Like it or not, US must engage with Middle East, panelists say

Post by IU Newsroom intern Annie Brackemyre

Foreign policy decisions never exist in a bubble. Whichever presidential candidate takes office in 2017 will inherit, willingly or not, a Middle Eastern geopolitical scene with not only competing regional players but also a history of conflicting American policies.

Future policymakers will be forced to follow a series of political and military failures, shaping the ongoing regional instability flowing from Syria into the Levant and Middle East at large.

Hussein Banai, moderator of the “Untangling the Middle East” session in the “America’s Role in the World” conference, began with a reminder of Dean Lee Feinstein’s unofficial motto for the School of Global and International Affairs, “In order to change the world, we must first seek to understand it.”

Panelist Robin Wright makes a point.

Panelist Robin Wright makes a point.

With that context, Banai, an assistant professor in the School of Global and International Studies, challenged panelists to characterize America’s role in the Middle East today and how that role might change under the next American president.

Panelists were Feisal Istrabadi, founding director of the IU Center for Study of the middle East and former ambassador to Iraq; Richard Fontaine, president of the Center for a New American Security; Tamara Wittes, director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution; and Robin Wright, American foreign affairs analyst and journalist.

Wittes said the Obama administration only hesitantly stepped back into the Middle East after campaigning on pulling out of the region.

“Obama was driven, against his own inclination, back into the Middle East and Syria,” she said.

Wright, pointing to a philosophy that her father taught her — “Stand on the top of the world and look down” — lauded the Obama administration’s deliberate and hesitant inclinations.

“In stark contrast to the Bush administration, there is a sense in the Obama administration that the U.S. cannot always define what democracy is going to look like in other parts of the world,” Wright said. “Obama really tries to define policy goals in a long term and wider world perspective. Even though there are shortcomings, I think he has been quite effective.”

Almost all questions of foreign policy in the Middle East eventually come back to the question of border stability. The Obama administration’s legacy in the region is not insulated from the legacy of Sykes-Picot Agreement – the 1916 pact that set the boundaries of British and French control — and its impact on the global power struggle in the region.

“A lasting legacy of the Obama administration’s policy in the Middle East is a new Sykes-Picot,” Istrabadi said. “There is a new redrawing, not of the borders but of the spheres of influence.”

Any strategy to combat the violence of the Islamic State group, known as ISIS, requires considering these questions of borders, power and influence, panelists said.

“Without addressing civil wars and power vacuums, ISIS may be defeated but sons of ISIS and grandsons of ISIS will emerge,” Fontaine said.

With American troops in Iraq and Syria, ongoing military operations in Syria and Yemen and billions of dollars in aid flowing to the region, the U.S. remains deeply embedded in the region.

“Any perception that the U.S. is leaving the region doesn’t line up with the facts,” Fontaine said.

While the panelists stopped short of offering policy solutions, they agreed that the region will remain a primary foreign policy interest in the next administration.

“No matter the price of oil or other energy alternatives, it is clear that the Middle East continues to be important to American national interest and to the world,” Wittes said. “We need stability in the region. It is important to the U.S.”

Istrabadi is also available for comment on the 2016 election season. You can learn about his expertise and more at Decision 2016, a comprehensive online media guide for elections resources at IU.

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