The Pitfalls of ‘Splitting the Middle’ in the Middle East

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

One of the questions I hear increasingly among Arab friends and colleagues is, “why is U.S. policy the way that it is?” This confusion may help explain why U.S. favorability ratings continue to plummet well below what they were in the final days of the George W. Bush administration (see this recent Zogby poll for example). As hated as President Bush was, there was at least a relatively clear sense of where he and the people around him stood.

At a time when clarity and resolve would seem more important than ever, the Obama administration has acted as if incoherence were a virtue. The administration’s supporters respond by saying that “one size doesn’t fit all” — a cliche with unclear implications — or, more charitably, that a “boutique strategy” is the right way to respond to Arab revolt. But the question remains: What exactly does the Obama administration stand for in today’s Middle East?

In this context, what the Obama administration has managed to do is in some ways remarkable: Protesters and revolutionaries are convinced that Obama is either on the side of their oppressors or, worse, a non-entity altogether (“impotent” — and its Arabic equivalents — is what one hears more and more these days from Arab critics of U.S. policy). At the same time, Obama has managed to alienate friends and allies alike. Many Gulf leaders and officials are convinced that Obama is, somehow, intent on destabilizing the region by fomenting revolution. This is an old story, and increasingly one that defines the Obama administration’s missteps: By trying to please everyone, it ends up pleasing no one.

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