It won't surprise anyone that I think the Obama administration has done a pretty good job with the Middle East over the last four years. It got the United States out of Iraq, kept the military out of potential quagmires in Iran, Syria, and Libya, and helped to midwife transitions from four decrepit authoritarian regimes. Sure, it failed at the thankless and probably impossible job of restarting Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, made no progress on nuclear diplomacy with Iran, punted on Bahrain, and relied too much on drone strikes in Yemen … but it's not like anyone else has offered any better ideas on those fronts.
The critics are right about one thing, though: This administration has not done a good job at laying out and then executing a strategic vision for the Middle East. Avoiding the worst outcomes and effectively managing crises when they rise to the top of the agenda are underrated accomplishments. But they don't amount to a vision, and the president should aim higher in his second term. So what does Obama want the region to look like four years from now? And how will his policies help create that Middle East?
It's been some time since the president gave us hints of his thinking. The last major statement of the administration's vision for the Middle East came in Obama's May 19, 2011, speech at the State Department. That was a good speech, though immediately erased from memory by the stupidstorm over his wording of the conventional wisdom on the 1967 borders between Israel and the Palestinians. But a lot has changed since then. Syria has gone from peaceful protest into civil war. Egypt and Tunisia have gotten bogged down in political polarization, institutional failure, economic disaster, and rising Islamist power. Bahrain crushed its opposition with impunity. Benghazi has gone from a symbol of hope to an absurdly politicized buzzword for some vaguely unspecified but surely nefarious scandal.
It's easy to dismiss the most vocal critics on the neoconservative right, who lament the supposed loss of American leadership and cry out for more forceful interventions across the region. Most Americans (and Arabs) have long since internalized the lessons of Iraq and want nothing to do with more U.S. military adventures in the Middle East. The neocons couldn't even convince Mitt Romney to back war with Iran or intervention in Syria -- why should anyone else take them seriously?
It's harder, but arguably more important, to push back against skeptics in the other direction who want either disengagement from the region or a return to business as usual. American disenchantment with an "Arab Spring" they see as producing mainly Muslim Brotherhood victories in Egypt and violence in Benghazi is palpable. Between April 2011 and October 2012, there was a 17-point drop in the percentage of Americans who believed that changes in the Arab world would improve the lives of the people there, and by October only 14 percent thought the changes would be good for the United States. But the seemingly practical idea of retreating to realpolitik accommodations with dictators is a mirage. The destabilizing forces behind the Arab uprisings will continue to unfold in the coming years, whether the United States likes it or not.
So what is the Obama administration's strategy -- and what should it be? It's worth rereading the president's speech from last May. That speech sought to place the United States on the side of a popular movement for universal freedoms while frankly acknowledging that change would take many years and would not come easily. He saw, where many in Washington did not, that the authoritarian status quo had become unsustainable. But he defied the American instinct to place itself at the center of events: "It's not America that put people into the streets of Tunis or Cairo -- it was the people themselves who launched these movements, and it's the people themselves that must ultimately determine their outcome." He saw the urgency of engaging with those newly empowered people and that "failure to speak to the broader aspirations of ordinary people will only feed the suspicion that has festered for years that the United States pursues our interests at their expense."
Those assertions have largely faded from view, lost in the relentless flurry of events and the inevitable hypocrisies and compromises that have dulled their edge. It's all too easy to see those tensions. Obama chose to rely on the Gulf monarchies against Iran, which made it exceptionally difficult for him to meaningfully pressure them to reform or to block their counterrevolutionary intervention in Bahrain. Raising expectations on the Palestinian issue and then failing to deliver badly undermined his standing everywhere. Drone strikes degraded al Qaeda in Yemen but increased anti-Americanism, undermined local allies, and made a mockery of pious talk about the rule of law. Both his intervention in Libya and his nonintervention in Syria were the right calls, but baffled many in the region. Even Obama's unprecedented willingness to accept fair Islamist electoral victories in Egypt and Tunisia (the Bush administration talked a good game on democracy but bailed out as soon as Hamas won Palestinian elections) only angered self-styled liberals who just wanted the United States to take their side.
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.