POMED Notes: U.S. Strategy in the Middle East after the Arab Spring
On Wednesday, the Center for a New American Security hosted a panel discussion titled “U.S. Strategy in the Middle East after the Arab Spring” as part of an annual day-long conference called “Rethinking U.S. Security: Navigating a World in Transition.” The talk was primarily focused on assessing U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and how strategy should adapt in reaction to the Arab Spring and various other changes across the region. The panelists were Kim Ghattas, a correspondent for the BBC; Michael Singh, managing director of the Washington Institute; Dr. Tamara Wittes, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution; and Dr. Bruce Jentleson, from Duke University. Dr. Andrew Exum, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, moderated.
For full event notes, continue reading below or click here for the PDF version.
Kim Ghattas began the discussion expressing what moderator Andrew Exum described as a “sympathetic” view of the State Department. Ghattas was uncritical of the administration’s responses to the Arab Spring, saying “I’ve seen real people trying to devise foreign policy on the fly, with no script.” That process, Ghattas said, is much more difficult than U.S. foreign policy critics seem willing to admit. Ghattas praised the administration and State Department for having an “appreciation for how their words affect people on the ground” but was critical of the United States’ perception of its own power. “The U.S. will never rule the world the way it did formerly, others should not rely on it to solve their problems,” Ghattas concluded.
Tamara Wittes said there is a “pervasive myth of American impotence” propagated by “people from the Middle East saying things like ‘the U.S. threw Mubarak under the bus’ or the ‘U.S. caused an Islamist revival.’” But Wittes argued that the newly elected governments should “take ownership of the issues in their countries” instead of blaming foreign influence on their problems and waiting for external help. Wittes added that the time to decide between long term and short term interests has passed because “the long term is here now.” Wittes also warned that quiet issues, like “transitional bodies allowing police and military intelligence to arrest whomever they desire,” may fly under the radar, but still require the strict attention of U.S. foreign policy makers.
Michael Singh argued that “there have been big changes across the board throughout the region that require a fundamental U.S. foreign policy rethink.” In the past, Singh said, the United States was too focused on Israel and Palestine and not focused enough on democratic reform. “I’m still not sure the United States knows where it’s headed going forward,” Singh added. “What the U.S. needs to do now is develop a forward looking strategy.”
Bruce Jentleson asserted that the United States must “understand realities” and have a “greater consistency across issues” in order to properly shift to a more long-term foreign policy strategy. That new strategy would involve: differentiating between the different forms of political Islam, recognizing that stability comes through political reform, and shifting alliances in the Gulf.
In the question and answer session, Tamara Wittes pointed out the importance in distinguishing between Hamas/Hezbollah and the Muslim Brotherhood. Both Hamas and Hezbollah lost all of their credibility when they used their weapons as a veto over the political process, while the Muslim Brotherhood has not. In response to a question concerning the efficacy of foreign military assistance, Bruce Jentleson said that aid relationships always have pros and cons. He added that there are two aid philosophies in foreign policy: the leverage approach and that mutual interest approach. Jentleson argued that the ‘leverage approach’ is often oversold and that ‘mutual interest’ aid is much more important.