Go Big or Go Home

If the United States wants its Middle East mojo back, it's going to have to pay to play.

The United States is facing the worst of all worlds in the Middle East: interventions that erode Washington's prestige and popularity but fail to exert enough influence to secure U.S. interests. If Secretary of State John Kerry's effort to restart Israeli-Palestinian talks is to succeed -- and if the United States is to secure its interests, ranging from oil security to nuclear nonproliferation -- America must once again play a leading role in the region.

In theory, the Obama administration's strategic objective is to "pivot" to Asia, focusing on rising powers across the Pacific (with the ancillary benefit of pleasing an electorate back home that is weary of the Middle East's seemingly endless troubles). With the exception of the Arab-Israeli peace process -- where Secretary Kerry is putting his personal prestige at stake -- the administration hopes to achieve this objective by more aggressively supporting Arab or European diplomacy in the Middle East, quietly securing U.S. interests by pushing its allies to do more and coordinating their actions. U.S. officials hoped this approach would cost little, minimize domestic political risk, and score points with the so-called Arab street by keeping the American presence limited.

In practice, however, the Middle East still consumes an enormous amount of U.S. government bandwidth and remains impervious to influence. The latest crisis, a coup in Egypt, has left Washington reeling over the question of whether or not to cut the $1.3 billion in military aid the United States sends Egypt annually. Missing from the debate, however, is how marginal the U.S. role has become. Before the coup, the United States tried to push the Muslim Brotherhood-led government to compromise with the opposition. But backed by $8 billion in support from tiny Qatar since President Mohamed Morsy's election, the Brotherhood regime was free to flout U.S. entreaties.

Even after the coup, the threat of a U.S. aid cutoff remains equally underwhelming. Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates have pledged a total of $12 billion to support the new regime. And while Washington has failed to exert influence over events in Egypt, it has somehow succeeded in making itself even more loathed. Perhaps the only thing Brotherhood supporters and their opponents can agree on is that the United States is conspiring against them.

U.S. policy hasn't gained much traction elsewhere in the region, either. In Tunisia, attention to promoting democracy has faltered as other regional crises consume Washington's attention. Tunis needs help developing its private sector and building its economy, but development aid remains low. Even a possible free trade agreement, which would complement and accelerate economic restructuring, has not made much progress despite the fact that it would benefit U.S. commerce as well.  

Next door in Libya, U.S. efforts to help the government restore order remain small scale, with the Benghazi debacle making the United States even more reluctant to engage. Since officially ending the war in Iraq in 2011, the United States has limited its engagement to arms sales, even as the country has suffered close to 3,000 dead since April -- the worst violence since 2007 -- and risks spiraling into all-out civil war. As U.S. influence fades, Iran's relative clout in Iraq grows.

The limits of U.S. influence are most painfully apparent in Syria. Even if one takes the cold-blooded approach that says 100,000 dead is not Washington's problem, it's long been clear that the conflict is spilling over into neighboring countries and threatening to destabilize the region. Iraq and Lebanon are already suffering greater violence, Iran and Hezbollah are deeply enmeshed in the conflict, and U.S. allies like Israel have quietly ramped up their operations in Syria.

In response to confirmed chemical weapons use by Bashar al-Assad's regime and Hezbollah's intervention in force, the United States announced in June that it would enter the fray with arms and training for the Syrian opposition. In so doing, Washington raised the hopes of the Syrian people, as well as expectations that it would tip the balance in favor of the rebels. But the United States has so far refused to devote the resources to back up its own policies and has failed to articulate an overall strategy. U.S. military supplies are limited to small arms; training programs have barely begun. And earlier shipments of non-lethal aid like body armor and night-vision goggles were slow to come or never arrived.

Qatar, in contrast, provided $3 billion to the rebels -- including to radical Islamist forces -- and is also giving them heat-seeking shoulder-fired missiles and other more advanced systems. As a result, the cautious U.S. approach achieves few of its objectives: The rebels still get the systems that make the United States queasy, jihadists grow in influence, and the opposition remains divided -- in part because its friends are not working together.    

Congress, unfortunately, has made this problem worse. Lawmakers are skeptical of any increase in aid to Syrian rebels despite the fact that it could increase Washington's leverage if used properly. Congressional objections are further delaying the already late U.S. arms promised to the Syrian opposition. Congress's reaction to the Benghazi killings, moreover, suggests that it will crucify the administration for any and all missteps. As a result, the administration has doubled down on its cautious approach, even though mistakes or tradeoffs are inevitable when dealing with chaotic and fast-changing situations like the Middle East. Zero mistakes means paralysis, not perfection. 

The end result is not a Goldilocks solution but rather the worst of all worlds. America's allies work at cross-purposes with one another -- and even with the United States. In Egypt, Qatar backed the Brotherhood while other Gulf states backed the military coup; in Syria, the Gulf states are backing different factions of the anti-Assad forces, fragmenting rather than uniting the opposition. As the violence spreads, the jihadist presence has gone from negligible to vast. Syria has attracted large numbers of hardline Islamists from around the Muslim world, and strife there is strengthening jihadist groups in Iraq and Lebanon.

All of this underlines the extent to which the United States is now seen as a marginal player in the Middle East, a grim fact that will inevitably make it harder to bring the Israelis and Palestinians together at the negotiating table. If the United States wants to protect its interests in the Middle East, it cannot rely on allies to do its bidding -- or otherwise do so on the cheap. The United States must pay to play. Some battles may not be worth fighting, but those that matter most will require high-level attention and resources. The problems of the region are getting worse, and if the United States doesn't shore up its influence now, it will be even less relevant when it most needs to act.



Is Kerry Right to Put Peace First?

Forget Egypt and Syria. Israel-Palestine is still issue No. 1 in the Middle East.

As Secretary of State John Kerry continues to give much time and effort to the Palestinian-Israeli issue, with plans to convene negotiations in Washington this week, his critics have come from right and left: With all the pressing issues, why is Mr. Kerry focused on this one?

Critics miss the point: No issue is more central for Arab perceptions of the United States -- even as Arabs are focused on their immediate local and national priorities.

America has little influence in the events unfolding in the Arab world, from Egypt to Syria. More centrally, Arab perceptions of Washington are less dependent on short-term American policy and more a product of deep-seated Arab mistrust that ties everything the United States does to helping Israel and controlling oil. That's why both sides of every Arab divide -- the Assad regime and its opponents, the Muslim Brotherhood and its Egyptian opponents-- blame the United States for supporting the other side.

Just the other day, even as many opponents of Mohamed Morsy blamed Palestinian Hamas for supporting him, leaders of the Tamarod activists who helped depose the Egyptian president refused to meet with Deputy Secretary of State William Burns because of American support for Israel.

How could this be the case? In part, it is a consequence of one of the few successes of U.S. policy over the past decade. As American officials, from the White House to Congress, have sought to project "no light" between Israel and the United States, Arabs have come to believe it. It is rare to hear the words "Israel" and "America" in the Arab world except in a pair. When Arabs are angry with Israel, they are also angry with Washington. When Arabs are asked to name the two countries that pose the biggest threat to them, they identify Israel and the United States -- far more often than Iran. For example, in May 2012, 94 percent of Egyptians identified Israel and 80 percent identified the United States as the greatest threat, with only 20 percent identifying Iran. These results were roughly comparable to poll findings in prior years.

It is of course true that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is not the source of most problems in the Arab world and that most Arabs wake up in the morning thinking about their daily challenges, not about Israel, Palestine, or America.

But, as my research on Arab public opinion over the past decade shows, the conflict remains the prism of pain through which Arabs view Washington and much of the world -- even more so since the region's uprisings. In October 2011, when I asked Arabs in Morocco, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Lebanon, and the UAE what two steps the United States could do to improve their view of Washington, 55 percent of respondents said "brokering Israeli-Palestinian peace" based on the 1967 borders, with 42 percent choosing "stopping aid to Israel" as the second step. In comparison, only 12 percent suggested providing more economic aid to the region, and 11 percent proposed greater efforts at democratization. In a 2012 poll in Egypt, 66 percent identified brokering peace followed by 46 percent who recommended stopping aid to Israel; only 12 percent suggested that Washington do more to spread democracy.

The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is part and parcel of collective Arab identity; a constant reminder of contemporary Arab history full of dashed aspirations and deeply humiliating experiences. It is seemingly unending, with repeated episodes of suffering over which Arabs have no apparent control. It is an open wound that flares up all too frequently, representing the very humiliation Arabs seek to overcome. Just this month an example was provided when Arabs watched helplessly as Israel expanded settlements in East Jerusalem. If the Arab awakening is first and foremost about restoring dignity, about raising Arab heads high in the world, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict represents dignity's antithesis.

In the absence of peace, there is another reason the Arab-Israeli conflict will remain an Arab focal point -- the Israeli response to its sense of insecurity. Without Palestinian-Israeli peace, Israelis assume that war with Arabs will remain possible. The net result is that Israelis feel their security requires strategic and technological superiority over any combination of Arab states. On this they have the unreserved support of the United States and assurance from Congress and the White House that Israel will receive what it needs to maintain its "qualitative superiority" and that Arabs will be denied similar capabilities.

Seen from the Arab side, this Israeli imperative entails exactly the sort of dominance they are revolting against. In an era of Arab awakening, 350 million Arabs find it impossible to accept the strategic domination of a country of 8 million people. This is at the core of Arab attitudes on the nuclear issue: Arab publics are suspicious of Iran, but in the past decade they have consistently opposed limits on Tehran's nuclear program in large part because they don't accept that Israel alone can have nukes. For example, in my 2011 six-country poll, 64 percent of respondents said they opposed international pressure on Iran to curtail its nuclear program. Remarkably, that same year a majority of Arab citizens of Israel, 57 percent, also opposed international pressure.

In the absence of Palestinian-Israeli peace, Israel and the Arabs are condemned to a relationship of confrontation and occasional war, and America will be caught in the middle.  

Peace would not of course determine the outcome of the battles in the Arab world, but its absence guarantees that Israel, and therefore the United States, will be the focus of almost every faction in the ongoing battles. And if Israeli-Palestinian violence ensues, this will become even more the case.

Israelis worry that acknowledging the centrality of their conflict with the Palestinians for American foreign policy means that they will be blamed for everything that goes wrong. This is improbable; Israelis also feared they might be blamed for Arab anger toward America after the 9/11 attacks, but American support for Israel only increased. More likely, Israel would be blamed if, in the absence of peace, Americans started to see Israeli control of the Palestinians as an apartheid relationship. The recent European Union decision to stop dealing with Israeli settlements in the West Bank is a flavor of things that could follow.

The Obama administration should be applauded for understanding the centrality of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Certainly, an argument can be made that it is too late for the two-state solution; if it's not, few believe there is much time left. But few see good American options once Washington finally concludes that a two-state solution is no longer feasible.

The administration thus cannot be faulted for active diplomacy; no time is a good time, and soon enough there may not be any time left. But it will be justifiably faulted if, as in Obama's first term, it tries only half-heartedly and fails.

Fadi Arouri-Pool/Getty Images