Shifting Power Balances: The U.S. Middle East Policy Pickle

The United States is currently facing an unprecedented foreign policy dilemma in the Middle East.

The momentum sparked by Tunisia is dividing the region between those countries prepared to open themselves politically and liberally, and those that are not. While Egypt and Tunisia are transitioning to democracy, the regimes in Bahrain and Syria have reversed any possible progress by repressing popular uprisings with violence. And given its intervention to stop a massacre Libya, but not Syria or Bahrain, the U.S. is being forced to address far more than the gap between its rhetoric in support of democracy and actual policy. Traditional U.S. allies and their individual foreign policy positions are truly putting Washington between Petra and a hard place. 

To maneuver these delicate balances, the U.S. must come to terms rather quickly that the Middle East as a whole today is not what it was just four months ago. The game is changing, and although Washington is still able to affect outcomes in the region, it must rely on an agile, flexible strategy rather than rigid positions, if it seeks to secure its regional interests.  

Post-revolution Egypt is already forging a foreign policy anathema to U.S. aims. It is turning folte face toward Iran following an isolation period that lasted as long as its friendship with the U.S., a once strong alliance that also appears to be changing. A recent poll by the Pew Research Center revealed public support among Egyptians to cancel the 1979 Camp David peace accords with Israel is favored by 54%. Amr Moussa, the current secretary general of the Arab League and a leading contender for president in upcoming Egyptian elections, recently made statements agreeing with the sentiment. Egypt has warmed considerably to Hamas – a Palestinian political party defined as a terrorist organization by the U.S. – and has effectively brokered reconciliation between it and its long-time rival Fatah.

The Obama administration’s refusal this week to negotiate a Palestinian state if Hamas is involved is a stance formulated for a Middle East that no longer exists. Washington must modify its positions as Egypt asserts itself to take the lead. Lasting security for Israel is impossible without a Palestinian peace agreement, and moreover, disingenuous if Hamas is disengaged from that process. 

More critically, Egypt has historically been a pivot around which regional politics turn. Its own internal evolution and revived prominence will inevitably reflect on its neighbors, both in terms of its foreign policy and potential to influence democratic development in those states. Obama’s position may be popular at home, but is outdated given the new context. It also risks distancing the U.S. from the Arab world’s most populous soon-to-be democratic state. Rather than rebuff a unified Palestinian front, it should offer to work with Egypt on the Hamas-Fatah transitional government, using its financing of the Egyptian military as leverage. Doing so will make clear to Egypt and a transitional Palestinian government that financial support is conditional upon Hamas' disarmament and Israel’s security. It will also show Israel that the U.S. will continue to defend its interests, yet within the confines of a new reality. If Washington continues to respond with inflexible policies in this constantly shifting environment, it will face challenges in facilitating its goals. 

As some regimes are democratizing as a result of popular upheaval, others are doing the opposite.  Bahrain, another U.S. ally with undemocratic tendencies, has stamped out all remnants of the protests at the Pearl Roundabout. It also seems unlikely that Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad will meet the same fate as Mubarak or Ben Ali as his regime brutally clamps down. Yet as a castigating West turns against him, Syria may turn further inward and toward its strongest regional ally, Iran. If defense of Israel is a central goal, Washington may then face elevated threats on two fronts by the proxies of the Iran-Syria alliance: Hamas to the south in Gaza, with support from Egypt, and Hezbollah to the north in Lebanon. Similar to the U.S. position on Hamas, prolonged rejection of Hezbollah as a viable political actor may soon prove impractical. Hezbollah’s forced collapse of the U.S./Saudi-backed government in January demonstrated that in addition to its military prowess, it is capable of clever political maneuvering in order to obtain power.

The direction of U.S. policy in the region is muddled further when Washington’s close relationship with Saudi Arabia and its position in relation to other states in the region is considered. Egypt and most Arab states, including Syria in an ironic twist, supported its intervention in Bahrain to halt unrest stirred by the Shi'a minority that Saudi Arabia purports to be aligned with Iran. Although PM Essam Sharaf will continue to put the security of Saudi Arabia first, rapprochement between Egypt and Iran is taking off nonetheless. At the very least, it complicates the overlap of the Hamas/Fatah- Saudi Arabia-Hariri and Syria-Iran-Hezbollah triangles as Egypt’s broader regional policies emerge.

The U.S. is undoubtedly the single-most powerful external player in influencing Middle East politics and will remain so for the foreseeable future. Yet balances are shifting at a pace more rapidly than which the U.S. is at present willing, or capable, to adapt. Excluding key players and flatly rejecting positions that it considers undesirable now may weaken its potential to secure political clout region-wide in the long-term. And for better or worse, the regional turmoil may mark the end of Washington’s capacity to use the democracy ideal to legitimize its foreign policy objectives. But this maze of capricious Middle East alliances will keep it playing several sides for some time to come.  To do so effectively – even if it means adopting domestically-unpopular positions – the U.S. must accept the region as a new and different playing field, and adjust its policies accordingly.

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