Will the Real Obama Middle East Strategy Please Stand Up?
Will the Real Obama Middle East Strategy Please Stand Up?
Sunday, March 29,2009 13:57
By Brian Katulis

I want to thank Foreign Policy.com and Marc for inviting me to post on my trip to the Gulf. While I was in Kuwait, a prominent American scholar on the Middle East mentioned that he thought Abu Aardvark was the best Middle East policy-oriented blog in business, and I wholeheartedly agree, and not just because Marc"s my friend.

There are several must-read blogs out there - the COIN nerds have some interesting insights, but let"s face it, their musings tend to be a bit blinkered by self-referential navel gazing with an overemphasis on the U.S. military and what U.S. boots on the ground do. That"s a limited perspective and doesn"t lend itself to a complete analysis of the political, social, and economic trends happening out in the real world. Juan Cole"s Informed Comment is great, but sometimes doesn"t provide the widespread coverage of the region that Abu Aardvark does. And as a progressive, of course I"d be remiss in not mentioning the POMED blog (because democracy and human rights should still matter in U.S. policy) and my own organization"s family of Think Progress blogs for a view on all that is just and righteous.

I posted several times on several topics on my Gulf trip here - on the role of the Gulf on many fronts of U.S. policy, the military arms spending spree in the region, the regional movement towards nuclear energy, and views on Afghanistan in Muslim-majority countries -- but the one overriding question that inquiring minds wanted to know the answer to on our trip was: what is the Obama administration"s strategy for the Middle East and South Asia?

The administration has been in office for a little over two months now, and the president"s had his hands full, of course, dealing with the worst economic mess since the Great Depression. But as I argued in this piece last week, the Obama administration has hit the ground running -- building an impressive team from day one and sending the right signals to the region, such as President Obama"s first television interview with Al-Arabiya.

Multiple policy reviews are underway - teams are working hard to craft strategies on the Arab-Israeli front, Iran, and Iraq. On Iraq, President Obama presented his administration"s new strategy last month, and just this morning he unveiled the results of a comprehensive review on Afghanistan and Pakistan in a speech that I attended at the White House.

So the pieces are in place but now the really tough part is about to begin -- making the strategies operational and starting to implement new policies in a part of the world where it is necessary to expect the unexpected, and of course prepare for the expected. In effect, the time for review and study is rapidly coming to a close, and the administration will be faced with some tough choices.

For now, President Obama and his top officials have largely relied on broad statements outlining general directions; a great example of this came this past Tuesday night, in President Obama"s prime time news conference, when he was asked about Arab-Israeli issues and the prospects for a two-state solution. Obama launched into a vague response, a fine but broad statement of intent.

But on the Arab-Israeli front, and other key pieces of Middle East and South Asia policy, some tough choices loom on the horizon -- ones that will require the administration to stake out an actual policy. Here are just a few:

1. Israeli settlements - There are strong signs that the new Israeli government may be moving towards new settlement expansions. This is problematic, because as my CAP colleague Moran Banai points out, any such movement towards more settlements would amount to going back on pledges and commitments made in an effort to advance the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The back-and-forth between Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Jerusalem mayor Nir Barakat over demolitions of Arab houses in Jerusalem could be the opening salvo in a broader debate between a new U.S. administration and a new Israeli government that may not see eye-to-eye on issues like settlements.

2. Coordinating Iran and Iraq policies. Though the policy review on Iran is not yet complete, it seems that the Obama administration will move in the direction of tough diplomatic engagement combined with continued efforts to isolate Iran economically and diplomatically.

As I"ve pointed out before, trying to isolate Iran economically as a means to gain greater leverage diplomatically -- probably a wise approach by itself in my view - is easier said than done when one looks at Iran"s extensive economic ties with all of its neighbors. The strategic framework agreement that the United States and Iraq signed -- a separate agreement from the status of forces agreement -- envisions deep ties between the United States and Iraq, a country that itself has deep and growing ties with its Iranian neighbor. Iraqi leaders have repeatedly said that they do not want to get caught in the middle between a broader U.S.-Iran fight. Coordinating a new Iran policy while implementing a new Iraq strategy also falls in the category of easier said than done.

3. How to deal with the questions of Hezbollah and Hamas engagement. The June elections in Lebanon and the continued talk of a possible Palestinian unity government both could present new policies challenges for the Obama administration -- if Hezbollah does strongly in the Lebanese elections, how will the Obama administration respond? How will the administration adapt its policies to support Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority if Hamas, a foreign terrorist organization, joins a unity government?

4. Actually developing an operational policy on Pakistan. Finally, today the Obama administration took a much-needed step in the right direction on the Pakistan piece of its policy. Increasing support for the democratically-elected civilian government and massively increasing development assistance to the country are steps that many think tanks have been calling for - including mine, in this report that I coauthored last year. But saying we will increase development assistance is one thing -- getting Congress to approve it is another, and even more difficult is actually developing programs that make sure that the money has some impact and isn"t lost to the corruption that"s endemic in Pakistan also falls into the "easier said than done" category.

Those are just four challenges that one can easily envision coming to down the pike in the next few months. In developing operational policies on these and other fronts - and in moving beyond the general strategy statements (which are necessary to set the framework) -- the Obama administration will demonstrate how far it is willing to go to push for fundamental changes in the Middle East and South Asia.

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