With US President Barack Obama scheduled to visit the Middle East next month this is a good moment to think a bit on America’s role in the region.

For ordinary Americans, foreign policy can often seem like an unnecessarily complicated game that is stacked against them. From middle America’s perspective the US is constantly criticised for doing too little about international crises until it does something, at which point it is immediately accused of imperial overreach and insensitive bullying.

The war in Afghanistan, Washington’s troubled relationship with Pakistan and the ongoing, ever-shifting, challenges of the Arab Spring can all seem like no-win situations. America has always harboured an isolationist streak, and situations like these are exactly the sort of thing that brings it out. In today’s Washington genuine pre-Second World War-style isolationists are mercifully hard to find. One hears their echoes, however, in voices on both the right and the left calling for the United States to wash its hands of the region in general and its Islamist-leaning governments in particular.

That might seem attractive on some levels, but the truth is that while many people and governments in the Middle East have long complained of American meddling, few really want to see Washington disengage completely. So as the region prepares for Obama’s visit, this would be a good time for Middle Easterners to ask themselves what exactly they want from the United States.

In posing this question I’m looking for realistic answers, not wish lists. However, much the Arab World might long for it, there will be no dramatic change of American policy toward Israel or the Palestinians. For better or worse, neither the US military nor America’s ubiquitous popular culture is going to disappear from the region.

That does not mean, however, that the issues of the moment can’t be approached differently. Americans may complain about the Middle East’s intractable problems. Middle Easterners may complain about arrogant American know-it-alls. Working well together in a changing political landscape requires that we put these views aside and begin looking for common interests.

The Iranian quagmire

First and foremost, there is Iran. This is sometimes portrayed as a uniquely American/Israeli obsession, but that view is, at best, simplistic. The US and Israel are far from alone in being disturbed by a nuclear-armed Iran, or even an Iran with no operable bomb but the ability to build one on short notice. That idea bothers the Europeans, Russia and most of the Middle East, including the Gulf States.

Syria, too, is a problem whose ripples spread far from home. It should be obvious by now that the wider world has no intention of intervening in Syria’s civil war in any serious way. Whatever one’s view of that, it should be equally obvious that the entire region has a stake in limiting the spread of the Syrian conflict. That collective interest, in turn, draws outside powers like the US into the mix.

Based on his senate record the new US Secretary of State, John Kerry, appears even less interventionist than his studiedly cautious predecessor, Hillary Clinton. The same is probably true of Obama’s defence secretary nominee, Chuck Hagel, when compared to outgoing Defence Secretary Leon Panetta. Both of these appointments signal a confirmation of existing American policy rather than a change in it. Indeed, that may be why Obama chose Kerry and Hagel – a desire to be surrounded by people who share his innate scepticism when it comes to foreign military operations.

An America that is not eager to put troops on the ground but sincerely wants to play a constructive role in these issues ought to be welcomed by partners in the Gulf and elsewhere.

Biggest challenge

Then there is the Arab Spring, or what remains of it. Washington is still struggling to find its way with the revolutions that erupted in Tunis two years ago and spread throughout the region. More than a few voices (especially, but not exclusively, on the political right) view the Islamist cast of many new Arab governments as a threat. One of the biggest challenges for Americans and Arabs alike is going to be working through mutual stereotypes to find some common ground — a task that can only begin if extremists on both sides are challenged by more moderate voices.

On the American side, that means Obama will have to face down those in Congress and in America’s pundit class who have replaced the Cold War Soviets with 21st century Islamists. The Middle East, in turn, needs to engage with Washington as it exists, rather than the Washington of its fantasies. Washington needs friends in the Arab World, and Arab governments need to see a friend when they look to Washington. Making that relationship work will require both sides to move beyond old stereotypes. The urgent question of the next few years is whether the will exists to do so.


Gordon Robison, a longtime Middle East journalist and US political analyst, teaches political science at the University of Vermont.