Despite occasional calibrations reflecting changes in administration, the policy of the United States toward the broader Middle East and North Africa region remains highly influenced by a set of misperceptions and ideological stances more related to American domestic politics than to regional realities. This situation has constantly undermined Washington’s efforts and, occasionally, its desire to play a positive role in the region, serving to transform the US into a convenient scapegoat upon which ruling regimes heap blame for all regional woes.
To further complicate matters, the misperceptions involved have long become indigenous to both US political parties, where persistent bickering serves to make officials and experts impervious to serious criticism and, consequently, unable to conduct any serious course correction. Indeed, the various actors involved in formulating American foreign policy have grown too addicted to scoring points in an ongoing ideological battle than in trying to keep up with the continuously shifting realities on the ground in the Middle East.
This tendency has served to make US foreign policy highly reactive, episodic, disconnected, and subject to manipulation by outside parties whose interests and approaches often do not coincide with those of the US. Through misinformation campaigns and intensive lobbying that plays and preys on the ideological differences between the groups making or influencing policy in Washington, American friends and foes alike have, in effect, undermined Washington’s ability to chart a course of action in the region that is truly commensurate with its interests.
A kind of willful blindness that has become all too prevalent in certain quarters is making the situation even more desperate. It is shifting the regional focus of the US constantly from the peace process, to the war on terror, to democracy promotion, to Iran’s nuclear challenge, to calls for open engagement and promises of development aid, to thoughts of gradual disengagement from the region, at least on the micro-level. Each one of these approaches has been hailed as the key to solving, if not the region’s problems per se, then, at least, American problems in the region.
Yet this reductionism contrasts sharply with the approach favored by America’s friends and foes in the region, all of whom tend to operate on a multi-track basis. Successive governments in Israel, for instance, have for the last two decades continuously affirmed their commitment to the peace process, while simultaneously engaging in activities to undermine it, including the expansion of settlements, collective punishment, and the cutting off humanitarian assistance to the Palestinians.
The Syrian regime has also perfected this fine art of stonewalling with its talk about peace and security on the one hand, and its ongoing support for all sorts of terrorist groups undermining the stability of Syria’s neighbors on the other.
Such behavior, by Israel, Syria, or any other regional state, which might appear contradictory at first, has, nonetheless, proven quite effective over the years in enabling the players involved in exacting concessions and creating new facts on the ground that better serve their perceived interests. Meanwhile, the US continues to pursue a single-minded path, then another, and another, before lapsing into whimsical ideas of regional disengagement like a bumbling behemoth.
But the US will not be able to maneuver its way out of this situation by turning is back on a region actively engaged in exporting its turmoil to the world. There is no exit for the US from the region, and attempts at macro-managing the region’s transition cannot take place in the absence of a micro-understanding of its shifting realities. America’s real challenge, then, is to figure out a role for itself commensurate with its long-term strategic interests, rather than scurrying for an imaginary way out.
Success in this regard, however, requires serious reevaluation of America’s basic assumptions about the very issues behind its current involvement, especially the following:
First, the war on terror, where the US focus on military solutions and security alliances with authoritarian regimes has played right into the hands of the terrorists and the corrupt regimes that support them;
Second, the Arab-Israeli conflict, that has recently evolved into a regional struggle for realignment involving Iran and Turkey, and to a lesser extent India and Pakistan, and where Arab regimes and non-state actors are becoming more clients than serious decision-makers;
Third, the Iranian nuclear challenge, where every diplomatic maneuver and threat of economic sanctions or military strikes seems to bring closer, rather than delay or rule out, the specter of a regional nuclear arms race;
Fourth, a developmental gap that has affected even the supposedly rich and stable monarchies of the region, that is when one is willing to look beyond the façade of fantastical projects;
And finally, and most important in many ways, a freedom gap that has so far frustrated every attempt at peacemaking in the region, because the dividends of peace hold more promise for the peoples of the region than most of their ruling corrupt and authoritarian regimes.
Until the US formulates a vision for its role in the region based on an objective assessment of realities on the ground, rather than the ideological ramblings of “experts” from the left and the right, and until it develops a real multi-track strategy that seeks to simultaneously address each of the challenges highlighted earlier, American involvement in the region will continue to be disastrous, no matter who is in charge in the White House.
Ammar Abdulhamid, the founder and director of the Tharwa Foundation, is a Syrian author and human rights and democracy activist who is currently based in Washington DC. He enjoys a global reputation as an outspoken advocate for social and political change in the broader Middle East and North Africa. The current article is part of a series advocating the revamping of US foreign policy in the region. He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.