America's defective MENA strategy

The Obama administration must update its approach to the Middle East and North Africa to cope with new realities

January 25, 2014 8:15AM ET
US Secretary of State John Kerry stands by as Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal is welcomed by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon prior to the "Geneva II" peace talks on Syria, in Montreux, Switzerland, Jan. 22, 2014.
Arnd Wiegmann/EPA

The United States’ strategy in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is becoming increasingly dysfunctional. While President Barack Obama’s critics may seek to blame his administration for the setback, the problem is much larger than any particular foreign policy team.

U.S. policy in the MENA region is outdated, shaped by the previous generation’s seminal events, including the 1973 oil crisis, the 1978 Camp David peace accords and the 1979 Iranian revolution. The Obama administration, therefore, should craft a totally fresh approach to deal with the region’s new realities. These include the changing geopolitics of oil, shifting alliances, the rise of Sunni Islamism, the surge in sectarianism, the youth demographic bulge and relations with Iran. 

Changing geopolitics of oil

In the wake of the debilitating 1973 oil embargo over U.S. support of the Israelis in the Yom Kippur/Ramadan war, the U.S. primarily sought to placate the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, particularly Saudi Arabia, to avoid being hit again with the so-called oil weapon — the ability of OPEC to cut off oil exports to the United States and other nations whose foreign policies it found objectionable. Even in the 1990s, when OPEC was forced to relax oil prices, this fear continued to guide the U.S. approach toward the MENA and the Cooperation Council for the Arabic States of the Gulf (GCC) in particular.

However, the prospect of North American energy independence, which is estimated to hit around 2020, thanks primarily to the fracking-driven domestic oil and gas boom, has blunted the threat of the oil weapon. While a sharp rise in global oil prices would still disrupt the U.S. economy, domestic production from states including Texas, Louisiana, Colorado, North Dakota and Pennsylvania could easily offset the effect to the U.S. economy if OPEC imposed another embargo. This fundamentally changes the power dynamic between the United States and the Gulf states.

To be sure, United States has an interest in the stability of world energy markets, of which the Middle East will still form the backbone. However, the energy supplies in which the U.S. is investing time, energy and defense dollars are now largely going to Asia. The fact that Middle East oil will no longer flow — in the main — to North America greatly complicates the strategic value of U.S. focus in the region. For example, the U.S. Navy has secured the Persian Gulf and Strait of Hormuz at great expense for some time now. However, the Navy now no longer secures these waterways for U.S. oil security but for that of China and India. Securing these waterways may still be a vital national interest for the U.S., but explaining ongoing U.S. interest in world oil supplies is a much more difficult political sell in Peoria. 

Regional allies

Since the Camp David accords in 1978 — signed between Egypt and Israel — the United States has relied on three key allies in the MENA: Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Relations with all three are now strained or at least are not as close as they once were. Egypt is embroiled in unsettled domestic political struggles as it has moved from an authoritarian regime to a weak and Islamist democracy to an interim military-backed government all in the span of just a few years. Egypt faces the ignominy of having not one but two former presidents jailed and awaiting trial.

The U.S. faces a range of policy differences with Israel and Saudi Arabia as well. The United States’ dealings with Iran and Israel’s slow movement on a Palestinian peace plan have strained relations between Washington and Jerusalem. For the Saudis, Iran has also become a major source of contention. But emerging oil independence may permit the United States to take another look at its alliance with a deeply illiberal, if loyal, petro-state.

In short, the relationship with each of these states has changed. This is not to say that the United States is changing its structure of alliances. In particular, the United States is not going to abandon its long-term relationship — however tense — with Israel. However, it is no exaggeration to say that commitments in the region may not be as salient for the U.S. as they have been in the postwar era. And in such a delicate region, these subtle shifts are important. In particular, the Obama administration has expressed an interest in increasing its commitment to East Asia, perhaps at the expense of the Middle East.


Third, the rise of Sunni Islamism — and its most violent expression in Al-Qaeda and affiliated groups — has forever changed American public perceptions about the Middle East and therefore those of public officials. With Sunnis by far the majority sect of Islam in the Middle East, the American public seems to find it disturbing that at least a significant minority wish to impose on others a way of life that would simply be unacceptable in the U.S. and other liberal states. Until 9/11, it was Shia Islamism, exemplified by Hezbollah and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps and their roles in the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut and the 1979 seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran that was the greatest concern to the United States. But the well-publicized rise of violent Sunni extremism of Al-Qaeda and its affiliates in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Mali, Somalia and Libya has shattered that assessment. The U.S. counterterrorism program will be focused on Sunni radicalism for years to come — a sea change from its focus in the 1980s and ’90s.

The Middle East of the Carter and early Reagan era is no more. It is time for a new approach that deals with the problems of this generation rather than the last.

The rise of sectarianism

A Shia-Sunni divide in the form of wars both proxy and cold is on the rise across the Middle East, with its most tragic expression in Syria. Shia certainly remember their oppression by a succession of Sunni-led regimes over the last century. However, until recent years, such sectarianism did not matter as much within the MENA, excluding Lebanon, particularly in states ruled by the explicitly secular Baath parties, which espoused the creation of a unified Arab state. Today, many MENA states have significant Shia and Sunni populations. As a result, in Lebanon, Iraq and Bahrain there are clear signs of sectarian tension — ranging from demonstrations to bombings — and Syria is in the throes of outright civil war. As a result of these tensions, domestic disputes often spill over national borders into other countries that subscribe to opposing ideologies. For example, Saudi Arabia and several other GCC members have taken sides on the Syrian conflict, clearly because of their concerns about Iran and Bashar al Assad’s regime as an Iranian client state and proxy. As foreign fighters on both sides of the conflict learn terrorist tradecraft and develop contacts that could provide resources to promote their agendas in their home countries, the sectarian conflict of Syria may metastasize in the Middle East. 

Youth movement

The Middle East has one of the youngest populations in the world, with 30 percent 15 to 29 years old, according to the Brookings Institution. That demographic explains a great deal of the energy, both positive and negative, in the region. These youths, when empowered, are behind the much-lauded Arab Spring and the emergent entrepreneurial class in the region. But they also provide the shock troops for sectarian conflict.

Integrating these citizens will be a challenge for all states in the region. For example, it is not clear that the young, urban population of Iran will continue to tolerate living under repressive clerical rule that isolates them from the outside world. Nor is it clear that the various single-resource economies of the region will be able to provide jobs and services for this burgeoning group as they have. This challenge will contour the politics and economics of the region for the foreseeable future.

The role of Iran

Since its 1979 Islamic revolution, Iran was, until recently, a self-declared enemy of the United States. The U.S. largely backed Iraq in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s and reflagged Kuwaiti tankers to protect them from Iran, and President George W. Bush designated Iran part of the “axis of evil” after 9/11. Iran reciprocated by labeling the U.S. the “Great Satan.” However, recent signs of a thaw in U.S.-Iran relations, based on the United States’ brokering a deal to suspend international sanctions on Iran because of its nuclear program, promise to transform this relationship. Even a mild thaw in relations could have an outsize effect, since opposition to Iran has formed the basis of many U.S. relationships in MENA and Iran remains a significant regional power. Any movement toward increased openness and democracy in Iran could be a welcome development, despite the challenges of such a transition. While it is far from clear that Iran will be able to moderate sufficiently to enter the community of nations, even the slightest hint of this possibility must be pursued seriously.

A new era

The United States’ Middle East policy is a generation old, based on events that occurred largely between the 1973 Yom Kippur/Ramadan war and the 1983 Marine barracks bombing in Beirut. But the Middle East has experienced a great deal of history since, and it is far from clear that the United States is currently positioned to advance its own interests — and those of the region. Crafting a new regional strategy exceeds the capacity of any one Arabist or policy planner and will be incredibly complex. The United States has a long list of equities and interests in the region, most of which exist in tension with each other.

One approach to this complexity is simply to move on from the region and turn to other areas of the world that are seemingly more important or promising as well as easier to understand and deal with. While such an approach is tempting, it is also irresponsible. The Middle East, for better or worse, is the region most in need of close attention, if for no other reason than the potential for violent spillover into Europe and Russia. While the United States has clearly learned its lesson on the limits of military force in the region, other foreign policy tools — backed up by military means if necessary — remain potent in the right circumstances. The United States has a real opportunity to both promote its own interests and help generate stability in the region.

The Middle East of the Carter and early Reagan era is no more. It is time for a new approach that deals with the problems of this generation rather than the last. While the citizens of the MENA region must forge their own destiny, a proactive U.S. foreign policy that is attuned to contemporary currents and issues can increase the chances of a positive outcome. And that is what a responsible superpower does.

Douglas A. Ollivant, Ph.D., is the senior vice president and a managing partner of Mantid International, a strategic consulting firm with offices in Washington, Beirut and Baghdad. A former NSC director for Iraq, he is also a senior national security fellow at the New America Foundation.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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