Modesty isn't always a virtue. Thus, when the US plans to have "a more modest strategy" for the Middle East, as the New York Times reported yesterday, the mere shift from - well, we still need to determine from what - to a policy that is modest is not in itself a change for the better.
The report explained that a "policy review, a kind of midcourse correction," initiated and headed by the new National Security Advisor Susan Rice "has set the United States on a new heading in the world’s most turbulent region". Yet it doesn't quite specify how the new policy is going to be different from previous policies. The administration– and this we already learned from President Obama's UN speech- will focus on Iran's nuclear program, the Israel-Palestine negotiations, and Syria. Other issues will take "the back seat".
As Rice and her group devised the new course, they essentially did two things: reduced the workload, and picked the top priorities on which to keep working. Whether a reduction was necessary depends on the administrations' other priorities domestically and abroad. Obviously, the Obama administration wants to do more of the other things and less of the Middle East thing. So it left just three subjects on the table, which might seem arbitrary. Why three and not two – or four? Or six? Is it three because that's the number that is low enough for the US to feel that it has time to deal with other things? Is it three because of a compromise (perhaps some said two and others said four and the result was three)? I can imagine Secretary of State John Kerry insisting that his pet project, Israel-Palestine, should remain a priority, while no one was fighting for Egypt to be kept on the agenda (the NYT piece actually hints that's how it happened).
Hopefully these three were picked because the administration believes that these are the three that can't be abandoned. That is, the administration decided that neglecting Egypt is possible, while neglecting Iran isn't possible. Neglecting Bahrain would not end in disaster, while neglecting Syria is too dangerous at this stage.
Of course, the problem with such decisions is that they are all subject to changes dictated by events on the ground. Egypt might not seem urgent today, but can be urgent tomorrow. The peace process is already under way and it would be a pity to suddenly cut the cord and drop it - but since most observers see little hope that the process will end with an actual agreement, there is still the question of whether it deserves to be included in an agenda that has just three items. And what about Saudi Arabia? The Saudis just demonstrated their dissatisfaction with American policies by refusing a seat on the Security Council. Are they being sent to the "back seat"? Or maybe, by taking care of Iran, Palestine, and Syria the US is doing what the Saudis expect it to do? And what about Turkey – was the policy towards Turkey on the table as well? Is Turkey part of the Middle East?
It is also not exactly clear what the Obama team means by having "a new heading in the world’s most turbulent region". When a "new" course is devised an "old" course is abandoned. But the "old" course is not an easy one to define. Is the administration abandoning a chaotic policy (like the one in Syria) in exchange for a more orderly policy? Is it abandoning a naïve policy in exchange for a more realistic policy (the peace process might prove the opposite)? Is it abandoning a hands-on policy in exchange for a more aloof position (but it was leading from behind long ago)? Will it change course from being tough to being more accommodating (on Iran)? Will it replace shifty policies with a more stable course (if so, why the shifting on Syria rebels)?
The Middle East has a tendency not to follow the script written for it in Washington – as I'm sure the smart Obama advisors all know. In fact, by stating its priorities the administration just gave many Middle Eastern players an incentive not to follow the script: they might decide to do this because they just got the message that the US doesn't care what they do – or might decide to do this because they want the attention and the care that the US is denying them.
Thus, the only clear message that was sent to the region by this recent report – and it looks like a report that is based on administration briefings – is the following: the US wants less involvement. The Obama administration decided to abide by public opinion polls and stay away from Middle East affairs as much as it can. On this issue it decided not to lead, not even from behind, neither the region nor the American public. No doubt - leaders in this region will interpret the new policy as one of further decline, and will presume a weakening American presence. The US was a force for stability in the Middle East – of course, it wasn't always a force for short-term stability, but it had always intended for the region to eventually reach stability – and it is now slowly losing interest.
There's a certain irony ingrained in this process: as the administration attempts to have a more orderly policy, it is willing to let the Middle East drift into a less orderly state of affairs.