February 22nd, 2012
10:56 AM ET

America’s incoherent and inconsistent Middle East policy

Editor’s Note: This is an edited version of an article from the ‘Oxford Analytica Daily Brief’. Oxford Analytica is a global analysis and advisory firm that draws on a worldwide network of experts to advise its clients on their strategy and performance.

The three traditional pillars of Washington's strategy for the Middle East have long been energy security, the security of Israel, and protecting ‘friendly leaders’. In the last decade, countering terrorism became another pillar. Pursuing all four of these pillars simultaneously has always been challenging.  The last year of political upheavals in the region has made the balancing act even trickier.

Washington’s policymakers remain stuck in a reactive mode, struggling to understand what the future might hold forU.S.interests in the region. Whereas most Middle East governments had fairly positive relations with Washington a year ago, their successors keeping their distance. Untested populists are coming to power with different priorities from their predecessors. Previously friendly rulers are more wary ofU.S.ties, or are making things awkward for relations by cracking down on civic groups.

One thing has remained constant, a dilemma that U.S. policymakers have faced for decades: Whether to give up short-term stability by upsetting the status quo of authoritarian rulers so that more legitimate and sustainable governments might emerge or whether to work with authoritarian leaders in the hope that they will gradually open up their societies to the benefit of longer-term stability.

Former President George W Bush's administration showed interest in the first path, but felt forced by its ‘global war on terror’ to follow the second. It found that only existing governments could deliver what the United States wanted in the Middle East. For example, in Egypt, the United States relied on then-President Hosni Mubarak and the army leadership to ensure peace with Israel and facilitate the movement ofU.S.troops. Close intelligence cooperation on counterterrorism institutionalizedAmerica’s interest in supporting Mubarak.

In 2011 President Obama’s administration found itself facing the sharp end of the traditional dilemma: Support revolutionaries acting in the name of democracy, or authoritarians acting in the name of stability?

In each case it took time for the administration to decide its position. It adopted different approaches, backing change where it seemed inevitable (Tunisia,Egypt and Libya), while being much more cautious about Bahrain, where change seemed less certain, where vitalU.S.military assets are based, and where Saudi Arabian and Gulf allies would not welcome any strongerU.S.stance onBahrain’s treatment of demonstrators.

The Obama Administration has limited influence on Syria outcomes, and the more Libya swirls into militia-led violence and Iraq defies efforts to create a stable democratic order, the more cautious Washington grows about any direct intervention. If it previously believed that any outcome is better than the status quo in Syria, it believes this less strongly now.

How far will Washington seek (or be able) to support authoritarian allies facing popular unrest? Overall, there is no clear ‘Obama Doctrine’ on democratic change - no clear set of principles for when and how the United States will abandon allies or seek to overthrow foes. An ad hoc approach prevails a year into dramatic political changes in the region.

The Obama administration may believe that it is obliged to protect Gulf monarchies from external threats, but that does not mean it feels obligated to protect them from the demands of their own publics. The administration is advising allies to pursue engagement and openness, but has not decided how it will interact with populist Islamist governments.

Even if Obama’s instinct is to attempt to engage in dialogue with these groups, many in Congress would prefer to isolate them.U.S.policy is likely to be viewed in the Middle East as inconsistent and incoherent for some time to come. This in turn will undermine overall regional stability.

For samples of the Oxford Analytica Daily Brief, click here.


soundoff (24 Responses)
  1. ms

    The reason for that is the Middle East IS incoherent and inconsistent.

    February 22, 2012 at 1:09 pm | Reply
  2. Jack

    The person who wrote this obviously can't into grammar or punctuation.

    February 22, 2012 at 4:58 pm | Reply
    • mbjrp36

      They are using a different version of english. eg; armour vs. armor

      February 24, 2012 at 1:51 am | Reply
  3. j. von hettlingen

    The Middle East is a difficult part of the world. The ethnicities themselves aren't so much of a problem but the dogma of their religions that give rise to sectarian conflicts.

    February 22, 2012 at 5:12 pm | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      The rulers resort to oppression to keep all the simmering dissent and discontent under the lid.

      February 22, 2012 at 5:14 pm | Reply
      • j. von hettlingen

        Each country is different. Whether to help the opposition of a country depends much on the cost-benefit-analysis.

        February 22, 2012 at 5:16 pm |
  4. jal

    All of the ore looks the same when you are close to the fire.

    February 22, 2012 at 6:03 pm | Reply
    • jal

      We all need help when things get heated.

      February 22, 2012 at 8:34 pm | Reply
  5. Goodguy1

    Every country is different. Some countries have natural resources that drive wealth and take care of their populations, other countries have nothing but sorghum and heartbreaking poverty. Location is an issue, is a country on a major sea route or land locked, borders Israel or not? Is a country technologically capable of making an advanced war, or is a country's tactics one that pushes a million troops to the front with nothing more than an assault rifle and a magazine of ammo? So many variables. Just so many variables. And back to the resources: What do they have? Dates, Coconuts, Olives, Oil, Camels and live stock, smokin hot Iranian women?

    February 22, 2012 at 6:21 pm | Reply
    • George Patton

      The current American Middle East policy is one of conquest howbeit in disguise. This has been going on for centuries on end by other world powers. The U.S. is seeking to become dominant there today, thus all these long and bloody wars over there!

      February 22, 2012 at 7:45 pm | Reply
  6. grenadaboy

    Our behavior will NOT undermine anything. Or should I say our present behavior. Finally someone who respects truly, self determination. If we don't care for the determination we have a choice. Engage, don't engage, China, Cuba. We've been SO effective in Cuba. Hip hip for us.

    February 22, 2012 at 8:23 pm | Reply
  7. Unknown

    The reason why the Middle East policy is inconsistent is because the countries are inconsistent. You have pro-Western countries in the Gulf. Syria, Iraq, and to a lesser extent Lebanon are more aligned with Iran. Those countries are populated by large populations of religious and ethnic minorities such as Kurds, Alawi, Assyrian, Armenians, Christian, Yazidi, Durze ect. Not to mention the elephant in the room, Israel, whose conflict with the Palestinians defines much of the modern history of the region. To think the Middle East is nothing but sand, Arabs, and Muslims is just ignorance.

    February 22, 2012 at 10:52 pm | Reply
  8. S.V.P.YADAV

    Dear Oxford Analytica, For U S concerns, Middle East Policy is incoherent and inconsistent bacause Religians different and way of tactics different.So U S donot enter in to Middle East Poloicy, In bussiness concerns go ahead. In my verdict U S is a true coumtry.

    February 23, 2012 at 8:55 am | Reply
  9. GOPisGreedOverPeople

    The GOP solution: Start a war with Iran (totally unfunded of course). Then send the poor people to fight/die in the war while giving the rich people "no bid contracts" (killing two birds with one stone). Then use Iran's oil to pay for the war. And when the war is over, Iran will sell us cheap oil!!!.......Just like in Iraq!!!!..........Oh wait.......Never mind.

    February 23, 2012 at 9:29 am | Reply
  10. patod

    the middle east has always been a little incoherent and inconsistent. all depends on who is in power in each country - one of the big concerns in going into the middle east is - sometimes it is better to know the devil you are dealling with than to not know same. as seen in egypt, a radical group has won many seats in the parliament as well as an ultra-radical group. this doesn't bode well for israel or us. we are damned if we do and damned if we don't (if we do, the same scenario could play out as in egypt; if we don't, the syrians will hate us because we didn't go in and help the opposition and civilians being killed). it is sad, but we don't know who is in the opposition, so it wouldn't be wise to just go in and start bombing (or whatever).

    February 23, 2012 at 10:43 am | Reply
  11. matt a.

    The world has always been in turmoil. What makes anyone think coherence and consistency exist: people, places,events, provide the variables.

    February 23, 2012 at 11:43 am | Reply
  12. Andrey

    If you throw away all that liberal (in the wide sense) sentiment about The Democracy being The Good and The Only Answer and the Angry Mob being always Right, and try a rational approach – it will look much more clear and will leave very little space for "inconsistency". But liberals believe that will make you Evil. Too bad that there are too many of them and too few rational people around these days.

    February 23, 2012 at 2:15 pm | Reply
  13. 4 the good

    I'm pretty tired of my country funding and them hating us. Time to cut the strings. In all our years as a super power, with massive enclives of weapons of mass destruction, like silos of corn, wheat.....we have in this time of the end shared our feelings of Islam with Russia and China. In which we become a trilogy. None wish Islam to survive.

    February 23, 2012 at 5:25 pm | Reply
    • Mohammad A Dar

      Why west does not pack and leave middle east, Muslims are sick of western hinduism, always leaching on middle east resources and no end in sight. Muslim countries are better of with Islam and without hindu west. Do your self a favor and get out of middle east for good, and world will see how hindu west will survive without Muslims and Islam.

      February 23, 2012 at 5:33 pm | Reply
      • Marine5484

        Well said, Mohammad A Dar. I totally agree. Just ignore that ignoramus 4 the good above. The West sorely needs to leave the Muslim countries alone!

        February 23, 2012 at 7:43 pm |
      • MG.

        So your saying that 911 never happened?

        February 24, 2012 at 1:39 am |
  14. david marriott

    This is an easy one! ...Obam never had a foriegn policy!

    February 24, 2012 at 1:15 am | Reply
  15. mbjrp36

    I believe this is a good thing. The old "one nation fits all" plans were totally ignorant of the local distinctions at play and caused more harm than good and even added to groups like Al-Queda's narrative of the US.

    February 24, 2012 at 1:57 am | Reply
  16. Meta

    I get pleasure from, lead to I discovered just what I was having a look for. You have ended my four day lengthy hunt! God Bless you man. Have a great day. Bye

    May 15, 2012 at 4:50 pm | Reply

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