Obama Administration Should Take Holistic Approach to Middle East



by Robert E. Hunter

March 17, 2011

Rather than trying to forecast the future of the Arab Middle East while so much is in flux, permit me a few observations about how the Obama administration should be addressing fast-moving events across the region: in short, to treat the region as a whole and from a strategic perspective.

The U.S. government needs all the help it can get.

We have a situation in the greater Middle East that is a "lawyer's dream." The Obama administration, like its predecessors in the main, gives the impression of treating the region from North Africa to India as eight or nine different "issues" or "cases" with some connections, rather than assessing what makes it a "region" and the ways in which interconnections must be understood, common factors considered, and trade-offs made.

For example: How can the U.S. have an open-ended arms relationship with India and try to get it as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, while at the same time depending on Pakistan to help keep U.S. soldiers safe in Afghanistan? Is the U.S. smart to ignore the possibility that Iran could, again, be useful to the U.S. in Afghanistan? How can we think about Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking without seeing what is being done to Gaza or trying an approach to Iran that has some chance of success other than "bomb or accept a bomb?" And those are just tactical issues.

Fortunately (I believe), President Obama gave his 2009 Cairo speech to the Muslim world and, in the Egypt crisis, disciplined members of his administration who thought either that Mubarak had a stable government or that he wasn't such a bad guy. And, fortunately, Obama has a sense of the need for the U.S. to get itself on "the right side of history." (He was helped, at least in the Egypt case and the deflating-of-war-fever-with-Iran case by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Admiral Mike Mullen).

The U.S. government is historically adept at tactics, but what President Obama needs are more people with a broader perspective. That includes engaging outsiders with a solid background in the Middle East, on a systematic basis (as against brief one-shot visits to the White House Roosevelt Room). And he would be well-served to include some people with a genuine capacity to "put the pieces together," to "think strategically."

There also needs to be a better system for bringing to the fore the knowledge, assessment, and strategic understanding that is already at hand. One of "Hunter's rules" for 30 years now has been that, in the U.S. government, there are people who know just about everything one needs to know about politics, history, culture, etc., but the trick is to 1) identify these people and — far more difficult — 2) get those at top levels to listen to them.

Finally, there needs to be a root and branch reassessment of the basic question: What are U.S. interests in the region? We still haven't figured that question out with regard to Afghanistan, and thus haven't figured it out in the broader perspective. Politics can prevent, even within the innermost sanctums, recognition that things are not going well and a radically different course should be considered. Another of Hunter's rules: "In analysis, U.S. interests first, U.S. policy options second, U.S. domestic politics third."

This is one reason that the USG almost never creates a "grand strategy" from the get-go, but rather responds to outside events. The Soviet Union collapsed, surprising almost everyone in the U.S. strategic and policy community; but fortunately we "got right" the refashioning of European security. There has been an uprising in the Arab world, again surprising almost everyone in the U.S. strategic and policy community, and thus we have a chance to create a new grand strategy that, over time, will best meet U.S. interests and those of a broader "community." Indeed, we are compelled to do so. For the long term, I do despair of our getting an overall method right for other places and other times, since inertia is Newton's first law of foreign policy. But at least when there is an ineluctable need for a different approach, we need to do all that we have to do to get it done. Remember Pearl Harbor!

President Obama has obviously learned a lot in the last two years, and his instincts seem to have served America well in the Middle East. But will he take the next step and reach out to people who know what can be done in regard to the region, how to do it, and what the broader strategic perspective and approach need to be?

Robert E. Hunter, former U.S. Ambassador to NATO under President Clinton, is a senior advisor at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit institution that seeks to improve policy and decisionmaking through research and analysis.

This commentary originally appeared on RAND.org on March 17, 2011. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.