AMU Homeland Security Intelligence

2016 Election: The Next President's Choice in the Middle East

By John Ubaldi
Contributor, In Homeland Security

The Middle East has confounded every president since Franklin Roosevelt, with the region never knowing peace. But even through so many years of unrest, it has never been this unstable. The next president will have to make a distinct choice, either engage in the region or continue to disengage.

The current situation in the Middle East will certainly challenge the new president with the ongoing civil wars in Syria, Libya, and Yemen, coupled with the spillover that these civil wars have had, and are currently having on neighboring countries of Algeria, Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and Tunisia.

The continued turmoil Iran is imposing throughout the Middle East, and the ongoing tension between Iran and Saudi Arabia, has the potential to ignite a sectarian conflict into a Shia and Sunni religious war. Iraq is descending into a semi-failed state, and factor in ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) and other al-Qaeda affiliated terror organizations, and you see some of the challenges the next president will face.

The outline countries in the region of Kuwait, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates are hanging on as the region descends into chaos, and are perplexed and petrified on what is going on around them. Even Egypt, the largest and most populated Arab country, is struggling to come to grips with its transition from the tremulous regime changes of former President Hosni Mubarak, to the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood and the military takeover by the Egyptian military, led by current president General Abdel el-Sisi.

With all the turmoil in the Middle East, many in the United States feel that the Muslim people need to resolve their own differences, and that they cannot simple rely on the U.S. to solve their internal problems.

This may be wishful thinking, as the region’s leaders never seem to resolve what is truly boiling below the surface without outside interference, as they seem to only exasperate an already tenuous situation.

The Next President’s Middle East Challenge

Ken Pollack, writing in “Foreign Affairs”, comments on the challenges faced by the United States. “The next U.S. president is going to face a choice in the Middle East: do much more to stabilize it, or disengage from it much more. But given how tempestuous the region has become, both options—stepping up and stepping back—will cost the United States far more than is typically imagined. Stabilizing the region would almost certainly require more resources, energy, attention, and political capital than most advocates of a forward-leaning U.S. posture recognize. Similarly, giving up more control and abandoning more commitments in the region would require accepting much greater risks than most in this camp acknowledge. The costs of stepping up are more manageable than the risks of stepping back, but either option would be better than muddling through.”

With the onset of the 2016 Presidential election, neither candidate has articulated a coherent foreign policy vison for the United States throughout the Middle East region. All candidates continually respond to events, and either articulate what they will or will not do to appeal to their party’s base, but fail to understand the region as it is today.

Since 1973, the United States has been the preeminent power throughout the Middle East, but recently the region has witnessed the disengagement by the United States, which has allowed other powers to fill the vacuum left by the U.S.

Turkey has begun to assert greater influence; the Sunni Arabs see Iran exert its dominance in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen. Russia, absent from the Middle East since 1973, is now back as a regional player and exerting greater leverage with its military campaign in Syria.

In an interview conducted by Katie Allawala, of “Foreign Affairs”, while interviewing Denise Natali, a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies at the National Defense University, commented on perceptions of local people in the region, saying that if you ask the local people on the ground, they’re continually hedging their bets. They’re wanting to know, “Is the United States going to be here in two years? Who else is going to secure our interests? We don’t have a central government to do it anymore, we need to ally with another strong regional power.”

This concern has not been factored into the presidential election. No matter who takes office in January of 2017, the next president will have to make a distinct choice – either engage in the region or continue to disengage. So far neither of the candidates running for president have articulated a foreign policy vision for the United States as it relates to the Middle East. Will the U.S. engage or disengage…so far we don’t know.

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