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.