After bin Laden: Top Five Agenda Items for Obama’s Middle East Speech

Report Middle East

After bin Laden: Top Five Agenda Items for Obama’s Middle East Speech

May 16, 2011 5 min read Download Report

Authors: James Phillips , Helle Dale, James Carafano and Sally McNamara

Last week White House Press Secretary Jay Carney promised the President would soon make a major address “on the Middle East and U.S. policy in the Middle a broader audience than just the Arab world.” It is long past time for President Barack Obama to lay out a plan for how his Administration will address the historic change sweeping this part of the world. By exercising energetic leadership now and continuing to engage in the right way in the months ahead, the President can protect U.S. interests and promote opportunities for liberty, security, and economic opportunity in the region. Making real progress with U.S. policy will require real change in Administration policies. There are five initiatives that should top the President’s agenda.

1. Work for more democracies and fewer dictatorships in the Middle East and North Africa.

The “Arab Spring” could advance the cause of justice and economic development in the Arab Middle East and North Africa—if the rebellions are consolidated and transformed into genuine revolutions sustained by the rule of law and respect for human rights. Bin Laden’s extremist followers have contributed little to these popular uprisings, and his bankrupt ideology was irrelevant to them. Iran, which claims to support the revolts, is hypocritically suppressing the Green Movement, which is a precursor to the Arab Spring popular opposition movements.

The President must be unapologetic about exerting American leadership and unequivocal in his support for democratic reforms and advocacy for human rights. He must also advocate economic freedom that will advance critically needed growth and opportunity. In particular, the Administration should step up its half-hearted support for peaceful opposition movements in Iran and Syria.

Furthermore, foreign aid and public diplomacy programs that are not delivering results must be jettisoned, and resources should be focused on efforts that make a difference. Washington must stop using foreign aid to prop up unaccountable regimes. U.S. efforts should focus on a mix of proven instruments and innovations. The U.S. should support programs like the Voice of America (radio programs in particular) and the Millennium Challenge Account. It should make certain that military assistance programs meet rigorous criteria, including a demonstrated commitment to freedom and human rights; a commitment to the rule of law and governance; mutual bilateral security interests with the U.S. and its allies; and a demonstrated need for U.S. military assistance. These tools can deliver value for taxpayers’ investment.

2. Put the U.S.–Israeli alliance first.

The popular uprisings have demonstrated that the Israeli–Arab conflict is not the source of all problems in the Middle East. Thus, the White House was wrong from the start to make peace negotiations the foundation of its regional policy. The U.S. can help the two sides reach a peace settlement, but Arabs and Israelis must negotiate directly with each other. They cannot wait for Washington to do all the heavy diplomatic lifting or impose a settlement. Furthermore, at present the Palestinians are hardly the best partner for peace—they have partnered with Hamas, a terrorist group that denies the right of the Israeli nation to exist and mourns the demise of Osama bin Laden. The U.S. should be reaffirming that its first commitment and concern is strengthening its alliance with the region’s strongest democracy and the country that shares common cause with the United States.

3. Adopt an agenda to bring freedom to Iran.

The U.S. has wasted much time and effort trying to engage the regime in Tehran on nuclear issues and secret talks to broker a regional solution in Afghanistan. Iran has played rope-a-dope with Washington, using engagement to buy time to advance its own agenda in the region and weaken the implementation of sanctions. The Iranian regime is dangerous when left unchecked. Pushing back on Tehran is the only way to counter its quest for regional dominance and weaken the regime’s hold over its people. For starters, the Administration should press for aggressive implementation of existing sanctions, fight for more comprehensive sanctions, and rally international condemnation of Iran’s human rights abuses.

4. Finish the job in Iraq.

It is in America’s interest to see Iraq become a strong and confident ally. If the U.S. can help speed that process through continued military assistance, that is an investment worth making. The Status of Forces Agreement signed by Iraq and the United States in 2007 requires all U.S. troops to leave the country by the end of 2011. Recently, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki indicated his government might be willing to renegotiate the agreement. Pentagon spokeswoman Elizabeth Robbins recently confirmed that the U.S. would be “willing to entertain a request for continued assistance, consistent with our commitment to a long-term partnership with Iraq.” President Obama should do everything possible to bring both nations together in an effort to strengthen the bonds between them.

5. Put U.S.–Turkish relations on Washington’s priority list.

On its current trajectory, Turkey’s traditional strategic relationship with the West is likely to be replaced with a looser affiliation as Turkey enters into closer alignment with Iran and other Middle Eastern powers hostile to U.S. leadership. The United States and NATO should not stand idly by watching this happen. The U.S., in concert with its European allies, needs to address the serious differences that are emerging and encourage Turkey to be a strong regional partner, not a competitor. For its part, the United States should also seek to revitalize the strategic relationship with Turkey, warning the Turkish government that support for the Iranian nuclear program and continuing confrontation with Israel undermine the foundations of U.S.–Turkish relations and jeopardize military and intelligence cooperation. The Obama Administration should mediate the repair of ties between Ankara and Jerusalem while encouraging Turkey to play a significant role in conflict resolution in its neighborhood, especially the Caucasus. Europe and the U.S. should also expand energy cooperation with Turkey, especially on the Nabucco, Turkmenistan–Azerbaijani, and Iraq–Turkey gas pipelines, excluding Iranian oil and gas exports.

Time for Serious Commitments

Any new Middle East strategy announced by the President lacking these kinds of concrete commitments will fall far short of what is needed. Obama cannot build a plan for the future of U.S. engagement with the “new” Middle East based on what the White House has done the past two years—those efforts accomplished far too little and are far too inadequate to meet the new strategic realities of the region. The Administration’s engagement policy toward hostile dictatorships in Iran and Syria has failed, and the Administration now must engage with the people rather than their oppressors. The U.S. must show it is a reliable ally for democratic forces and cannot neglect them in a vain effort to reach questionable diplomatic agreements with the increasingly isolated Iranian and Syrian regimes.

James Jay Carafano, Ph.D. , is Deputy Director of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies and Director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, a division of the Davis Institute; James Phillips is Senior Research Fellow for Middle Eastern Affairs in the Allison Center; Sally McNamara is Senior Policy Analyst in European Affairs in the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom, a division of the Davis Institute; and Helle C. Dale is Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy in the Allison Center, at The Heritage Foundation.


James Phillips

Senior Research Fellow, The Heritage Foundation

Helle C. Dale
Helle Dale

Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy, Margaret Thatcher Center

James Carafano
James Carafano

Vice President, Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute

Sally McNamara
Sally McNamara