America’s Role in a Changing Middle East


On June 20, the Center for the National Interest hosted a panel discussion on America’s Role in a Changing Middle East. Speakers included Steven A. Cook, author of the recently released book, False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East, Eni Enrico Mattei Senior Fellow for Middle East and African Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and previously a research fellow at the Brookings Institution and a Soref research fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and Paul Pillar, a Non-Resident Fellow at the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University and a retired senior U.S. intelligence officer. Geoffrey Kemp, the Center’s Senior Director of Regional Security Programs, who previously served in the White House during the Regan admiration as Special Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs and Senior Director for Near East and South Asian Affairs on the National Security Council Staff, moderated. The event was broadcast live on The National Interest’s Facebook page and can be viewed here. A summary of the event can be found below.

America’s Role in a Changing Middle East

Two leading experts agreed that the U.S. has only a limited ability to shape the Middle East due to the complexity of the region, political institutions that often reflect authoritarian tendencies, and cultural norms that have so far prevented broad acceptance of liberal values and effective governance. Both experts found a consistent misunderstanding as to the capacity of the U.S. to influence the region and argued that a refocusing of U.S. policy is required to protect vital interests—particularly the stable flow of energy from the region.

Cook asserted that the U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East has rested upon two flawed assumptions. First, Cook said, is the mistaken belief that the Arab Spring uprisings in the Middle East would drive a wide and sustainable transition to relatively stable democratic states. In the 1980s and 1990s, many American academics and policy makers believed that “shoots” of democracy were beginning to take root in states like Egypt, Algeria, and Jordan. Years later, when it became clear that such democratic trends were not taking place, said Cook, there was an emphasis on authoritarianism’s durability in Middle Eastern society as the main impediment to democratization.

Cook argued that the assumption that democracy would rapidly prevail was based on three hollow ideas: first, that the U.S. could facilitate the region’s transition to democracy through political or economic means; second, that the U.S. and Europe could steer Middle Eastern states away from unproductive pursuits and towards good and productive ones instead; third, that the Middle East needs its own version of the Marshall Plan to rebuild the region and facilitate democracy. America’s experience in recent years, he said, has undermined these arguments by demonstrating that democracy could not be forced upon the region, that diplomatic pressure has had little effect, and that financial and development assistance has not changed underlying dynamics. Cook explained that most transitions to democracy fail and the U.S. should expect no less in a region like the Middle East.

The second bad assumption of American foreign policy, according to Cook, was that events in the region were the result of U.S. influence rather than internal dynamics that had little to do with American efforts or interests. There was a limited role for the United States in the Arab Spring because many U.S. policymakers did not understand that many of the protestors “identified the struggle in existential terms,” seeing it as a battle for the heart and soul of their nations, he said. When conflicts are defined in those terms, protestors will “calculate their interests based on local conditions” and how they will survive what they see as an existential struggle, regardless of external (U.S.) preferences.

Going forward, Cook recommended that the U.S. “get bet back to basics in the region,” by pursuing a strategy based on strategic realism, in which the United States concentrates on protecting its vital interests. America’s strategic interests in the Middle East, Cook said, are primarily ensuring the stable production and transit of energy, Israel’s security, the continuation of U.S. “hegemony” and preventing other states from becoming hegemons, and counterterrorism and WMD nonproliferation efforts. Cook agreed in principle with the desire of the Trump Administration to focus on vital U.S. interests instead of the structure of Middle East governments, good governance, human rights, and liberal values. The U.S. has previously attempted and failed to alter the internal political structure of Egypt, Libya, Iraq, and Turkey. Therefore, Washington should expect the Middle East to be increasingly authoritarian and unstable going forward and act only when U.S. vital interests are at stake, Cook said.

Pillar argued that the Middle East is multipolar with overlapping lines of conflict that make it inappropriate and ineffective to pursue a containment-type strategy in the region. Under such circumstances, coalition building is nearly impossible. Sectarian divisions underlay instability in the region and the authoritarian regimes that once kept a lid on dissent, such as in Iraq, Syria, and Egypt, are finding it harder to do so, according to Pillar. When the authoritarian lid is pried off, as it was during the Arab Spring, sectarian divisions bubbled up and grievances became more overt, he noted.

Furthermore, Pillar emphasized, democratic structures in the region are far off due to an inhospitable political culture which can only be developed over time. The Middle East is currently going through a period of revolution similar to what Europe went through in the mid-1800s, he said. Furthermore, all “outsiders” have serious limitations in projecting influence over the region due to competition with other outsiders and conflicts between regional players, Pillar stated. Of all the outside powers vying for control, the U.S. is the worst at playing Middle Eastern power politics and Russia is the best at it, he argued. Russia has been the best at this game because it has been prudently realistic, opportunistic, and focused on short term advantages where the U.S. has often been idealistic, rigid, and slow to respond to opportunities, he said. The good news for the U.S., according to Pillar, is that no other state within or outside the region is in a position to take a dominant position, which is why the U.S. remains the Middle East’s hegemonic power.

America’s biggest challenges have been: the Iraq invasion which turned the region’s population against American leadership, an inability to develop stable democracies, the growth of sectarian divisions, and the rise of non-state actors. Pillar recommended emulating Russia’s strategic approach by partnering with a variety of states in the region even if some of their interests are not closely aligned with those of the U.S.

Cook and Pillar agreed that Western academics and policy makers typically seek advice and perspectives from Western-educated liberals whose views do not accurately represent majority or even mainstream thinking in their own countries. Also, Cook found that there is often a willful desire to look at Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood in ways that don’t reflect the true interests or views of such groups. Pillar mentions that similar issues took place in discussions with Ahmed Chalabi—an Iraqi exile—who intentionally misrepresented circumstances in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq to encourage a U.S. war with Iraq and to promote his own political ambitions, and with Syrian rebel leaders who are often disconnected from the groups they proclaim to represent. However, despite many of the difficulties faced by academics and policy makers, both experts emphasized that many within the U.S. Intelligence agencies were warning their superiors about emerging signs of instability and civil unrest before the onset of the Arab Spring.

The panelists agreed that the Arab youth community has “awakened” and that this was a direct result of technological development in communication and the forces of globalism. Nevertheless, Cook argued, this new consciousness does not automatically produce a desire to pursue governance that reflects Western values. The U.S. has tried to bring stability and to mold the region but such efforts in states like Egypt have achieved little in changing the underlying dynamics because the leaders of these states are not receptive to reforms that would undermine their rule. At the same time, populations often default to stability over the risks of democratic transition. Pillar believes that the key to understanding political developments in the region is through understanding the populations requests for “justice” throughout the “Arab Spring.” While the values in Middle East many not be the same as in the West, justice is universal and in this circumstance, it is mostly focused on historic inequalities in accessing economic opportunities.

Both experts see as culture as central to politics. They agree that authoritarian trends in the region developed in part out of patriarchal family structures, the structure of religion, and the academic methods of these states. These cultural traits have been exploited by the leaders of their states who create political structures that reward obedience. Pillar added that these authoritarian trends explain many of the difficulties involved in molding political institutions in the Middle East. Cook agreed and finds that further study in this area is needed and shouldn’t be considered taboo.

Cook found that the key failure of the Arab Spring was that institutions were unable or unwilling to change because they were created to reflect the interests of the authoritarian regime—not those of the population. Pillar found that the U.S. must push for “clean” rather than corrupt institutions and use aid and assistance as leverage to mold some of the region’s states.

The panelists also voiced concern that the Trump Administration is drifting toward unintentional war with Syria, Iran, and Russia. There was a consensus that the U.S. has been too bellicose in its rhetoric and too aggressive in some of its actions, specifically in Syria. The recent action of shooting down a Syrian fighter jet by U.S. forces has raised the stakes in the conflict and risks antagonizing Damascus and its allies, which could ignite a larger conflict.

Recent decisions in Saudi Arabia to act more assertively in its neighborhood were also worrying to both experts, though they had different perspectives on their exact sources and the best course of action for the U.S. Cook saw the recent Saudi reform project as a necessary development, but one that would create significant instability by changing how government and business has operated. He also saw Saudi Arabia as a primary focus of radical groups going forward because of the religious significance of Mecca and Medina. Cook recommended a dominant U.S. presence in the region as the best way of reducing Saudi Arabia’s inclination towards a more aggressive foreign policy and reducing the likelihood of regional conflict. Pillar disagreed, suggesting that it was a mistake to keep U.S. policy “prisoner” to America’s historical relationship with the Saudis because we don’t share the same interests, values, or strategic outlook. Pillar’s greatest fear about Saudi Arabia was the risk of internal instability leading to a revolution that would then destabilize the entire region and threaten oil production.

A key area of disagreement between the experts was not over U.S. interests but over how the U.S. could advance its interests in the Middle East. Pillar supported a less involved U.S. policy in the region as a way to provide greater stability, whereas Cook supported a more involved U.S. presence in the region to reduce the likelihood of conflict among regional actors that could put U.S. vital interests at risk. Cook explained that offshore balancing was dangerous and, while the U.S. should not dominate the region for the purposes of building democratic institutions and remaking local societies, vital energy interests must be protected. The U.S. should also remain true to its values while not expecting others in the region to share them, he added.