The United States is facing the worst of all worlds in the Middle East: interventions that erode Washington’s prestige and popularity but fail to exert enough influence to secure U.S. interests. If Secretary of State John Kerry’s effort to restart Israeli-Palestinian talks is to succeed — and if the United States is to secure its interests, ranging from oil security to nuclear nonproliferation — America must once again play a leading role in the region.
In theory, the Obama administration’s strategic objective is to “pivot” to Asia, focusing on rising powers across the Pacific (with the ancillary benefit of pleasing an electorate back home that is weary of the Middle East’s seemingly endless troubles). With the exception of the Arab-Israeli peace process — where Secretary Kerry is putting his personal prestige at stake — the administration hopes to achieve this objective by more aggressively supporting Arab or European diplomacy in the Middle East, quietly securing U.S. interests by pushing its allies to do more and coordinating their actions. U.S. officials hoped this approach would cost little, minimize domestic political risk, and score points with the so-called Arab street by keeping the American presence limited.
In practice, however, the Middle East still consumes an enormous amount of U.S. government bandwidth and remains impervious to influence. The latest crisis, a coup in Egypt, has left Washington reeling over the question of whether or not to cut the $1.3 billion in military aid the United States sends Egypt annually. Missing from the debate, however, is how marginal the U.S. role has become. Before the coup, the United States tried to push the Muslim Brotherhood-led government to compromise with the opposition. But backed by $8 billion in support from tiny Qatar since President Mohamed Morsy’s election, the Brotherhood regime was free to flout U.S. entreaties.