Carrots or sticks? The future of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East

By Lorena Fortuno

The role of the United States:  Changes in Middle East Foreign Policy

Since the early stages of the Cold War, one of the main policy goals of the United States has been to promote and maintain its influence in the Middle East in order to gain access to a stable oil market. Another, as Nicholas Kitchen said, has been to respond to significant domestic pressures by forming an ideological commitment to the state of Israel.

These interests have for many years led to a foreign policy strategy to prevent any hegemonic power, regional or extra-regional, from gaining control of the area, betting on a regional balance kept in place by deterrence, alliances and occasional interventions.

After the Cold War, the world witnessed a strengthening of extremist Islamic factions, mainly as a rejection – often violent – of the sustained rule of U.S. sponsored or tolerated authoritarian regimes in Middle East.

Following 9/11, the U.S. Middle East strategy adjusted to include G.W. Bush’s “War on Terror” and “Freedom Agenda” as a more aggressive plan to guarantee stability in the region as well as domestic security. Nonetheless this strategy backfired, as it created a great contradiction between nation-building and the pursuit of domestic interests.

The Obama Administration – An emerging doctrine?

After a highly interventionist approach from the Republicans, President Obama brought a new approach to foreign policy that, in George Freidman’s words, can be read as a symbol of maturity: he argues that foreign policy is made by reality, not policy papers or presidents.

The “Arab Spring” presented a further challenge for the U.S. leadership, but the Obama administration’s approach remained focused on national interest priorities, while still seeking to maintain influence through diplomacy and soft power.

Being a hegemonic power, the U.S. faces diverse and complex threats, but nonetheless Washington’s priority has been to manage or mitigate emerging conflicts in the Middle East by searching for a regional balance through diplomatic means, addressing strongly only those that challenge its main interests and otherwise leaving events to take their own course.

This position may be perceived as weak by some American allies and by voters and some factions within Washington, but as Friedman argues, this might be “less a form of isolationism than a recognition of the limits of power and interest”.

2012 Elections:  Effects on Middle East Foreign Policy

Assuming there is an emerging doctrine and a new approach to world leadership and foreign policy, how much could it be affected by this year’s presidential elections?

Mitt Romney, Republican presidential candidate, recently implied during a speech at the Virginia Military Institute that the current administration’s strategy has led to a loss of American leadership and influence throughout the world and he maintains that if elected, his approach would be more military-based and active.

Arguing that allowing the balance of power and events to take its course only delays American intervention, Romney proposes what Friedman describes as “active balancing” to maintain and defend American interests abroad and reinforce national security.

But is this approach realistic? According to Romney, global resentment and anti-American sentiment fuel terrorism and anti-American groups. Could he intervene actively in Middle Eastern conflicts without intensifying these sentiments?

Would he be able to take a tougher approach towards preventing the buildup of Iran’s nuclear capability without creating further instability in the region?

What do you think?

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