The Three Changes Coming to
Obama's Approach to the Middle East
By Stephen Sestanovich
These days, all opinions, commentaries, and bold assertions about American foreign policy should come with a disclaimer: "What I am about to say could look awfully foolish by tomorrow morning." With this understood, three changes in the way the Obama administration approaches the Middle East seem likely to me. (And one of them has to do with the analytical and operational timidity that takes hold when people become too worried about being embarrassed by fast-moving events.)
First, the Egyptian crisis cements the primacy of the greater Middle East in American foreign policy as a whole. Perhaps some people thought that the Barack Obama administration, after skillfully closing out its inherited involvements in Iraq and Afghanistan, could then turn to dealing with larger problems of the global future, like the rise of China, nuclear proliferation, or climate change? Well, forget that. The immediate stakes for Washington -- including even for the Obama's political standing at home -- will not seem of comparable significance anywhere outside the Middle East. Obama will regularly face this challenging question: how well are you dealing with new realities in the region? (Remember, although the end of the Cold War was expected to make Eastern Europe less important, people judged Bill Clinton's foreign-policy performance by his handling of the Balkans and NATO enlargement.) Iraq and Afghanistan will be factored into the evaluation. After Egypt, it will be even harder for the president to walk away from Afghanistan with an unsatisfactory outcome.
Second, the fate of the Hosni Mubarak regime -- whatever it is -- will make the domestic evolution of all states in the region the prime concern of American policy. War and counterterrorism efforts, important as they are, will move to second place. Whatever problem Washington policymakers consider, and whatever measures they devise for addressing it, they will now ask themselves: What effect will this have on the likelihood that very bad guys will take over in Cairo? (And, of course, Amman, Riyadh, and Sanaa.) Some major policy initiatives will be pushed through because they are expected to help prop up the good guys. Others will be ruled out because of fears that they will make it harder to achieve some sort of semi-democratic stability. (The Clinton administration made many of its Russia policy decisions in the 1990s on a similar basis, and frankly, the result was not always positive. If you're always worrying that you've got to support the new -- and generally rather weak -- team that takes over from the ancién regime, you can make bad decisions.)
Finally, political earthquakes like the Cairo events always produce calls for major re-thinking: grand strategy, high concept, neo-Kennanism. Obama will not be the first president to tell his staff he wants a memorable formula -- a profound bumper-sticker -- to describe his new approach. This is understandable -- and, even more, correct. But the results are usually slow in coming and often unsatisfactory when they arrive. Meanwhile, the need for a long-term view will never trump the demand for daily pulse-taking. Dean Acheson used to disparage his critics by comparing them to the farmer who pulled up his seedlings every evening to see how successfully they were taking root. It was a good line, but it did not really describe the success of American policy in the early Cold War. Acheson did not simply plant the right seeds and wait patiently for the harvest. Nor did Henry Kissinger or George Shultz. Effective policy always has in it more experimentation, improvisation, even process of elimination, than its authors like to admit. If a year from now, the Obama administration has not run through at least three or four new ways of thinking about its problems in the Middle East, I'll be very surprised.
Stephen Sestanovich is George F. Kennan senior fellow for Russian and Eurasian studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and former U.S. ambassador-at-large and special adviser to the secretary of state for policy toward the states of the former Soviet Union.