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Past Event

Assessing Obama’s Middle East Policies

On November 21, 2011, the Brookings Doha Center hosted a policy discussion with Martin Indyk, vice president and director of the Foreign Policy Program at Brookings. His address focused on the ideology and strategy behind President Obama’s foreign policy in the Middle East, in particular its varied responses to the uprisings of the Arab Spring. Indyk’s remarks were followed by a lively question and answer session moderated by Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center. The discussion was attended by members of Qatar’s academic, business, diplomatic, and media communities.

Indyk began his discussion by emphasizing that U.S. presidents have always faced the challenge of promoting democratic values while also protecting strategic American interests. Although each president has defined this balance in different ways, they have all ultimately treated the Middle East as an exception. In this region, Indyk stressed, the United States has traditionally focused on the promotion of American interests, rather than democracy, because interests in the region are so vital. In particular, Indyk described two critical interests in the Middle East: the survival and wellbeing of Israel and the free flow of oil at reasonable prices from the Gulf.

Indyk went on to say that securing U.S. interests in the Middle East has always been a challenge, considering the region’s volatility. Undeniably, he said, “this is a region of great tension and instability.” For that reason, Indyk underlined, the United States has sought to pursue its interests through the promotion of stability, which it hoped to maintain by resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and by entering pacts with autocratic leaders. As long as they preserved the status quo, these leaders would have free reign on domestic policy. Republican and Democratic presidents alike pursued this strategy – until George W. Bush, Indyk said, who appeared determined to adopt a different approach. Bush’s push for democracy was a short-lived exercise, however, as parties like Hamas that were considered inimical to American interests claimed victory in elections.

When President Obama came into office, there was a sense that Bush’s efforts to promote democracy had backfired, and Obama focused on building up civil society and promoting human rights without specifically mentioning democracy promotion. When the Arab uprisings began, however, Indyk explained, Obama understood it was critical for the United States to move quickly in Egypt, and so the president signaled to the military that if it fired on its people, $1.3 billion of American military assistance would be cut. This move was critical in persuading the army to concede that the people’s demands were legitimate thus helping to fuel revolution against Mubarak. Meanwhile, Obama set in place a plan for the Egyptian military to play the role of “midwife” to a democratic transition in Egypt, preserving stability, honoring the treaty with Israel, and ensuring a peaceful transition to democracy.

Obama’s effort to balance interests and values in Egypt, in Indyk’s view, “is now coming unstuck” because the role the United States envisioned for the military differed from the role it saw for itself. “What we had in fact unfolding in Egypt was a military coup and a revolution taking place in parallel,” Indyk explained, with the Egyptian military taking power for itself at the same time as the people on the street were wresting power from Hosni Mubarak. These parallel developments are now coming to a head, as the military tries to hold on to power, while Egyptians continue demanding a democratic transition. This puts the Obama Administration in a difficult decision. At the time of the event, , the Obama Administration had still been remarkably silent regarding the escalating violence in Egypt, in Indyk’s eyes reflecting the complexity of the situation. Indyk noted that U.S. legislation requires cutting off military aid if weapons are used against civilians, suggesting that policy on Egypt may fall outside of President Obama’s purview. Indyk predicted that the Obama Administration would try to persuade the military to return to the role of “midwife,” as the administration had originally envisioned.

Indyk went on to say that in various countries, the United States has struck a different balance between its interests and its values. In Libya, the United States had few vital interests, therefore making it easier for the Obama Administration to back values over interests. Bahrain, however, involved the opposite calculation, as U.S. interests are considerable there. Though the United States criticized the Saudi-led GCC crackdown on peaceful protests earlier this year, it did little else to oppose the suppression of the peaceful uprising. This, Indyk explained, is in large part because of fears that a Shia-led uprising in Bahrain could spread instability to the Shia-dominated Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia. Any subsequent spike in oil prices could plunge the global economy back into recession.

In Syria, Indyk said there was a confluence of interests and ideals, as protesters demand the removal of the brutal Assad regime, which is allied with Iran, America’s main regional adversary.. Though the Obama Administration has come to take a hard-line against Assad, it, in Indyk’s view, took too long to do so. Indyk ended his remarks by asserting that the era of Middle East exceptionalism is over; the United States can no longer deny that democracy promotion is as necessary in the Middle East as it is elsewhere.

Following Indyk’s remarks, the question and answer session covered a range of issues, including the hypocrisy of U.S. policy in the region, prospects for Arab-Israeli peace, and the probability of a peaceful transition in Egypt. Moderator Salman Shaikh began by asking how the United States balances values and interests in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Indyk said the United States has always taken the approach that the best way to balance its interests is by maintaining strong alliances with Arab friends while also preserving the wellbeing of Israel. Since the 1967 war, he explained, the United States has taken an active role in trying to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It has aa unique ability to do so due to its special relationship with Israel. Indyk went on to say that Obama’s efforts in this regard have revealed the large gap between the maximum concessions the Israeli government is prepared to make and the minimum requirements of the Palestinians. At this time, the parties are too far apart for negotiations to be able to bridge the gap between them. While negations may not be feasible now, however, Indyk said there are other measures that can and should be taken to build up confidence and trust. Though the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains a key challenge in the region, the Arab uprisings, he made clear, are not linked explicitly to the Palestinian cause.

Another question concerned the calculation of values and interests for the United States in Iraq. Indyk replied that the United States entered Iraq not to bring democracy to the country but rather to overthrow Saddam Hussein, who was believed to have weapons of mass destruction . When no WMDs were found, the Bush Administration then declared that the purpose of the mission was to promote democracy. In the end, Indyk stressed, the future is up to the Iraqi people: “We’ve done the best we can, and the Iraqis have said they don’t want us to stay. The best we can do in that case is to leave.” By leaving, the United States can make clear that if it is not wanted in a country, it will not stay. This is a very important message, Indyk stressed; the United States is not a neo-imperialist power out to occupy Arab countries. Ultimately, Iran may end up holding a great deal of leverage over Iraq, and U.S. influence will likely wane, but the United States needs to have faith in the Iraqi people themselves to forge a path forward.

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