Evaluating The Role of the United States in the Middle East

April 12, 2016

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.  

The Turkish Heritage Organization brought together top scholars to examine Obama's legacy in the Middle East and determine what role the U.S. under a new administration should play in the region to alleviate the concerns and tensions of its allies and partners.  

The Need for a Broader Middle East Policy

Danielle Pletka, Senior Vice President of Foreign and Defense Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, said that the United States has never had a president with a clear Middle East policy. 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.

Dr. Shadi Hamid, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of Islamic Exceptionalism argued that President Bush was never open to other cultures and religions, but President Obama's recent interview with the Atlantic revealed that he has an allusion to an "Islamic reformation" therefore he 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.

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. Pletka and Hamid 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.

Moral Obligation to Intervene in Syria

Pletka argued that if intervention in Libya to save 100,000 lives was justified, there was a greater moral obligation to intervene in Syria, where more than 300,000 people have been murdered by the regime.

According to Pletka, Assad should be replaced with a set of governmental institutions and the focus should be on rebuilding the civil society and market economy which would prepare the groundwork for political and economic freedom within Syria.

Dr. Matthew Kroenig, Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council and professor in the Government Department at Georgetown University characterized Syria as vastly different from past events of the Arab Spring. Dr. Kroenig, who was working at the Pentagon at the time, indicated that he saw the uprisings in Syria in 2011 as an opportunity to take down Assad. However, President Obama, who perceived Assad as a potential partner, rejected the Pentagon backed analysis, which later led to the failure of President's red line to Syria.

According to Dr. Hamid by not intervening, the United States portrayed an image of a super power that has little to no influence in the Middle East, which he claimed was neither accurate nor a wise strategy. Hamid claimed that "Turkey has been right on Syria" and the ongoing disagreements between the U.S. and Turkey could be traced back to this strategy. "Without U.S. leadership Turkey won't expose itself in Syria," said Dr. Hamid.

Turkish Heritage Organization