Media Q&A on US-MENA Relations and Kerry’s Tour

1. How would you define America’s current position in the Middle East?

At the heart of the US – Middle East relations is a security versus democracy problem.  This problem is caused by a “conflict of interests”. In the short to medium terms the US requires stability to secure the free flow of oil and gas into the world energy market, the movement and protection of military and commercial traffic through the Suez Canal, commercial business contracts, the security of regional allies such as Israel, and cooperation on military, intelligence, counter-terrorism and counter-proliferation issues.  At the same time, the virtues of promoting democracy in the region are at least at the rhetorical level well espoused.  Not only is promoting democracy seen as an extension of US values, but also as a contribution to a wider democratic peace that many believe will deliver greater international security, peace and prosperity.  Immediate security concerns draw the US towards requiring cooperation and stability, whilst promoting democracy creates direct confrontations, stymies cooperation and can create instability.  The conflict of interests problem stood as the fundamental problem faced by policymakers before the Arab Awakening, and this remains the case even as a much more fluid and complex policy-context has emerged.  It is little wonder, therefore, that the US  have ineffectively ebbed backwards and forwards in their democracy promotion strategies even as wide spread populist movements have generated new levels of instability that stretch from the Atlantic Ocean through the Arabian Sea. Given this context, the current US position is to act as a bystander in events and revert towards favouring its core strategic interests in the region.  President Obama made this clear in his speech to the UN General Assembly last month, and this was followed up by Susan Rice arguing that the administration wanted a less involved policy in the Middle East as it “pivots” to Asia.  Rice’s policy review, which was conducted almost exclusively by the White House, tells us that the current administration is putting a high value on restoring its relationships with Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Israel as it sees these countries as a fundamental part of its security strategy in the region.  The problem is that this may well be because the current administration is struggling to come to terms with the changing Middle East and the manner in which the geo-political and geo-strategic landscape is changing.  The current administration is trying to be pragmatic, but failing to really grasp how the region is changing.

2.And how effective do you think Kerry’s mideast trip will be?

Kerry’s trip around the Middle East will be effective at helping to provide some reassurance to allies, as the Secretary of State is effectively telling them that the United States wants to get back to business as usual, and will not push hard for political reforms in the region.  The trip is really about reassurance and damage control.  However, its long term effects will be minimal as events are outpacing policy.  This is often the case in foreign policy, but the way in which the Arab Spring is fundamentally chaining the region means that there are bound to be more crises rearing their heads.  This is at a time when this administration lacks a clear strategic vision and needs to think bigger, be bolder and get to grips with how the region is changing.
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