As President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry prepare to visit the Middle East, they face an altered landscape that demands a fresh approach.
President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have chosen wisely to visit the Middle East early in Mr. Obama's second term, but when they go, will they have anything new to say? U.S. interests are at significant risk as the region continues to undergo profound changes and instability, and Arab and European allies are asking for greater U.S. engagement and leadership. The region also presents the United States with unanticipated opportunities, such as the development of Arab democracies and a reduction in Iranian influence. The challenge facing the United States is how to lead without dominating, and how to protect and promote U.S. interests without absolving other actors of responsibility. Thus, the task for this administration is to develop a strategy to match the President's positive rhetoric with real follow-up in diplomacy, assistance, and security cooperation.
While many core U.S. interests in the region -- access to energy, the security of Israel, WMD nonproliferation, counterterrorism -- have endured for decades, the Middle East and North Africa of today present challenges and opportunities that are in some ways radically different from those of four years ago. Few imagined when President Obama began his first term that, by the end of it, no fewer than five Arab countries previously under authoritarian rule would embark on paths of profound change with the explicit goal of becoming democracies (Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and Iraq); that a sixth would experience internal struggles (Bahrain); and that a seventh (Syria) would be embroiled in a civil war in which tens of thousands would die.
The Arab uprisings have not only unseated rulers and brought new political actors, including Islamists, to power. They have also profoundly altered regional dynamics in ways that the United States has only begun to recognize. The resistance axis once led by Iran (which included Syria, Hezbollah, and Hamas) has unraveled, discredited by Iran's support for a brutal Syrian regime, thus opening the possibility of greatly diminished Iranian influence. On the negative side, arms and mercenaries once controlled by Libyan leader Muammar el-Qaddafi are on the loose, and terrorist groups affiliated with al-Qaeda are exploiting a lawless atmosphere that threatens to destabilize North Africa and the Levant.
U.S. strategy for the Middle East in Mr. Obama's second term should be organized around two strategic imperatives: containing new and old threats to U.S. interests, and embracing the opportunities inherent in the calls for dignity (citizenship, rights, and economic opportunity) that emerged in the Arab uprisings. Containing threats must focus first and foremost on preparing for the coming Middle East cold war with Iran, whose acquisition of a nuclear weapons capability is but a few years away. The United States should continue to work to prevent such an outcome, but unfortunately Iran's use of North Korean negotiating tactics looks likely to succeed. As the consequences of a U.S. military campaign would be even more dangerous than facing a world with a nuclear Iran, the United States should work assiduously and expeditiously with its NATO and Gulf allies to develop a supporting military posture to contain a nuclear Iran until Iran's own demographic trends change the hostile nature of the regime.