The Obama Administration’s Middle East Policy

We convene the U.S.-Islamic World Forum in Doha this week at a moment of historical transition in America’s Middle East policy. That’s not just because the United States has ended its military combat mission in Iraq, and is on the same path in Afghanistan. It’s also because of transformative changes now underway in the region, in the global economy, and in the global politics of energy. President Obama’s new approach to the Middle East may seem, to some, narrow and constrained: more focused on avoiding problems than solving them. But it’s important to understand how the lessons of the last years, and the changes underway in the region, affect American interests and the views of the American people on foreign policy.

U.S. Military Presence

First, and most importantly, is the conclusion of American military engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan. These changes represent the end of a long period—since the late 1980s—when the U.S. military presence in the Gulf escalated, first in response to the Iran-Iraq war and the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and more recently because of America’s two wars in the region and the broader war on terrorism. As a result of all these factors, the United States and the Gulf countries have grown accustomed to an American military presence that has been, in historical terms, unusually high and is now beginning to taper back down.

Energy Security

Second, the United States faces the prospect of energy independence for the first time. It’s true that oil is a global market, and that that the globalized economy means that Washington cares almost as much about Europe and China’s energy security as it does about its own. Nonetheless, America’s looming energy self-sufficiency inevitably alters the way Americans see the Middle East and their willingness to invest in this region. This changed public sentiment is but one aspect of a broader trend in American public opinion: historically high reticence to engage in global affairs at all, much less a messy complicated place like the Middle East. You can see stark evidence of this trend in the 2012 Chicago Council poll and a recent Pew poll.

Regional Balance of Power

Third, of course, is the earthquake of the Arab uprisings and the ongoing, multifaceted struggle over the region’s future. The regional balance of power has been overturned, and major regional actors, partners of the United States, do not necessarily agree on how to reestablish regional order. In this environment, it’s not surprising that the United States seeks to avoid being drawn into internecine battles, while it waits to see how internal Arab developments will affect its long-term interests.

These factors would weigh heavily on anyone sitting in the White House at this moment, although perhaps even more heavily on President Obama, who has largely defined his foreign policy legacy as having closed the door on a decade defined by two wars in the broader Middle East. As these factors weigh on the U.S. administration, they also weigh on the actors in the region. For those with “revisionist” goals, like extremist groups, the regional upheaval and America’s apparent reticence to invest may create new opportunities. For allies, these factors create, quite naturally, a degree of anxiety about the future of America’s role in this geostrategic region.

I’m delighted to chair a top-flight panel tomorrow at the U.S. Islamic World Forum in Doha to discuss this crucial question, and to delve into President Obama’s recent foreign policy speech at West Point. I hope you’ll join us via webcast on our event page and join the conversation on Twitter using #usislam14.