Going AWOL?

The US is scaling down its commitments in the Middle East at the same time as some want it to double down


By David Andrew Weinberg

It has been over two years since a wave of protests and revolutions rocked the Arab world, and we have yet to see whether these initial openings will be consolidated into durable, competitive democratic regimes. As the most powerful external actor in the region, America has an important role to play in this process, but what exactly that role should be remains a subject for intense debate.

Not so long ago, most Arab and European political elites were consistently repulsed by America’s adventurism in the Middle East—no time more than during the George W. Bush years. Yet now, in the era of Obama, it seems many of these observers simply cannot get enough of us. Is America “missing in action” in the Middle East, or simply more judicious in the missions it chooses to take on?

Syria is perhaps the biggest reason this question is back on the agenda, but the same principle can be applied to much of the region as well. In one important area, America has been much more selective in its choices of military missions in and around the broader Middle East and North Africa; this was the case in Mali as well as Libya.

Some in France seem to feel they were abandoned by the US with regard to Mali, and critics in the United States attacked Obama for “leading from behind” on Libya. But in both cases, the US got what it wanted with minimal cost to itself. Unlike with NATO’s experience in the Balkans and Afghanistan, this time America’s European allies took on the lion’s share of the burden instead of unloading most of it onto Washington.

The Syrian conflict, however, still lingers. It remains unclear if there even is a viable military solution to this conflict, especially given the possibility that a rebel victory might empower the same Al-Qaeda terrorists that American troops were recently fighting in Iraq. On the other hand, it is also possible that allowing the situation to deteriorate further means it will get harder and harder to resolve. America has therefore stepped up its efforts to seek a political resolution through a conference at Geneva, bringing together members of the Syrian regime and opposition for negotiations, although the prospects for success there still seem quite dim.

America is not currently in a position to extend the sort of economic statecraft that it traditionally has pursued in the Middle East. Aid to Israel and Egypt continue, as do programs under the State Department’s Middle East Partnership Initiative and the US Agency for International Development (USAID). However, the administration has encountered opposition from Congress over a special package of new assistance for the Arab transition countries, and emergency funding to help Egypt reach a comprehensive deal with the IMF has been a particularly difficult domestic battle. Some in the US want the Obama administration to be doing more—for instance, pressing President Mursi harder on Israeli–Palestinian issues or human rights—while others feel that the US should be simply doing less in the region right now.

As transition countries such as Egypt and Tunisia struggle to consolidate the democratic opening that began two years ago, one of the main avenues for this effort is in the economic realm. This means convincing their citizens that a democratic system of government can meet basic needs with regard to unemployment, income and growth.

No doubt foreign investment, commerce and aid have a key part to play in meeting this goal, but America simply is not in a position to finance the Arab Spring. Neither is Europe, for that matter, making the role of funding from the Gulf more important than usual. American officials want better consultation with the Gulf states to ensure that this funding is being used to consolidate rather than derail democratization, but neither is Washington in a position to extract much in the way of assurances.

The most imminent security threat to America is probably still terrorism originating in the Middle East, but there are also quite reasonable pressures for spending on other military and domestic priorities. There is also reason to doubt whether greater spending on defense is the best way for ensuring America’s long-term share of global power.

Meanwhile, the recent bombings in Boston confirm that radical Islamist terrorism, even when inspired from abroad, can also originate at home. Iraq has had one of its worst months on record in terms of terrorist attacks and social unrest, but the American public still seems quite content about our troops in Iraq having come home.

However, for all the talk of American disengagement from the region or a “pivot” toward Asia, one has only to look at the agenda of Secretary of State Kerry to see that America continues to give high priority to confronting Middle Eastern challenges. His travel schedule since becoming secretary of state has focused far more on Syria and the Israeli–Palestinian conflict than on other priorities, and that includes East Asia.

This confirms that American diplomacy in the Middle East will continue apace, but other American assets may be much less easy to deploy in the region for the foreseeable future. The American military experience in Iraq has led to the conclusion that our military might needs to be deployed much more judiciously in the future, while the 2008 financial crisis makes it much harder, certainly for the time being, for America to remake the world in its own image through economic soft power.

Meanwhile, the humanitarian disaster in Syria continues to rage on. It is not clear that greater US involvement would actually fix the crisis, although some of the administration’s critics at home and abroad certainly seem to think so, clamoring for more assertive US leadership. One cannot help but think that President George W. Bush would have loved this.

 This article was originally published in The Majalla on 22 May 2013. 


Dr. David Andrew Weinberg is a non-resident fellow with UCLA’s Center for Middle East Development. He previously served as a professional staff member for Mideast affairs at the Committee on Foreign Affairs in the US House of Representatives.