Middle East

Talking Points

  • The Obama Administration has failed to formulate effective policies to address the challenges posed by the “Arab Spring” and the Israeli–Palestinian conflict.
  • Washington should encourage incremental political and economic reforms by its friends, but it must realize that the chief barriers to freedom in the Middle East remain hostile regimes in Iran and Syria and the many terrorist organizations that they support. The Obama Administration should step up support for pro-democracy opposition movements in Iran and Syria.
  • Put the U.S.–Israeli partnership first. The political instability of the “Arab Spring” has underscored the fact that Israel is America’s only reliable ally in theregion.
  • The U.S. should work with its European, Turkish, and Arab allies to increase support for non-Islamist groups within Syria’s loose opposition coalition.
  • Washington should push for incremental steps in Israeli–Palestinian peace negotiations, not rush to failure on a comprehensive settlement.

The Issue

The Middle East, one of the world’s most volatile and conflict-ridden regions, continues to generate some of the most dangerous threats to U.S. security. Regrettably, the Obama Administration has failed to formulate effective policies to address the challenges posed by the turbulence of the “Arab Spring”—particularly Syria’s civil war and Egypt’s continued instability—as well as the Israeli–Palestinian conflict and the rising power of Iran.

The United States and the “Arab Spring.” The so-called Arab Spring, which began in Tunisia in December 2010, brought popular protests, political instability, and chaos to many Arab countries. Autocratic leaders were toppled in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and Yemen, and the beleaguered Assad dictatorship in Syria fought back ruthlessly, triggering a sectarian civil war that threatens the stability of surrounding countries. Although the initial pro-democracy impetus of the popular demonstrations was encouraging, Islamist extremists are positioned to exploit the ensuing political turmoil, economic disruptions, power vacuums, and anarchy.

The Administration’s hesitant and inconsistent responses to the unfolding populist uprisings have made the situation worse. The Administration quickly abandoned longtime ally President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt while equivocating for five months before calling on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down, despite the fact that Assad’s regime has a much worse human rights record and a long history of hostility to the United States. Syria remains a leading state sponsor of terrorism and is Iran’s chief ally in the region.

Instead of developing a long-term strategy to advance American interests and freedom in the Middle East, the Obama Administration has focused on the short-term symptoms of dysfunctional dictatorships. It plunged into an ill-considered war in Libya to enforce United Nations Security Council resolutions aimed at easing a humanitarian crisis, but the Syrian crisis, which involved a regime that posed a much greater threat to U.S. interests, received little attention, in part because Syria received greater backing from Russia in the U.N. Security Council. The United States should go to war only to defend vital national interests, not at the whim of the U.N. Security Council.

The Obama Administration’s policy toward Syria, like its policy toward Iran, has been flawed by wishful thinking about the prospects for diplomatically persuading a hostile dictatorship to stop repressing its own people and supporting terrorism. The Administration was slow to condemn the Assad regime for its crimes against Syrians, was slow to ramp up sanctions on the regime, and dragged its feet before finally concluding that Assad had lost legitimacy as a leader. It should have been clear that the Assad regime was illegitimate from the beginning.

Stumbling in Syria

President Obama has overpromised and failed to deliver on Syria policy. From the beginning, his Administration has been behind the curve in addressing the growing crisis. After waiting five months to declare in August 2011 that Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad must relinquish power, President Obama did little to advance that goal. The Administration’s insistence on multilateralism, almost as an end in itself, led it to outsource policy on Syria to the United Nations, where Russia and China exercised their veto power to block effective action.

Although the Administration offered humanitarian aid to Syrian refugees and later non-lethal aid for the Syrian opposition, it balked at providing arms. In 2012, President Obama overruled the advice of CIA Director David Petraeus, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey to provide arms aid. While the Administration engaged in wishful thinking about brokering an illusory political settlement, Russia and Iran showered the Assad regime with arms and economic aid. Iran also deployed Revolutionary Guards as advisers and ordered thousands of Hezbollah militiamen from Lebanon to join the fighting.

Then President Obama compounded the problem by carelessly announcing a “red line” against the use of chemical weapons in Syria without first developing a clear strategy or appropriate course to protect U.S. interests. After slow-walking an investigation of repeated incidents of chemical weapons use by the Assad regime, the Obama Administration announced in June 2013 that it would provide arms to Syria’s opposition. This amounted to too little, too late because U.S. and Western failure to provide meaningful support had allowed Islamist extremists backed by Islamist networks to gain the upper hand within Syria’s fractious opposition coalition.

After a massive chemical attack on August 21, 2013, that reportedly killed more than 1,000 Syrians, President Obama publicly threatened to launch a military reprisal against the Assad regime. After having second thoughts, he subsequently requested a congressional vote to authorize military action—a vote that he was likely to lose because of his failure to convince Congress that such an attack would advance U.S. national interests. The President then escaped from an embarrassing congressional rebuff by acceding to a risky and problematic Russian diplomatic proposal to dispatch international inspectors to disarm Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal that bolstered the legitimacy of the Assad regime, demoralized the Syrian opposition, and strengthened Moscow’s role in the Middle East.

The Libyan Letdown

In 2011, the Obama Administration launched a war in Libya, where no vital U.S. national interests were threatened, without a clear military plan or exit strategy. The Administration’s short-sighted effort to score a quick and easy military victory over Colonel Muammar Qadhafi’s regime failed to end the threat to civilians in “days not weeks,” as President Obama promised. Instead, Qadhafi fought on for seven months in a brutal civil war that killed an estimated 50,000 Libyans before he was captured and killed in late October 2011. Meanwhile, the Administration turned the military mission over to NATO and “led from behind,” confusing allies and adversaries about the U.S. commitment to a decisive victory.

After Qadhafi’s regime fell, Libya disintegrated into a patchwork of warring fiefdoms ruled by fiercely independent militias. The weak and fragile post-war government was incapable of restoring central authority and the rule of law. On September 11, 2012, Islamist militants launched a terrorist attack against the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, killing Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. The Obama Administration, which had ignored the rising threat posed by Islamist extremists in Libya and elsewhere, in part because such threats contradicted its election-year rhetoric about al-Qaeda being on the run, blamed the deaths on nonexistent “protesters” who allegedly were provoked by an obscure film that supposedly “insulted” the prophet Mohamed when, in fact, the deaths resulted from acts of terrorism aimed at the U.S. officials.

The Obama Administration belatedly admitted that the attack was in fact a terrorist attack, but has failed to capture the terrorists responsible for the murders. The Administration also belittled congressional efforts to investigate the attacks and failed to adequately investigate and hold accountable high-level State Department officials who blocked repeated requests to shore up security at the Benghazi mission.

Blunders in Egypt

Egypt, the largest Arab country, is a bellwether for the Arab Middle East. The United States has a national interest in stabilizing Egypt, preventing the rise of an Islamist totalitarian state, and preventing the eruption of a full-blown civil war in the heart of the Arab world.

The Obama Administration has been asleep at the switch for several years on Egypt policy. It eagerly embraced Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood–dominated government in 2012 and was surprised that Egypt’s people so quickly became violently opposed to Islamist rule. The Administration gambled that the practical responsibilities of governing would dilute the hostile anti-Western ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood, but once in office, Morsi relentlessly expanded his own power in a winner-take-all manner while neglecting Egypt’s festering economic problems.

The Obama Administration’s enthusiasm for the Muslim Brotherhood led it to turn a blind eye to Morsi’s power grabs, the rising persecution of Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority, the crackdown on pro-democracy nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that the Mubarak regime formerly tolerated, and the restrictions that the Morsi government placed on freedom of the press, freedom of speech, and freedom of religion.

The Obama Administration failed to publicly criticize Morsi’s excesses, power grabs, and abuses. This led Egypt’s secular and liberal opposition to turn to Egypt’s army in despair, angry that the Obama Administration uncritically supported the Morsi regime. Many protesters demonstrating against Morsi before the July 3, 2013, coup also carried signs protesting President Obama’s support for the Morsi regime. Morsi, for his part, felt no need to compromise with the opposition or temper his Islamist ambitions because the Administration was reluctant to use the leverage afforded by $1.5 billion in annual U.S. aid to Egypt.

Secular, democratic, and liberal Egyptians opposed to an Islamist takeover should be natural allies of the U.S., not leading a backlash against American policy. The fact that Egyptians resent the Obama Administration’s courting of the Muslim Brotherhood should be a wake-up call for the White House. It is a sad sign that U.S. policy toward Egypt has gone off the rails. Egyptian advocates of freedom should know that Americans support their efforts and do not side with former President Morsi, an Islamist authoritarian leader who is hostile to American values and policies. Egypt’s July 3, 2013, army coup gives Egypt a second chance to make the difficult transition to a stable democracy.

The Israeli–Palestinian Conflict

The chief barriers to peace between Israel and the Palestinian Authority are Palestinian terrorist attacks, not Israeli settlements. Many Israeli settlements are located in areas that eventually could be folded into Israel in exchange for equal amounts of Israeli territory transferred to Palestinian control if and when borders are agreed upon in a final settlement.

Yet when the Administration sought to revive the comatose peace process, which has been on American-supplied life support since the collapse of the 2000 Camp David summit, it made a settlement freeze the centerpiece of its strategy. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government agreed to a temporary freeze of West Bank settlements but balked at halting housing construction in east Jerusalem, which is claimed by both Israelis and Palestinians. It was unwise for the Administration to push for a settlement freeze in Jerusalem that no Israeli government could agree to in the absence of rapid movement for a permanent peace settlement that would include ironclad provisions to ensure Israel’s security against terrorist attacks.

The Administration’s primary focus on the settlements guaranteed friction with Israel’s center-right government and hardened the Palestinian negotiating position, because Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas could not be seen as less opposed to settlements than the United States is. Despite the fact that Palestinians had negotiated for many years without gaining such a settlement freeze, Abbas has made it a condition for resuming talks. As long as this emphasis on halting construction in Jerusalem continues, there is likely to be little progress on negotiations because the Palestinians will sit back and let Washington extract concessions from Israel without feeling any need to reciprocate with concessions of their own. To make matters worse, Abbas chose to push for the United Nations to endorse unilateral Palestinian statehood rather than relying on negotiations with Israel, which is the only genuine path to peace.


Recommendations

  1. Put the U.S.–Israel partnership first. The political instability that has swept the Arab Middle East in recent years has underscored the fact that Israel is America’s only reliable, stable ally in the region. The Administration should rethink its Middle East priorities to enhance strategic cooperation and improve bilateral relations with the Middle East’s only genuine democracy.
  2. Work to create more pro-Western democracies and fewer dictatorships in the Middle East. In the wake of the “Arab Spring,” the United States has an opportunity to encourage and support the emergence of democratic governments that respect the rights of their own people, oppose terrorism, and reject the siren call of Islamist extremism. Washington should encourage incremental political and economic reforms by its friends, but it also must realize that the chief barriers to freedom in the Middle East remain hostile regimes in Iran and Syria and the many terrorist organizations that they support. The Obama Administration should step up its so far half-hearted support for pro-democracy opposition movements in Iran and Syria.
  3. Support Egypt’s efforts to make the transition to a stable democracy. The United States should support freedom in Egypt to advance its own interests as well as those of the Egyptian people. The interim government established by the army in July 2013 has a better chance of laying the groundwork for a democratic transition than the Muslim Brotherhood regime that it overthrew, which was headed for dictatorship. The U.S. should leverage any aid that it continues to give Egypt to ensure that whatever regime emerges in Cairo adheres to the terms of its peace treaty with Israel and respects the freedom and human rights of its own citizens, particularly those of women and Egypt’s Christian minority, which comprises about 10 percent of Egypt’s population.
  4. Help Libya make the difficult transition to political stability. Washington should continue to work with Libya’s new leaders to build a stable and effective democratic government and should provide technical help in repairing Libya’s damaged oil infrastructure to expedite the flow of its oil exports. Washington also should offer to train Libya’s military and intelligence personnel and cooperate with them to locate, secure, and destroy Qadhafi’s stockpile of mustard gas, remove supplies of yellowcake uranium, and recover anti-aircraft missiles and other weapons to prevent them from falling into the hands of terrorists. In return, the Libyan government should be pressed to assist the investigation into the Benghazi terrorist attacks more actively and bring the terrorists involved to justice.
  5. Adopt a realistic and effective policy on Syria. As bad as the chemical attacks by the Assad regime are, a much worse threat to the U.S. and its allies would arise if Assad’s chemical weapons fell into the hands of al-Qaeda or Hezbollah. The U.S. should work with friends and allies to prevent these terrorists from obtaining Assad’s chemical weapons. Unlike Assad, they are likely to use the banned weapons in terrorist campaigns outside Syria against the U.S. or its allies. Washington should cultivate non-Islamist allies within the Syrian opposition that could monitor the disposition of Assad’s chemical weapons, track their movements, and destroy or seize them if necessary. Such allies could also help contain and combat al-Qaeda and its allies after the fall of Assad. The U.S. should work with its European, Turkish, and Arab friends to increase international support and humanitarian aid for moderate non-Islamist groups within Syria’s loose opposition coalition. Ultimately, the goal should be to force President Assad to step down and be replaced by a transitional government that limits the influence of Islamist extremists.
  6. Push for incremental steps in Israeli–Palestinian peace negotiations, not rush to failure on a comprehensive settlement. Washington should continue its efforts to revive the stalled Israeli–Palestinian peace talks but should refocus its diplomacy by abandoning the Administration’s counterproductive campaign during its first term for an immediate freeze on Israeli settlements, which only encouraged the Palestinian Authority to hold back from negotiations. Instead of an all-out push for a comprehensive settlement, which is impossible as long as Hamas controls Gaza, Washington should press for incremental progress on security arrangements, confidence-building measures, and bolstering the welfare of Palestinians on the West Bank. This would help to shore up support for the Palestinian Authority at the expense of Hamas, which has transformed Gaza into a base for terrorism.

Facts & Figures

  • Popular revolts have led to the downfall of leaders in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya while greatly destabilizing Bahrain, Syria, and Yemen. Morocco and Jordan appear to have escaped political turmoil due to the leadership of kings who embraced reform and enjoy popular legitimacy. Algeria, Iraq, Kuwait, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia have been relatively unscathed by popular protests related to the “Arab Spring” but still face daunting political challenges.
  • The Assad regime, aided by Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah, has provoked a civil war that has claimed the lives of more than 100,000 Syrians and driven more than 3 million out of the country into refugee camps in neighboring Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, and Iraq.
  • The “Arab Spring” has weakened governments aligned with the West while creating political instability, economic collapse, and chaos that has favored Islamist extremists competing for power in affected countries. Al-Qaeda also has exploited the chaos to expand its influence and carve out sanctuaries in Syria, Yemen, Libya, and Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.
  • While Israel remains committed to a negotiated resolution of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, Palestinians have not negotiated in good faith. Hamas, which controls Gaza, rejects not only negotiations, but also Israel’s very right to exist. The Palestinian Authority, which broke off negotiations with Israel, is now seeking statehood unilaterally and hopes to gain U.N. support for this goal.
  • The U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration reported in May 2013 that (a) America imports on net about 40 percent of its oil, (b) of that amount, 29 percent came from Persian Gulf countries (Bahrain, Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates), and (c) U.S. dependence on imported oil peaked in 2005 and has been declining since.

Selected Additional Resources

Heritage Experts on Middle East


  • Steven Bucci

    Director, Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies


  • James Jay Carafano, PhD

    Vice President, Foreign and Defense Policy Studies


  • Charlotte Florance

    Research Associate for Economic Freedom in Africa and the Middle East


  • James Phillips

    Senior Research Fellow for Middle Eastern Affairs

To talk to one of our experts, please contact us by phone at 202-608-1515 or by email.