Defining a U.S. Strategy for the Middle East

07/01/2013 09:22 am ET | Updated Aug 31, 2013

"Reports of the pivot to Asia have been greatly exaggerated," might have said a man not unfamiliar with American involvement in the Middle East. As evidence, the Middle East remains front and center as the focus of U.S. foreign policy this summer, with Secretary Kerry concluding his fifth trip to the region this week amid reports of a return visit in the coming days. Notwithstanding the American impulse to divest from the Middle East after a decade of war, the U.S. will continue to be deeply involved in the region because of clear national security interests. In order to be successful, it will need a coherent strategy. President Obama has demonstrated that he is adept at mitigating America's strategic risk in the Middle East; he has hedged his bets. This strategy has prevented failures, but it also has yielded few notable accomplishments. In doing so, President Obama bought time for the U.S. to regain its composure in a turbulent and volatile region. But in that time, the risks to American interests and its allies have piled up so high that now the costs of sitting on the sidelines are beginning to outweigh the risks of greater involvement. The time has come for President Obama to make some bigger bets in the Middle East. That was the consensus of last night's panel on this topic at the Aspen Ideas Festival, featuring Ambassador Nicholas Burns, Berl Bernhard, and Senator George Mitchell. And while most panelists agreed that the president's cards are not yet entirely on the table, a framework for a better strategy should include the following components:

  • Pursue peace relentlessly. The U.S. is the only global power capable of bringing the Israelis and the Palestinians back to the table for sustained negotiations. The challenges are immense, but as Senator Mitchell noted, there is "not a shred of evidence" that suggests a better deal for both sides will materialize down the road. The risks of inaction are great, and it's critical that both sides capitalize on this current window of opportunity. The framework for a deal is known. Secretary Kerry's unrelenting pursuit to restart the talks was endorsed as a necessary and appropriate use of America's attention.
  • Negotiate with Iran now. The election of Hassan Rouhani, who has declared his openness to international dialogue, presents a critical opportunity to jumpstart negotiations on Iran's nuclear program before it's too late. And while the panelists agreed that it is too early to expect trust on either side, Ambassador Burns suggested we adopt a play on President Reagan's phrase for dealing with the Soviet Union: "Engage Iran, don't trust yet, but verify." We should engage with a defined objective and a clear timeline.
  • Level the playing field in Syria. The brutal slaughter of over 100,000 Syrians demands American leadership. It is not only a humanitarian disaster but a fundamental threat to regional stability and American interests in how it has strengthened extremists, contributed to the sectarian spiral in Iraq, and burdened key allies such as Jordan and Turkey. Iran and Hezbollah are 'all in' in Syria. It is in the US interest not only to give the Free Syrian Army the resources it needs to level the playing field, but also to invest in our allies that are bearing the greatest costs of the war.
These wagers are not without risk, and the legacy of the Iraq war should stand as our greatest reminder of the perils of American adventurism in the Middle East. But we also shouldn't undersell the value of American leadership for a region whose crises are exacerbated by a vacuum of power. Prudence and restraint are strategic virtues, but they can also shed their value when they contribute to the erosion of the national interest.

It is appropriate to be deliberative and cautious with our engagement, but windows of opportunity are closing and threats continue to accumulate. If Secretary Kerry's shuttle diplomacy is any indication, the president recognizes that now is the time for renewed American leadership on some of the region's most vexing issues. These were the bets shared at the Aspen Ideas Festival on U.S. strategy in the Middle East. What are yours?