U.S. Faces Challenges in Arab World, but Obama Is on Right Track
Compared to Bush, Obama is advancing U.S. national security interests in the Middle East
September 27, 2012
Overall, the Obama administration has developed effective responses to the political transitions that began in 2011 in the Middle East. But the United States faces many challenges navigating the threats and opportunities presented by continued changes in the years ahead.
Measured against his predecessor, President Barack Obama has done a much more effective job overall advancing U.S. national security interests in the Middle East. President George W. Bush's global war on terror and rhetorical attempts to advance freedom and democracy resulted in trillions of U.S. taxpayer dollars and thousands of lives lost in Iraq. But overall the Bush administration did more damage than good to U.S. interests in the Middle East. Al Qaeda continued to grow as a threat across the region under the Bush administration. Besides Iraq, where Saddam Hussein was ousted, no countries saw significant positive changes toward greater democracy. In Lebanon and parts of the Palestinian territories, Islamist terrorist groups took control. Iran moved forward with its nuclear program for many years without an effective diplomatic or economic response. By 2008, the Bush administration had done more damage than good to overall U.S. national security interests in the region.
Flash forward four years—Osama bin Laden and dozens of al Qaeda leaders are dead, U.S. troops are no longer trapped in the middle of Iraq's internal conflicts, and four countries (Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and Yemen) have new leaders, and several other countries are starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel of dictators. Since 2009, the Obama administration has undertaken the mother of all foreign policy cleanup jobs—rebuilding U.S. power and credibility with a pragmatic and reality-based policy in the Middle East.
But this effort is still very much a work in progress. Threats from al Qaeda and its affiliates are much diminished due to a more effective counterterrorism strategy, but as the events in Libya and Yemen remind us, those threats remain. The strategy to stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon took its initial form in a two-pronged approach of diplomatic engagement combined with economic and military containment in the closing years of the Bush administration, and the Obama administration appears dedicated to using the right tools at the right time to stop Iran.
The political transitions in the Middle East remain in their early stages. It is even too premature to use the "Arab Spring" label. Only about one third of the countries in the broader Middle East and North Africa have seen significant political change or turmoil. Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and Yemen are just beginning the process of reforming their political systems. Syria continues to spiral into a deadly civil war.
The United States needs to develop a more comprehensive strategy for managing change in the Middle East, particularly in Egypt, the region's largest country. The Obama administration has rightly avoided any "one size fits all" approach to the region—much to the consternation of ideologues on all sides of the spectrum. To build on its early successes in developing effective tactical reactions to the changes, the United States needs to reformulate its overall approach to the region and put even more emphasis on the types of tools we saw on display in the life and career of Chris Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya tragically murdered earlier this month. To manage the continued change in the region, the United States will need to remain a military force, but it will need to learn how to more effectively and efficiently deploy the other tools of national power—diplomatic, economic, intelligence, and political power.