THE BLOG

Middle East Continues to Dominate U.S. Foreign Policy, but Our Strategy in Region Remains Largely Unclear

04/24/2015 05:50 pm ET | Updated Jun 24, 2015

Like every U.S. president of the last half-century, I find it nearly impossible to avoid focusing most of my foreign policy attention on the continuingly chaotic and confusing region of the world that is the Middle East.

I have now spent five decades working on foreign policy in government, and I'm still struggling to make sense of the Middle East. It's an extremely turbulent area, where tensions flare up regularly. Its economic growth has been tepid at best, and its overall governance is feeble. The region is currently flooded with refugees. And city after city is fraught with danger, destruction and devastation.

Today, it has become even more difficult to sort out the competing players, conflicting visions and challenges in the Middle East. And it's almost impossible for the world's leaders to agree on much of anything that might improve the region's current instability, the culmination of decades of terrible governance, economic stagnation and brutal dictatorial crackdowns on individual rights and freedoms.

Trouble exists almost everywhere you turn. While dictators have been recently driven from power in Egypt, Iraq, Libya and Tunisia, what has ultimately followed in those countries has resulted in very little democracy and a whole lot of dysfunction.

Iraq, Syria and Yemen remain mired in civil wars. A dozen years after the start of the war in Iraq, which toppled the government of Saddam Hussein, the country is coming apart. (According to the United Nations, at least 2.7 million people have been displaced from Iraq since the beginning of 2014.) Meanwhile, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, has seized upon the chaos to capture large amounts of territory in both Iraq and Syria. Ten nations have intervened in Yemen alone.

Underlying these conflicts is the centuries-old split between the Sunni and Shiite sects of Islam. Iran, a Shiite stronghold, continues to spread its influence across the region, even as Sunni-led Saudi Arabia seeks to counter that country's advances. Saudi Arabia is also part of a new Arab League effort to form a joint defense force to fight extremist threats, including ISIL, and to reduce their dependency on U.S. military intervention.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which for many years defined the Middle East, has faded in visibility, but principally because so many other high-profile conflicts have taken root in the region, including, among others, those between Sunni and Shiite, Islamists and Arab nationalists, Hamas and Israel, and Hamas and Fatah. There are deep divisions no matter where you look in Middle East and many different groups contending for power and influence.

This area has presented a massive foreign policy problem for the U.S. for decades, and navigating the chaos that engulfs the region has resulted in a confusing use of American power.

Recently, President Obama has faced enormous pressure to escalate the nation's involvement in Iraq, where our democracy-building efforts have gone awry, and in Syria, where President Bashar al-Assad clings to power amidst a now four-year-old armed uprising that has claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of Syrians and displaced millions of others who have fled to Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. U.S. policymakers and political analysts continue to debate whether to weaken or strengthen Assad, whom many blame for the rise of ISIL in Syria.

Currently, the groups that have brought turmoil and violence to these nations and others in the region don't appear to pose an existential threat to the U.S, and it's debatable whether they represent even a short-term strategic threat, but they can certainly become one if left unchecked.

Now well into his second term, Obama has essentially followed a policy of restraint in the region. He has been unwilling to engage in a massive ground effort and yet he has authorized numerous other combat maneuvers, including deploying special forces and launching airstrikes against ISIL in Iraq and Syria. Still, it's clear he prefers negotiations over these and other military measures. I would characterize his overall approach to the region's challenges as modest, cautious, incremental and situational.

Obama's critics say he doesn't have a strategy for dealing with the Middle East, a claim that may have merit. But what kind of strategy should he have? His critics call for an aggressive U.S. military in the region, but they don't spell out what specifically they want the military to do. Furthermore, they fail to recognize that our military, a fighting force that is without equal in the world, has yet to solve the region's problems. Recent history points to instances in which U.S. military intervention has worsened a situation, resulted in civilian backlash and unearthed other challenges far too difficult for our military alone to solve.

As we repeatedly rely heavily on the military to address our problems in the Middle East, we continue to under-rely on strategies centering on education, effective governance, humanitarian relief, citizen empowerment and refugee assistance. Airstrikes, drone attacks and elite special forces are key tools in the fight against extremist groups that seek to tear apart the region. But part of our policy should be to emphasize the best of what we can offer to the people of the Middle East, such as life, freedom, tolerance, reform, economic prosperity and dignity for all peoples.

Right now, we are missing an opportunity to help with the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean. Using our extraordinary capabilities for that kind of purpose would hugely improve our image and reputation in the region.

We have a good story to tell. But we must first ask ourselves: What is our ultimate goal in the Middle East? What are we truly trying to achieve? To what extent can those goals be achieved by military power alone? How can we achieve effective governance? And, most importantly, what are we willing to spend in American lives and resources to achieve our objectives?

Our current policy seems to suggest a vital interest in every part of the region, but it stretches far beyond our ability to protect and advance those interests. This leads then to an even more fundamental question that we really need to ask: Can we even begin to solve the problems in the Middle East? I've come to the conclusion that we simply cannot solve these problems in the region. We can help, and should, but these countries essentially have to solve them by themselves.

The need is to reexamine what the clear, compelling U.S. vital interests are in the Arab World. These countries will have instability, violence and bad actors no matter what we do, and there's no end in sight.

Obama and his recent predecessors have largely followed the same playbook in the Middle East: They've sought some middle ground where the U.S. can effect positive change. In doing so, they've found out just how dangerous, frustrating, time-consuming and resource-devouring this routinely upended region is.

Lee H. Hamilton is a Distinguished Scholar, Indiana University School of Global and International Studies; Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs; Chairman, Center on Congress at Indiana University. He served as U.S. Representative from Indiana's 9th Congressional District from 1965-1999.