POMED Notes: After Benghazi and Cairo, the New Face of the Middle East?
On Friday morning, The American Enterprise Institute hosted a panel discussion on the future of U.S. policy in the Middle East, in light of the recent protests and attacks on American diplomatic posts in Egypt and Libya. The panel was chaired by Middle East analyst and AEI Vice President for foreign and defense policy studies Danielle Pletka, and included Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, and Hisham Melhem, the Washington bureau chief for the Saudi Arabia-based Al Arabiya satellite news channel. The discussion focused on possible motivations for the uptick in violence, U.S. strategic priorities in the region, and the future of U.S. aid to Egypt.
For full event notes, continue reading below or click here for the PDF version.
Brian Katulis began by offering some context for the events of the last few days, emphasizing that the Arab world is “a couple months into a transition that will take years.” Ongoing economic, political, and democratic challenges will continue to threaten the stability of the region, even in the small minority of countries that have undergone some sort of democratic political transition. The “complex multipolarity” that had already started changing the face of the Middle East before the Arab uprisings has only grown more complicated in the past year, as Turkey and Iran continue to exert influence over the conflicts in Syria and Iraq. However, despite such a muddled picture, Katulis said that U.S. interests in the region remain the same, including preserving the export of energy resources, countering terrorists, and stopping the manufacture and spread of weapons of mass destruction. The U.S. must continue to invest in regional security, which will inevitably involve a large military footprint in order to maintain America’s “undisputed leadership position” in the Middle East. But the U.S. must also look to bolster its other sources of “soft power” as it seeks to “stay in the game,” even when newly-empowered Islamists do not say or do exactly what we want them to. As the U.S. debates new policy proposals, Katulis is worried that some commentators and citizens will misinterpret the evolving U.S. posture as one of disengagement from the Arab world.
Hisham Melhem affirmed that the recent attacks, as well as the general uneasiness in the Arab world, are a function of politics and power, not religion. The U.S. is “more indispensable than ever before,” Melhem said, and these attacks should not call that fact into question. Melhem does not believe that even the “mainstream” Islamist groups can become truly democratic without serious reform, due to their “problems” with women and minorities. As the U.S. continues to ramp up engagement with these new Islamist actors, Melhem said that some secular democrats in the region feel abandoned. There is a sense of weakness in the Arab world right now, due in large part to the ascendance of Turkey and Iran and the absence of strong internal leadership, and Melhem said that Islamists know how to exploit this general malaise. With regard to Egypt, Melhem said that President Morsi is using America as a lightning rod for criticism, skirting diplomatic responsibilities in the process. “Morsi acts as if he is still underground,” Melhem said, and politicians, media outlets, and custodians of Islam all join Morsi in blaming external forces instead of engaging in serious self-criticism. The U.S. is not responsible for the attacks and the highest American officials should not be dragged into a theological debate, Melhem stated.
The format of the panel became more conversational as Katulis, Pletka and Melhem discussed foreign aid and the paramount importance of maintaining law and order. Danielle Pletka said that foreign aid is often viewed as an entitlement in the Middle East, but the U.S. has a right to tie the aid to certain values and policies. She asked her fellow panelists whether the U.S. is on “autopilot” when it comes to dispersing billions of dollars to foreign governments. Katulis explained that foreign aid is essential for maintaining good relationships and economic stability in the region, but Pletka argued that President Obama should be much more public and direct in his statements to Egypt about American expectations and disappointments. Katulis said that there is a difference between actions and words, assuring Pletka that the eventual apology from Morsi was surely the result of intensive behind-the-scenes diplomacy. Melhem briefly discussed the hesitant international response to the conflict in Syria, charging the U.S., Europe and Turkey with “moral responsibility” for stopping the conflict. Katulis argued that the U.S. is doing a lot to unite and support the rebels, but the “look before you leap” policy being pursued is surely the result of lessons that the U.S. learned from a decade of costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.