As President Obama gears up to begin a second term, his Middle East agenda will be more complex and potentially more consuming and dangerous than the one he inherited from his predecessor four years ago.
Back then, the pressing priorities were: winding down the U.S. military presence in Iraq; pursuing an Israeli-Palestinian peace; rebuilding America's damaged image and frayed relationships across the region; confronting violent extremism; and reigning in Iran's nuclear ambitions.
Today, the U.S. military is out of Iraq and a recent Zogby Research poll shows that, after a dip in 2011, there has been a marked improvement in the approval ratings given to the U.S. across much of the region. That, however, is the only good news. The rest of the story is deeply troubling owing, in large part, to the unsettling effects of the crumbling of the region's old order. While the U.S. is limited in its ability to manage the fallout of the "Arab Spring", the Obama Administration continues to believe that it is in the U.S.’s interests to assist, where we can, and to seek to mitigate, where possible, the hardships or the violence that has flowed from these largely internal developments.
The bottom line is that Washington will have its hands full in the Middle East in the coming years. What follows is a snap-shot of the problems the U.S. will face:
Because of its size, position, and cultural and political leadership role, Egypt remains a key player in the Arab World. When Egypt had its "Arab Spring" moment, the impact on the entire region was profound. If anything has been made clear, however, by the events of the past few weeks, it is that the revolutionary process that is reshaping Egypt is far from over. It appears that the Muslim Brotherhood has overreached seeking not only to win elections, but to use its victory to monopolize power and silence opponents. This has caused a backlash that has further destabilized the country.
The US has some economic leverage here and is attempting to maintain a balance between respecting Egypt's fledgling democracy while insisting that the Morsi government protect political freedoms and work to compromise with its opposition. How this will play out is far from certain, but Egypt and the success of its democracy will remain a concern.
The rights of Palestinians, always at the core of Arab and regional concerns, will of necessity continue to be front and center on the Administration's agenda. It will be there: because Palestinians continue to insist that their rights are recognized, because the rightward drift in Israeli politics continues to lead to policies which inflame tensions, and because U.S. credibility is tied up with how we deal with this issue that continues to evoke such deep passion across the Arab World.
The situation in Syria goes from bad to worse. The Assad government continues its bloody assault on its own people as it is confronted by an increasingly radicalized and militarized opposition that has taken hold in several parts of the country. U.S. and allied efforts to fuse together a more broadly based political opposition have been somewhat successful, but serious questions remain about the ability of this grouping to control, or even relate to, armed elements operating throughout the country. Syrians remain deeply divided, with growing fears that we may see sectarian blood-letting—like what occurred during Lebanon's "long war" or during the U.S. occupation of Iraq.
There are voices in the U.S. and the region calling for increasing arms to the opposition or the establishment of a "no fly zone" or other forms of intervention. But none of these proposals address the "day after" questions. Given this, the nightmare of Syria will either drag on, as is, for the foreseeable future, or be resolved by the collapse of the regime, or an, at best, messy negotiated compromise leading to a transitional government. But whatever scenario plays out, the Syrian "Pandora's Box" has been opened and will not close anytime soon.
Already the fallout from Syria is being felt region wide. There are heightened sectarian and ethnic tensions in Lebanon, Turkey, and Iraq. And vulnerable Jordan has been impacted as well. Kurds in Syria are demanding independence and being aided by compatriots in neighboring countries. In other areas Sunni/Shia tensions have been exacerbated, and Christians in Syria and region wide are feeling threatened. Add to this, the looming humanitarian crisis caused by the increasing influx of refugees and the tragedy of Syria promises to be a major concern that will consume the Administration for years to come.
Pressure continues from Israel's friends in Washington and from several Arab Gulf states for the Administration to deal with Iran's nuclear program. Should the President make a renewed overture to engage with Iran, it is hoped that the Islamic Republic will respond wisely. It would also be smart for Washington to take a page from its approach to North Korea and to include Arab allies in the conversation and not sideline them as has been done in the past.
No one has should have an interest in a military confrontation. Neither the U.S., nor the countries in the region, will benefit from the crisis that would ensue. Should that occur, the already existing full plate of issues facing the Administration and the region will only become more complicated and more out of control then they are at present. But, there should be no doubt that pressure will continue and tough choices will have to be made to resolve the issue of Iran's program.
If all this were not enough, there are still fires burning in other areas that will continue to require attention. Iraq's internal political situation remains quite tense and could easily flare up in renewed violence. Libya is still largely out of control with armed militias operating beyond the control of that country's newly elected government. Bahrain's sectarian tensions are still simmering and unresolved. And, despite the death of bin Laden, extremist groups, far from defeated, have metastasized into diverse regional threats taking root in several conflict zones.
And so before pundits and policymakers glibly speak of U.S. policy “pivoting East”, as if the Middle East is an “old story” with which we are finished, it is important to understand that the challenges the region presents remain serious and, despite our limited influence to direct outcomes, they will continue to require attention in the coming years. Thus begins the second term.