Experts Evaluated the Role of the United States in the Middle East

Turkish Heritage Organization’s roundtable discussion highlighted the critical geo-political tensions and challenges awaiting the next President. 

Over the course of the past seven years, the Obama Administration has dealt and continues to deal with numerous complex challenges in the Middle East, Syria’s civil war being the longest and most challenging. As the regional instability caused by this war and the emergence of ISIS continues to be a major security concern, particularly for NATO Ally and strategic partner Turkey, foreign policy experts warn against deepened geo-political tensions.   

Daniell Pletka, Senior Vice President of Foreign and Defense Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute; Shadi Hamid, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of Islamic Exceptionalism; and Matthew Kroenig, Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council and professor in the Government Department at Georgetown University came together to discuss these issues in a panel moderated by Joyce Karam, Washington Bureau Chief at Al Yayat and columnist at Al Arabiya. 

Broader Middle East Policy

Dr. Danielle Pletka started the panel by stating that the United States has never had a president with a clear Middle East policy. According to Dr. Pletka, the Middle East has been a relevant region of the world long before the George W. Bush Administration. Dr. Shadi Hamid admitted that the Obama Administration disappointed him. Dr. Hamid hoped that President Obama, as an intellectual, would make more rational decisions than Bush. Dr. Hamid argued that President Bush was never open to other cultures and religions, but he also found that Obama’s allusion to an “Islamic reformation” in his recent interview with the Atlantic revealed that Obama caters to the Clash of Civilizations theory. Furthermore, Dr. Hamid argued that Obama’s overall engagement record clearly shows that he paid more attention to the Asian technocrats than to the Middle East.

Based on his cultural background and regional observations, Dr. Hamid also felt that the Obama Administration has portrayed the United States as having little to no influence in the Middle East, which he claimed was neither accurate nor a wise strategy. Dr. Hamid mentioned that Saudi Arabia has more confidence in United States power than Obama. According to the Brookings scholar, the United States should have a definite role in shaping the Middle East because the alternative, which is letting allies and enemies shape the region, was certainly not in the best interest of the United States. Dr. Hamid said that Yemen is a good example of how nonintervention could lead to disastrous outcomes. The Brookings Institute’s senior fellow believed that in Syria, "non-intervention could also be problematic.” According to him, "Without U.S. leadership Turkey won't expose itself in Syria. Turkey has been right on Syria."  

Pletka and Hamdi agreed that the United States needs to stop interfering with democracy as Islamic governments are elected into office; even though these governments are not as easy to work with, democratically elected leaders are ultimately best for the region.

Terrorism

Pletka stated that the United States must defeat Daesh before attempting to achieve other goals in the region. However, she argued that the United States is making a huge mistake by focusing all its energy on fighting Daesh and pushing Al Qaeda to the backburner. She argued that Al Qaeda remains a large threat to the United States and others and has been able to flourish through the lack of attention it is receiving from the international community. 

Pletka continued that policy makers were not taking any lessons from history. She argued that instead of resting, the United States should have been in Afghanistan ten years before the war to prevent Al Qaeda. American Enterprise Institute scholar Pletka said that a similar pattern was emerging with Daesh because there was no long-term strategy to fight Daesh.

Pletka believed that the next president will have to formulate a comprehensive strategy for fighting both al Qaeda and Daesh in all countries they are located. 

Syria

Dr. Matthew Kroenig characterized Syria as vastly different from past events of the Arab Spring. The Arab Spring began by toppling friendly dictators and Assad was never a leader the United States liked. Kroenig, who was working at the Pentagon at the time, saw the uprisings in Syria in 2011 as an opportunity to take down Assad. However, President Obama, who saw Assad as a potential partner, rejected the Pentagon backed analysis. Dr. Kroenig also characterized Obama’s 2013 Red Line to Syria as a failure. 

Pletka believed that allowing Assad to return to power in Syria is not a viable option. Instead, Assad should be replaced with a set of governmental institutions that allows for political and economic freedom within Syria. According to Pletka, the United States should concentrate on rebuilding civil society and market economy in Syria. She added that the United States has a moral obligation to intervene in Syria. Pletka said that intervention in Libya was justified to save 100,000 lives from Qaddafi’s terrorism but when it came to Syria, where more than 300,000 people have been murdered by the regime, the U.S. decided not to intervene.  She said, referring to the current U.S. administration, "We are in a new era and Middle East is no longer important for us.”

Iran

Dr. Kroenig stated that before the Obama Administration, most people thought that the world would have to live with a nuclear-armed Iran. Kroenig argued that nuclear Iran should have been Obama’s top priority in the Middle East and the deal he negotiated was not very strong because the administration did not exert all its leverage. He said that the result was a deal where Iran can still have a large enrichment program with limits that begin to expire in ten years and will completely end in fifteen. According to the former Pentagon analyst, this is a huge departure from the hard U.S. stance on foreign acquisitions of nuclear capabilities in the past. He said "If you take a step back and look at the result, we really see this collapse of the Middle East security order."