This post is the second in a series by AGSIW senior resident scholars on the foreign policy implications of the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign and election.
U.S. foreign policy has historically favored consistency and gradual change, as befits a status quo power, rather than sudden transformations. Unanticipated events like Pearl Harbor and 9/11 that force dramatic policy shifts have been the exceptions rather than the rule. U.S. interests develop slowly over time and reflect the imperatives of numerous constituencies that compete in defining national priorities. A change in administrations does not return the country to square one. Therefore, whoever succeeds President Barack Obama is likely to have an overall approach to the Middle East that is similar to his. This is particularly true on broad consensus issues, such as the determination to avoid unnecessary military engagements, particularly in the Middle East, or the need for greater “burden sharing” by European, Arab, and other international partners.
However, because the political context is ever changing, and since any new administration must try to learn from the experiences of its predecessors, some modifications can be expected. At least four probable Middle East policy shifts that the next administration, from either party, is likely to adopt – campaign rhetoric notwithstanding – are already identifiable. These include a reevaluation of relations with Iran, intensified efforts to reassure traditional Gulf Arab allies, a more engaged policy on Syria and, eventually, a return to the vexed Israeli-Palestinian problem.
Re-evaluating Relations with Iran
While most Americans appear to support the nuclear agreement with Iran, a major achievement for U.S. diplomacy, the next administration will most likely re-evaluate relations with Tehran. This is likely to be true even of a potential Hillary Clinton administration, even though the nuclear agreement is especially popular with Democrats. It is unlikely that any future White House will be as deeply invested in the agreement as the Obama administration, and relations with Iran will continue to reflect increasing tensions that are already developing.
The Obama administration overcame an extraordinary set of difficulties to achieve an agreement with Iran that, if implemented, will prevent Tehran from developing nuclear weapons for at least 10 to 15 years. Especially during his second term, Obama prioritized negotiating and then implementing the nuclear deal. Indeed, protecting the negotiations with Tehran appears to have influenced some other Middle East policies. The controversial 2013 Syrian chemical weapons “red line” volte-face is a striking case-in-point.
The next president is likely to be even firmer than Obama in insisting on strict implementation of the agreement, and take a tougher line on Tehran’s provocative behavior. Iran has intensified its destabilizing efforts to expand its influence in the Arab world largely through armed proxies. Iran has also expanded its ballistic missile development and testing program, which violates U.N. Security Council resolutions, international expectations, and the spirit, if not the letter, of the nuclear agreement itself.
The Obama administration has been increasingly responding to this pattern, using tougher language denouncing Iran’s behavior (such as direct references to “support for terrorist groups”), and moving closer to Washington’s traditional Arab partners. The next administration can be expected to intensify the process of rebuilding trust with the Gulf states. This would be greatly facilitated by Washington taking a tougher line with Iran, thereby clarifying U.S. intentions in the eyes of its Gulf partners.
Rebuilding Trust with GCC States
During the Obama administration, Washington’s relations with its Gulf Arab partners developed a radical dichotomy between perceptions and realities. The core reality remains one of a strong U.S. engagement in, and commitment to, the Gulf region and its stability and security. The U.S. military presence in the region is at historically high levels, given that the United States is not engaged in a major war, particularly higher than pre-9/11 engagement. Weapons sales, U.S. investment, and diplomatic engagement are all strong. So, during the Obama era the United States actually grew closer than ever to the Gulf states at many quantifiable, brass-tacks levels.
Yet the perception of U.S. disengagement from the region, and disregard for the interests and security of its regional partners, has nonetheless become widespread in Gulf societies. The breakdown of trust grew out of serious concerns about several U.S. policies, particularly the nuclear negotiations with Iran and Washington’s hands-off approach to the Syrian war. These anxieties were exacerbated by some of Obama’s comments in interviews, particularly one with Jeffrey Goldberg, and the combination has led to deep-seated doubts about U.S. intentions.
Obama’s summit meetings with Gulf leaders at Camp David in 2015 and Saudi Arabia in 2016 were useful but did not fully resolve suspicions. The next administration could be well-positioned to go much further in restoring frayed trust, particularly if the incoming president moves into the White House without carrying similar rhetorical baggage. The continued strategic significance of the Middle East, and the Gulf region in particular, to the United States as a major global power ensures that, unless it adopts the neo-isolationist foreign policy, the next administration will intensify efforts to rebuild the U.S. partnership with the Gulf states.
Under the next administration, particularly if it lasts for two terms, the United States and the Gulf states can more fully adjust to the “new normal” in their relationship. Although the partnership remains strong, both parties have adopted some new policy priorities that have restructured it somewhat. Americans feel overburdened by international commitments, particularly in Europe and the Middle East, and will continue to resist military engagements and ask their partners to do more. The Gulf states have become more proactive and independent in their security posture. For Washington, this is a double-edged sword, as the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen demonstrates. It reflects the very self-reliance Washington has long advocated. But the political fallout and the humanitarian consequences of this intervention have produced considerable American unease.
The Gulf states must adjust to a new U.S. approach in which the United States continues its leadership role but with some modifications, and Washington must adjust to a new degree of independent decision making by its Gulf Cooperation Council partners. The resulting relationship could be healthier, and therefore more resilient, than the traditional arrangement. Since this transformation is unavoidable and already underway, one of the key tasks of the next administration will be managing this period of transition. This will require significant attention to bolstering the trust needed to sustain U.S.-GCC relations.
A New U.S. Policy on Syria (and ISIL)
Another likely policy development that may, at least partly, reassure Gulf states is a new U.S. policy toward Syria. However, it is unlikely that Washington and the Gulf states will develop a fully coordinated policy on Syria because their priorities diverge. But the lack of U.S. engagement on Syria has been so damaging to U.S. interests and credibility in the region that some significant change is unavoidable, particularly given the virtual consensus of former Obama administration officials who have been publicly critical of U.S. policy. However, most U.S. citizens are against a major deployment of U.S. ground forces, with the exception of some calls for the use of U.S. troops against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). So the bedrock of the Obama approach – avoiding a major U.S. ground intervention – will almost certainly continue, barring unforeseen circumstances such as a major attack on U.S. interests by one of the armed factions in Syria.
Syria policy is, in effect, inseparable from ISIL policy, since the extremist group has its headquarters, strategic depth, and largest concentration of military power in that country. The Obama administration has pursued an “Iraq-first” approach and, therefore, a de facto containment policy against ISIL in Syria. The incoming administration will have to seriously consider a greater integration of ISIL policy. It could also face strong pressure to intensify efforts should there be additional ISIL-related terrorist attacks in the West, and especially the United States.
The Obama administration deliberately declined to adopt a comprehensive policy on Syria during most of the conflict because it deemed all achievable outcomes to be unacceptable and all minimally acceptable outcomes to be unachievable. However, given the widespread view that this approach has not served broader U.S. policy goals, the next administration will assuredly have to adopt a Syria policy that identifies a preferred plausible outcome and works toward its realization. However, because its specifics will depend on, and be shaped by, many variables, what that will look like in practice is impossible to outline in any detail at this stage.
Re-engagement with the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
Reviewing the experiences of the George W. Bush and Obama administrations, the next White House is unlikely to be enthusiastic about re-engaging with Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy. But it may not have the luxury of inaction, particularly if another massive spasm of violence in the occupied West Bank threatens the continued existence and political viability of the Palestine Liberation Organization and Palestinian Authority, the main institutions of secular Palestinian nationalism.
The West Bank has remained relatively calm, despite the growing frustration, and even desperation, of the Palestinians living under occupation, because most of them are opposed to widespread violence. Memories of the disastrous second intifada, from which Palestinian society has not yet fully recovered, and a long history of previous armed confrontations with Israel have left a strong impression that violence is a losing proposition for Palestinians. However, the recent wave of spontaneous knife attacks against Jewish Israelis by Palestinian youths suggests that a new generation without these memories is coming into its own. With no political horizon for liberation, the open-ended rule of a hostile foreign army, an unelected and unaccountable Palestinian Authority government with little credibility (and Hamas even more discredited and unpopular), and an increasingly grim economic outlook, another bout of sustained and major violence in the West Bank is extremely likely.
The United States, Israel, and some Arab countries including Egypt, Jordan, and perhaps the Gulf states, would have a powerful interest in acting quickly to prevent secular Palestinian nationalism from irrevocably disintegrating – especially as it could be replaced with a radical, or religiously extremist, agenda, or total anarchy amid a social and political vacuum among Palestinians. Such an explosion would require the United States, no matter how reluctantly or who is in the White House, to seriously re-engage with Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy.
The Obama administration may outline a U.S. position on the appropriate final status outcome between Israel and the Palestinians. These potential “Obama parameters,” however, are likely to be basically an updated version of the familiar “Clinton parameters.” The next administration will undoubtedly build on this legacy when it comes to the long-term outcome for ending the conflict. The goal of the revived U.S. engagement, however, may be more oriented toward preserving the viability of Palestinian nationalism rather than a full-fledged peace. Therefore, the emphasis may be more on measures designed to bolster Palestinian political leadership, society, and capabilities rather than securing a final status agreement with Israel.
Strengthening Palestinian institutions necessitates some concessions from Israel, and restrictions on its occupation activities. But it could focus more on enhancing bilateral U.S.-Palestinian ties, building the Palestinian economy and other institutions, and much more purposeful, focused U.S. and international efforts at preparing the groundwork for the eventual creation of a Palestinian state. It will be difficult to make much progress on this track without significant cooperation from Israel, but there may be no alternative for Israel and the United States if the Palestinian national movement, as it has existed since the early 1960s, appears to be on the brink of permanent dissolution. And there is no power other than the United States that is capable of even potentially helping Israel recognize its stake in preserving the prospects for a two-state solution.
These four anticipated changes to the U.S. posture in the Middle East are very different propositions, although some are closely related in important respects. For example, taking a tougher line with Tehran in the next few years is one of the ways that the imperative of rebuilding trust with the Gulf Arab states will be achieved. That said, and campaign rhetoric notwithstanding, no one will be cancelling or arbitrarily renegotiating the nuclear agreement if both sides continue to meet their fundamental commitments.
By contrast, with regard to Syria the most that can be said with relative certainty is that the United States will be adopting a more integrated and less piecemeal approach that moves away from policy fragmentation and ceding the field almost totally to others. An Israeli-Palestinian re-engagement is the biggest outlier of the four issues, because it will not reflect a planned or deliberate policy shift. Instead, it is an overwhelmingly likely contingency that will probably look and feel much like an emergency, requiring both a re-engagement and a new approach from Washington.
Within the broad framework of U.S. policy continuity, changes are always at work, especially when a new administration takes office. However, these four Middle East policy challenges will almost certainly be dealt with differently by the next administration than they have been under “the Obama doctrine.”