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The United States Foreign Policy Balancing Act Above The Middle East Fires

Updated on September 22, 2015

The U.S. Foreign Policy Balancing Act Above The Middle East Fires

The Middle East has been ablaze in revolutionary fervor since December 17, 2010 when a Tunisian vegetable salesman set himself on fire. This occurred after a policewoman fined him and confiscated his cart. He tried to appeal to his municipality but was turned away. He eventually died of his burns. This sparked demonstrations in Tunisia over political corruption, lack of democracy, and the poor economy. These demonstrations escalated until President Zine El Abdine Ben Ali was forced to resign on January 14, 2011.

Revolutionary demonstrations then spread to Egypt and took down Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak. Large demonstrations and calls for authoritarian ruler stepdowns have now spread to several Middle East nations. The United States now has a difficult and complex situation to deal with. How are we supposed to conduct our foreign policy in such a diverse and changing Middle East?

In the past we concentrated on our most primary national security interests such as oil security, Communism, terrorism, and Israeli security. Primary national security concerns will remain vitally important to U.S. foreign policymakers but they may not continue to always hold this primary importance. The aspirations for freedom and democracy all over the middle eastern region are very strong and show no signs of waning. I will examine within this article what I feel are the prime short term and long term interests of the U.S. in the Middle East today. I will then try to show how these interests interact and how our actions in each new case will depend on circumstances on the ground as well as the politics of the possible. All of this will be explained with an eye on freedom for the people of the Middle East and our long term goal of peace and stability in this critical region.

I would like to first address the two primary security concerns that the United States has in the Middle East. They are energy security by way of oil and the fight against terrorism. Historically U.S. foreign policymakers have primarily focused on protecting the oil fields and shipping lanes within the Middle East. This has caused us to support several authoritarian governments who have assured us stable access to their oil and to the rest of the Middle East. This policy worked well for many years. Oil flowed plentifully and reliably out of this region to the west for most of the past century. There was a severe oil shortage in 1979 due to the Iranian Revolution proving the dire consequences of turmoil in this region. This just reinforced the opinions of policymakers that keeping pliant Middle East rulers in office was beneficial to the United States.

American Presidents have always advocated for democracy rhetorically but never behind the scenes to these despots where it really counts. The George W. Bush administration invaded Iraq, overthrew Saddam Hussein, and installed a democracy. President Obama made a speech in Egypt in 2009 advocating for freedom and human rights that was widely applauded in the region. Now the Middle East has taken these messages to heart and is taking action to assert and acquire their human rights. As a result the U.S. has the need to choose between supporting authoritarian regimes that are friendly to our oil interests or to back their rebellious citizens who are seeking freedom and democracy.

What should the U.S. government do in these situations? This is a difficult balancing act. Additionally what is to be done about our war on terrorism? Many authoritarian Middle East leaders have been supporting our fight in this arena to one degree or another. This has been true in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Jordan to name just a few. How far should we go to defend them if rebellions develop or should we defend them? Once again there is no simple answer. Backing Middle East dictators has burned us in the past leaving countries that have wide swaths of their citizenry resenting or hating the United States. These actions have helped sow the seeds for the current terrorist wave against us. This puts us directly in the middle of a "Catch 22". In the past we simply backed these Middle East dictators who helped us with matters of American security whether they concerned oil, Communism, or Terrorism. The current revolutionary atmosphere in the Middle East makes this policy a folly. This movement is too strong to simply oppose blindly. Iran was the cautionary tale of the 1970s. The situation is much more dangerous now. Therefore we urgently need a new long term Middle East foreign policy doctrine.

The blueprint for a new long term policy towards the Middle East has already been put in place albeit in an ad hoc manner. Ironically it was started by the George W. Bush administration. That administration's neo-conservative policymakers advocated for a robust foreign policy that included overthrowing Saddam Hussein in Iraq and installing a democracy. They felt this precedent might create a groundswell for democracy in the region. Understandably it initially created great anger and hatred towards the U.S. which increased the incidences of terrorism against Americans. The Palestinians subsequently conducted an election in their territories in which the terrorist organization Hamas emerged victorious. This clearly illustrates that the policy of advocating for democracy in the Middle East is fraught with peril.

Then President Obama made his speech to the Muslim world at Cairo University in Egypt on June 4, 2009. He encouraged better understanding between Muslims and the United States. He also encouraged democracy by stating that all peoples have human rights such as freedom of speech, the right to determine how you are governed, equal rule of law and justice, transparent and honest government, and the freedom to live as one chooses. The people of the Middle East heard this speech loud and clear. I believe it laid the groundwork for the subsequent revolutions that have occurred and continue to occur this year all over the Middle East region.

We cannot now stray from President Obama's message in our conduct of Middle East foreign policy. Of course there will be a need for nuanced responses from country to country as well as situation to situation. The U.S. has differing levels of influence in each Middle Eastern country. We have great influence within the internal politics of Egypt but we have almost none within Libya. This variance of influence holds true throughout the Middle East. The result of all of this is that we need to adapt to each situation differently if we wish to handle them correctly and achieve the outcomes we desire. The bottom line for the U.S. is that we should always be seeking to have the human rights of Middle Eastern citizens upheld with their personal freedom our ultimate goal.

Now I would like to turn to the longest running and probably the most influential issue in the Middle East. This is the Israeli-Palestinian issue. This conflict has bedeviled the United States and the world for decades. The other peoples of the Middle East are viscerally connected to it. Therefore the U.S. needs to be actively involved with the two sides to honestly help broker a peace deal. The Obama Administration has been active in this pursuit but with little to show for it at this time. The Bush Administration had proposed a "Road Map For Peace" but conducted very little diplomacy with the Palestinians to help the process along. At the same time they embraced and praised Israel at every opportunity. This dichotomy of support became increasingly evident to the Palestinians and the rest of the Middle East as time went on. Soon U.S. credibility as a peace broker in this conflict disappeared. The standing of the United States in the Middle East suffered greatly as a result.

The Obama Administration has brought a more balanced approach to mediating between the Israelis and the Palestinians. He has reiterated American allegiance with Israel and its defense pact with them. At the same time, he strongly denounced the expanding Israeli settlements in the disputed West Bank. Again this change in policy by the U.S. has been readily noticed by the Middle East engendering much more respect and credibilty in regards to American diplomacy in this region. The basic outlines for a peace agreement regarding borders between these two sides has been in place for over a decade. The ironing out of peripheral yet important issues such as Jerusalem, water rights, refugee return, and Israeli settlements in the West Bank still must be hammered out. Israel is wary about terrorism on their citizens and the split between Fatah and Hamas. The Palestinians are angry about the continuing expansion of the Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Only the United States with support of the Arab League can bring these two sides together to continue negotiations towards a lasting peace.

These negotiations are extremely contentious but they are the key to the United States' goal of peace in the Middle East. A treaty on this issue would make relations in the rest of this region much easier to negotiate. Therefore the Obama Administration must remain intimately involved in helping to settle this conflict.

How then should the United States government ultimately run their Middle East foreign policy? They have short and long term interests which I have outlined in this article. Often times these interests clash. Can they be brought into better harmony? All situations are different and all will require close examination in regards to the various aspects of the turmoil in order to develop the proper nuanced response. Now this is not the neat black and white answer that most Americans prefer to hear and have explained to them. It doesn't fit into a short sound bite.

I believe that our first response should always be to rhetorically support a people who are demonstrating or rebelling against an authoritarian government. The subsequent move we make will depend on our relationship with that government and the resulting level of influence we have on them. Countries such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan are examples where U.S. influence is great. Diplomacy and economic influence will be our primary tools in these instances.

Unfortunately when it comes to nations such as Libya, Iran, and Syria our influence is negligible. Here we must gather coalitions of nations to implement economic sanctions or military quarantines. The U.S. military is stretched too thin with two ongoing wars and other obligations around the globe to undertake military actions against another country on its own. Besides, working with the other nations of the world to ensure peace and security is the way we acquire and maximize respect and prestige within the global community.

Another factor affecting our responses is how reasonably practical or possible it is to act against an intransigent authoritarian government. Libya is a small nation where air support and strikes are easily conducted. Iran is much larger and more densely populated with heavier defenses. The current U.S.-NATO military action against Libya has been relatively easy to conduct. An action against Iran's nascent nuclear facilities may soon be necessary due to the security threat it poses to the world. It will be an immensely more difficult operation to carry out and therefore will probably occur only if it becomes an imminent threat.

My belief is that the only instance where we should consider using unilateral military action against a Middle East nation or any nation is when a critical national security interest is at stake or there is an imminent lethal threat to ourselves or one of our allies. This is the order of ascending responses I feel the United States should use in dealing with the developing Middle East uprisings. We must be the fair minded interlocutor in these situations to ensure the smoothest transitions in government that we possibly can. This includes the Israeli-Palestinian conflict which colors the dispositions of the entire Middle East. Abdicating these responsibilities within the Middle East would cause dire consequences for the region and for the United States itself.

This region is critical to our national security for all the reasons I have outlined in this Hub. The U.S. will not always respond perfectly in each situation. There is too much complexity and too many contradictions in the Middle East to expect perfection. But with diligent analysis, diplomacy, and adjustments on the fly, we can steer this explosive time in Middle East history on to a calmer and more peaceful era. An era where freedom, human rights, and democracy are the standard and authoritarian rulers are the rare exception.


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    • profile image

      Howard Schneider 4 years ago from Parsippany, New Jersey

      Secretary of State John Kerry and the Obama Administration have finally been able to get off the dime and maneuver the Israelis and Palestinians into negotiations for a comprehensive peace deal. Do not get me wrong. The odds are still against it but negotiating out issues is far better than stalemate and violence. We will see how it goes but a true resolution of this conflict would go a long ways to calming the Middle East as a whole. It will also greatly raise our flagging stature in this region.

    • profile image

      Howard Schneider 5 years ago from Parsippany, New Jersey

      I truly believe that if we could find a true peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, that we could find true peace with real freedom for all the countries of the Middle East. It would be a catalyst for all of that. Not immediately but slowly and steadily. You are exactly correct that 3 of the major world religions are seated there. Therefore if we could find a way for all of them to co-exist there, peace should surely reign in the Middle East. Thank you for your insightful comments, MrsBrownsParlour.

    • MrsBrownsParlour profile image

      Lurana Brown 5 years ago from Chicagoland, Illinois

      HSchneider---the Middle East and particularly the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is politically closest to my heart. It is crucial to the future of international relations & law, terrorism, and inter-faith dialogue ( (since Jerusalem is the sacred seat of 3 major world religions). The United States' neutral role as mediator in the peace process truly was compromised by our ties to Israel. I wholeheartedly agree with your statement: "The bottom line for the U.S. is that we should always be seeking to have the human rights of Middle Eastern citizens upheld with their personal freedom our ultimate goal." Thank you for this insightful analysis.

    • profile image

      Howard Schneider 6 years ago from Parsippany, New Jersey

      Thank you very much HTodd.

    • htodd profile image

      htodd 6 years ago from United States

      Great post..

    • profile image

      Howard Schneider 6 years ago from Parsippany, New Jersey

      Thank you for reading my Hub and fanning me . Welcome aboard The BigChill.

    • TheBigChill profile image

      TheBigChill 6 years ago from Bosnia and Herzegovina

      New reader, new fan here.

    • profile image

      Howard Schneider 7 years ago from Parsippany, New Jersey

      Thank you Wil C. Unfortunately the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is looking even dicier and now George Mitchell has resigned as envoy there. It is looking like the region is waiting for the other revolutions to play themselves out. This is unfortunate because this is such an explosive conflict. Hopefully the Bin-Laden decision will continue the downward spiral of Al-Qaeda. This terror organization was dying anyhow with the Middle East uprisings which have developed from the common people for freedom and human rights. Al-Qaeda is incompatible with that. I sincerely hope the Obama Administration continues supporting these uprisings of the people and will stay on the right side of history. Some governments will not be as we would like but in the long run this will create a much more peaceful region.

    • Wil C profile image

      Wil C 7 years ago from United States of America

      Excellent article. I believe as you that we must find a way to help Israel and Palestine reach some peaceful agreement. Our relationship with Israel(who is viewed as an aggressor in the region)puts us in a tricky position. I also conclude that Barrack Obama has handled foreign policy in a highly intelligent manner(he must have great advisers)that should give our nation confidence in his abilities. The Bin Laden decision was a huge decision and has created quite a stir. I believe it was the right decision. The sovereignty issue is becoming a bit of a headache but I believe our diplomats will bring it home. I believe also that we have an oppurtunity to show people we will do all we can to provide peace and human rights,like you said, " we can steer this explosive time in Middle East history on to a calmer and more peaceful era. An era where freedom, human rights, and democracy are the standard and authoritarian rulers are the rare exception."-HScheider. Once again a wonderful article.

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      Howard Schneider 7 years ago from Parsippany, New Jersey

      Very true Junko. They are doing a pretty good job of phasing out the Capitol Hill noise and getting the job done.

    • junko profile image

      junko 7 years ago

      Patience and nuanced diplomacy is being tried on Capitol Hill also. The President is doing a good job inspite.

    • profile image

      Howard Schneider 7 years ago from Parsippany, New Jersey

      Thank you for your kind comments Junko. President Obama has conducted his foreign policy and his Middle East policy in particular in excellent fashion. It is such a complicated and contradictory region. One must act carefully and with patience. Critics are always trying to find some area to criticize. The truth of the matter is each situation must be treated differently and carefully. It is easy to criticize his actions from afar with no consequences. He has replaced saber- rattling with nuanced diplomacy. Except for with Bin-Laden. Great job there too. It took a lot of guts.

    • profile image

      junko 7 years ago

      WOW!, Outstanding, You did what you said you would do at the beginning of your hub. It was a long and easy read. That was a good explanation of U. S. Middle East policy for dummies. Good job, great patence, and focuse. I remember Obama's speech. As I read I thought you were going the explain how the U S. should handle the current Middle East Policy. Vote up Do it again.

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      Howard Schneider 7 years ago from Parsippany, New Jersey

      Thank you very much as always Jillian. There has not been much movement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but without balanced U.S. mediation, there would be no hope. The Obama Administration is mostly following the outline of action I wrote about. There is constant sniping at him no matter what action he takes. We must remain involved heavily but there is a limit to our influence. The neo-Conservatives want us to press a heavy boot in this region while the Far Left want us to protect all peoples. Unfortunately we are not all powerful but we are doing all we can with intelligent diplomacy and sometimes the threat of the sword.

    • profile image

      Howard Schneider 7 years ago from Parsippany, New Jersey

      You are exactly correct that there are powerful and entrenched interests fighting this revolutionary trend Credence. I believe the Obama Administration will utilize its influence where they can but not with U.S. blood on the ground. This is because we are involved in 2 wars already and our budget is breaking. They will work very hard behind the scenes to create broad coalitions to pressure these authoritarian regimes to relinquish power. Thank you for commenting.

    • profile image

      Howard Schneider 7 years ago from Parsippany, New Jersey

      Thank you for your comments Mimi. We will be dependent on Middle East oil for quite a while. But we need to continue and accelerate our transition to alternative renewable energy sources. The U.S. must remain engaged in this region regardles of our energy needs. The Middle East is too volatile and like it or not, we are a leader in the world. I also am glad to see that President Obama has increased our respect and prestige in the Middle East and the world.

    • Jillian Barclay profile image

      Jillian Barclay 7 years ago from California, USA

      Whenever I seek balance and comprehensive analysis, I turn to you. You always have the uncanny ability to explain what are unusually complex topics. You have done it again! Quite a balancing act that we have in the Middle East. I believe, as you do, that minus a fair solution to the Palestinian-Israeli dispute, there can be no peace in the Middle East. It is vital, and every other issue in that region is colored by that dispute.

      Thank you, again, for such an insightful article.

    • profile image

      credence2 7 years ago

      This was a great article, HS. The power of the petroleum interests is in direct conflict with our stated goals of democracy behind the groundswell of unrisings in the region. The U.S has a history of winking at the strongmen to insure the smooth flow of crude. Are the moneymen ready to step aside and allow the "rabble" to rise up and topple authoritarian regimes, the vacuum possibly filled with al Quida sympathisers who would just as soon turn off the spigot?

      We have seen this hypocrisy play out before in central america and through out the world. If this is a new policy direction, it needs to be firm in the face of pressure by plutocrats who couldn't care less about democracy and self-determination. This administration will have its hands full seeing it through.

    • Mimi721wis profile image

      Mimi721wis 7 years ago

      I guess we will be dependent on oil from the Middle East until the region is pumped dry. I'm proud of how our president is view around the world. Muslims can tun in and see hatred toward their religion and homeland at anytime. What ever happens in the Middle East, it should mostly be the decided by the people of that region. Let's not forget that America has a history of being partial to Israel.

    • profile image

      Howard Schneider 7 years ago from Parsippany, New Jersey

      Amillar, I think most of the Western nations have already begun severe austerity programs after the economic collapse of 2008. The U.S. government has not yet but I believe that will be starting very soon. Both governments and citizens have cut back sharply. I don't know if it will continue when times improve but I hope they do. Hopefully new Middle East democracies will take the best from the West and also pave their own way that works best for them. All is good as long as freedom and human rights reign supreme. Thank you for your comments.

    • amillar profile image

      amillar 7 years ago from Scotland, UK

      This is a very interesting analysis. I've learned a lot from it, which I appreciate.

      Of course, we might have to get used to a lower level of consumption and 'growth’/bubble-creation. Future generations might have to accept that the present lifestyle is unsustainable. If all these emancipated people in the Middle East want to emulate Western Democracy, then it seems logical that they would push for a similar lifestyle. The corporations would have a feeding frenzy racing us all to the bottom. They're at it already.

      I think the West would do well to show some leadership in lower consumption. I doubt if that would be painless.

    • profile image

      Howard Schneider 7 years ago from Parsippany, New Jersey

      Thank you Deni. I try to look at all sides of issues and then come to a sensible conclusion. The Middle East is so volatile right now and I feel that approach is needed. Luckily it appears the Obama Administration is employing this more thoughtful and careful approach.

    • Deni Edwards profile image

      Deni Edwards 7 years ago from california

      Hi, H--

      This is a really nice piece. You are always able to analyze everything with a clear head and a rational point of view. You seem to cover all of it.

      Thanks for a great read!

    • profile image

      Howard Schneider 7 years ago from Parsippany, New Jersey

      The Middle East is a very complex and contradictory region. The U.S. needs to utlize a more balance foreign policy here. Doctrinaire policy where everything is approached as good and evil will fail here. Israel is our close ally and friend. That does not mean a friend cannot be criticized and cajoled.

    • BobbiRant profile image

      BobbiRant 7 years ago from New York

      Excellent hub. Many times we are targets of terrorists because of our policies with Israel. Most people just hate who they are Told to hate, never looking at Real issues.

    • profile image

      Howard Schneider 7 years ago from Parsippany, New Jersey

      Thank you for your kind comments Fay. I presume the personal price you speak of is that you have had or have children in the military fighting in one of these wars. President Obama is striking the proper tone with the Middle East in both his words and deeds in my opinion. Hopefully by the end of his second term, yes I firmly believe he will be re-elected, we will be out of all fighting wars in the Middle East. That is not to say we will not be influencing events there. We rightfully should be mediating there and our example of democracy and freedom will be a great example for the nations of that region. I know much can go badly wrong there but I believe there is an opportunity for a new era of freedom and human rights for the Middle East.

    • profile image

      Fay Paxton 7 years ago

      Hi Schneider:

      You deprive your audience far too long of your excellent hubs. Still, it was well worth the wait.

      As I read along, I honestly began to feel like a bobblehead as I nodded in agreement. I too give Bush credit for undertaking the effort to forgo an acceptance of the Muslim religion and I have often wondered just what impact President Obama's speech did have.

      While it is certain we must strike a delicate balance and I'm still not certain how I feel about intervention in Libya, I did appreciate that the President sought (in his words) an international mandate for action, a broad coalition prepared to join us, the support of Arab countries, and a plea for help from the Libyan people themselves.

      The wars extract a very personal price from me, so I admittedly cannot be entirely objective. But your analysis has been excellent at helping to make clearer assessments.

      voted up/useful and awesome


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