failed, and in so doing thrown the country’s entire security situation into chaos. In late February 2009, the president announced a 19-month drawdown plan for Iraq that would see U.S. forces reduced to about 50,000 by August 2010 and the end of American combat operations. Although this plan still remains possible, it seems increasingly difficult to reconcile with Iraqi political needs, and the administration has not yet demonstrated a willingness to modify it if the situation deteriorates. In particular, the Iraqi elections seem likely to produce a deeply fragmented parliament unable to form a government for many months. Such protracted wrangling will create opportunities and pressures for various groups to use violence to influence the negotiations. If the United States is seen as blithely withdrawing its troops without regard for mounting violence, this alone could push the country back into civil war. Finally, the administration continues to debate how and to what extent it will scale back civilian efforts in Iraq, and many Iraqi leaders remain frightened that Washington plans to take a far more hands-off approach--one for which they fear their country is unready.

Terrorism and Yemen. The attempted Christmas terrorist attack by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) finally brought the problem of Yemen into the popular American political debate. Yemen, and potentially Somalia, represents a critical problem for the Obama administration: how to prevent a failing state from becoming a new base for al Qaeda operations. Yemen faces an open civil war with Houthi tribesmen in the north and a  smoldering second one with unhappy southerners. The government is corrupt and incompetent, its economy continues to spiral downward, and al Qaeda (which set up shop in Yemen back in the 1990s—remember the bombing of the USS Cole?) has been busily expanding its operations in Yemen’s ungoverned tribal regions. 

Although the Obama administration has made clear that it is not going to deal with terrorist refuges the way that the Bush 43 administration did (and the country remains staunchly on the President’s side on this matter), it has not yet explained how it does plan to handle them—let alone demonstrated that its approach can work better than its predecessor’s. A failure to do so will create tremendous problems for the administration both at home and in the region. If Yemen becomes a major base for al Qaeda terrorist operations, it could undercut support for the president’s Afghanistan policy. The question the administration will then face is, 'Why invest so much in an uncertain war in Afghanistan if success there fails to eliminate, or even significantly reduce al Qaeda's operations because the group has developed other launch pads?

The Arab-Israeli Conflict.  Achieving a breakthrough to comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace was meant to be the cornerstone of the Obama administration's integrated Middle East strategy. The appointment of George Mitchell as the president's envoy for Middle East peace on day two signaled the seriousness of that commitment.  However, a deeply divided Palestinian polity with a weak leader, the eventual formation of an Israeli government with a right wing leader, and Arab state reluctance to play an overt facilitating role, gave Mitchell little to work with.  And the president's insistence on a complete settlements freeze, including natural growth, only complicated matters: the Palestinian leadership could insist on nothing less, while Israeli politics was bound to produce just that (a 10-month freeze that excludes Jerusalem and grandfathers existing construction).  A parallel Israeli-Syrian negotiation also failed to materialize because of the all-too-familiar Syrian insistence on a prior Israeli commitment to full withdrawal from the Golan Heights and an Israeli insistence on negotiations without preconditions. By the end of the year, the process looked more bogged down than it had at the outset of the administration.  

As serious as the situation has become, it is by no means hopeless. Obama's prodding has generated Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu's commitment to establish a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. A ground-up process of building responsible, accountable and capable institutions of statehood is gaining traction in the West Bank. Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation there has reached unprecedented proportions with a commensurate drop in terrorist activity. If a persistent Mitchell can succeed – with Egyptian, Jordanian, and Saudi support – to jump-start final status negotiations, it may be possible to leverage Israeli-Syrian negotiations too, and multilateral negotiations on regional issues. However, that will still leave the vexed problem of Hamas and Gaza – violence emanating from there could easily blow up a fragile process. And weak leaders will still have great difficulty compromising on such intractable issues as Jerusalem and refugees. It would be one of the Middle East's many ironies that an administration determined to achieve a breakthrough to peace, managed in its second year only to produce a breakthrough to a revived peace process.  But in such a barren landscape, that would be an achievement nevertheless. 

Muslim World Outreach. It would also do much to enhance the credibility of President Obama's signature effort to improve relations with the Arab and Muslim Worlds. He made a very effective opening move with his June 2009 Cairo speech which received high approval ratings with his primary audience (even as it lost him important support among Israelis). But the failure so far to achieve progress on the hot button Palestinian issue, combined with the troop surge in Afghanistan and the delay in closing Guantanamo Bay, have opened up a gap between rhetoric and reality that America's opponents have been quick to exploit. This just adds to the importance of achieving substantive progress on the administration's other Middle East goals in its second year.