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Beyond Moderates and Militants
How Obama Can Chart a New Course in the Middle East
ROBERT MALLEY is Middle East and North Africa Program Director at the International Crisis Group and served as Special Assistant to the President for Arab-Israeli Affairs from 1998 to 2001. PETER HARLING heads the Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria Project at the International Crisis Group. He worked in Baghdad from 1998 to 2004 and in Beirut from 2005 to 2006, and he is now based in Damascus.See more by Robert MalleySee more by Peter Harling
In the Middle East, U.S. President Barack Obama has spent the first year and a half of his presidency seeking to undo the damage wrought by his predecessor. He has made up some ground. But given how slowly U.S. policy has shifted, his administration runs the risk of implementing ideas that might have worked if President George W. Bush had pursued them a decade ago. The region, meanwhile, will have moved on.
It is a familiar pattern. For decades, the West has been playing catch-up with a region it pictures as stagnant. Yet the Middle East evolves faster and less predictably than Western policymakers imagine. As a rule, U.S. and European governments eventually grasp their missteps, yet by the time their belated realizations typically occur, their ensuing policy adjustments end up being hopelessly out of date and ineffective.
In the wake of the colonial era, as Arab nationalist movements emerged and took power across the Middle East, Europe either ignored the challenge they posed or treated them as Soviet-inspired irritants. By the time the West understood the significance and popularity of these movements, Europe's power had long since faded, and its reputation in the region was irreparably tarnished by the stain of neocolonialism. Likewise, the United States only became fully conscious of the jihadist threat in the aftermath of 9/11, after Washington had fueled its rise by backing Islamist militant groups in Afghanistan during the 1980s. And Washington only endorsed the idea of a Palestinian state in 2000 -- just when, as a result of developments on the ground and in both the Israeli and the Palestinian polities, the achievement of a two-state solution was becoming increasingly elusive.
The West's tendency to adopt Middle East policies that have already outlived their local political shelf lives is occurring once again today: despite its laudable attempt to rectify the Bush administration's missteps, the Obama administration is hamstrung by flawed assumptions about the regional balance of power. Washington still sees the Middle East as cleanly divided between two camps: a moderate, pro-American camp that ought to be bolstered and a militant, pro-Iranian one that needs to be contained. That conception is wholly divorced from reality.