But Obama should go back to that speech. It could be the foundation for the kind of strategic vision his next administration badly needs. This would mean structuring policy around a few key priorities: consolidating the move to a more appropriate military and political presence in the region, engaging more effectively with empowered publics, and encouraging the emergence of strong, democratic allies in Egypt, Libya, and other transitional states that can become the anchors of a new strategic architecture.
The first leg of this approach, as my FP colleague David Rothkopf has noted, is right-sizing the American presence in the region. For decades, the United States has been relentlessly increasing its direct role in the Middle East -- the first Gulf War, the occupation of Iraq, the containment of Iran, the custodianship over the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the Global War on Terror, the attempts to reshape Arab institutions and even culture. Obama wisely wants to scale that back. Thus, in his first term the president successfully extricated America from its Iraq quagmire, kept U.S. boots off the ground in Libya, and resisted pressure to launch an ill-advised bombing campaign against Iran or intervention in Syria.
Less obviously, Obama has also largely avoided the temptation to try to shape domestic Arab politics. His critics call this disengagement. But I suspect he wants to break the debilitating (and often costly) expectation on all sides that the United States will ultimately intervene and solve the region's problems. Right-sizing the U.S. role should force local politics to find their own equilibria without American oversight. After all, the United States couldn't convince Iraqi leaders to compromise when it had 140,000 troops on the ground, yet Iraq didn't fall apart when U.S. forces left. The administration understands better than most of its critics the limits of American influence over these domestic political battles, particularly in newly open, hotly contentious, and fiercely nationalistic transitional countries like Egypt.
But there should be limits to this "right-sizing." The second leg of the strategic vision should be the consolidation of stronger, more democratic allies in the region to serve as anchors for change. Many supporters of the invasion of Iraq had hoped that Baghdad might become such an anchor; perhaps someday it will overcome the legacy of that disastrous war and become so. Now, however, Egypt is obviously the linchpin of the region, though Libya and Tunisia also have an important role. The vision a few years out should be an Egypt that looks something like Turkey, where the United States has a broad strategic alliance with an influential, politically independent democratic partner despite disagreements on a wide range of specific issues. Such an Egypt would balance the regional power of the Gulf states, stabilize the center of the region, and encourage democratic changes in other regional allies.
The third leg of this strategic vision should be a revitalized commitment to engaging with these ever more empowered regional publics. Obama started strong in his first term with his Cairo speech and a commitment to rebuilding America's standing. Engagement with those publics started out as a "guiding principle" for the Obama administration. But over the last few years, public diplomacy by whatever name has largely withered on the vine even as the need for it has grown ever more urgent. The United States now seems to be invisible in key arenas such as Egypt, allowing others to define its positions, often in bizarre ways. Substantial numbers of Egyptians seem to seriously believe that the United States conspired to bring the Muslim Brotherhood to power, for instance.
It's not just a shame that this hands-off approach has managed to antagonize many regimes and their opponents alike -- it's strategically dangerous. Empowered publics matter more than ever before and will become even more influential if more American allies do democratize. That doesn't mean going back to obsessing over Pew or Gallup surveys about America's favorability ratings or wasting money on irrelevant Arabic-language TV stations. And forget about finding much love or support among any sector of the Arab public anytime soon -- the wounds are too deep, the legacies too real, and the current policy contradictions too obvious. But far more could be done to simply explain U.S. policy as it is, engage frankly and respectfully, and listen to what Arabs are saying even if it's uncomfortable. That kind of engagement will be even harder in the aftermath of the absurd overreaction to Benghazi, of course, as rational bureaucrats will be wise to hide American diplomats behind blast walls rather than risk another congressional witch hunt. But it has to happen.
Right-sizing the American role in the Middle East doesn't mean disengagement from the region or capitulating leadership. It means recognizing and taking seriously the fundamental changes in the region's politics, which demand a new approach. There is no outcry for American intervention or leadership in the Middle East of the type too often imagined in Washington. But there's still a chance for Obama to use the next four years to help build the kind of Middle East its citizens deserve -- and America needs.