As President Obama prepares for his upcoming trip to the Middle East amid concerns over Egypt’s struggling economy, a stalled peace process, and growing fears of a nuclear armed Iran, he should embrace the dignity agenda and change the course of US disengagement from the region. On Wednesday the Atlantic Council hosted a discussion to launch an issue brief entitled, “A Strategy for US Engagement in the Middle East: Contain Threats, Embrace Dignity.” Authors Michele Dunne, director of the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, and Barry Pavel, director of the Brent Scowcroft Center of International Security joined Hussein Ibish of the American Task Force on Palestine to discuss their recommendations to the president as he embarks on the first overseas trip of his second term.
Pavel began the discussion by offering recommendations for containing threats. He emphasized the need to support vetted rebel groups in Syria, both through aid and US airpower, arguing that everything that the Obama administration feared would come to pass if it were to enter the conflict in Syria, has already happened: extreme humanitarian suffering, a militarization of the conflict, and spill-over to neighborig countries. Pavel also stressed the importance of preparing for the inevitability of a Middle East cold war with a nuclear armed Iran, while still pushing for a diplomatic solution. He added that the United States should work with European allies to reduce ungoverned areas which extremist groups might exploit.
Dunne then introduced recommendations under the banner of “embracing dignity.” Explaining the choice of words, she discussed the centrality of the word dignity (karamah in Arabic) to the Arab spring protests, and how it encapsulates the hope for a changed relationship between government and citizens. Pointing to the gap between US words and actions, she argued that the United States has yet to “put that much on the table” to support this aspiration, in reference both to financial assistance and leadership among international institutions and the Gulf Cooperation Council. Dunne also recommended that policymakers develop stronger ties with opposition groups in Arab countries, noting that ironically in Egypt, the US Embassy has had less contact with the opposition now than it did under Mubarak. This leaves the US government ill-prepared for any future political upheaval in the region.
Ibish reflected on the recommendations outlined in the report, stressing that the current situation in the region needs to be understood as a unique moment in history, and that United States government must distinguish between its values versus interests with respect to Middle East policy. He also encouraged the United States to engage with pluralists throughout the region, and critiqued policymakers’ tendency to overcorrect in its attitude toward Islamist groups, moving quickly from their unwillingness to engage to embracing these groups at the expense of more liberal factions
The event ended with questions from the audience, with topics ranging from the upcoming Iranian elections to the future of the region’s oil. One audience member questioned how US policymakers could increase cooperation with the Gulf countries when dealing with Iran while simultaneously embracing dignity, given the poor human rights record in these countries. Both Pavel and Dunne stated that the two policies could work in tandem, with Dunne stressing the importance of developing honest and mature relationships that do not rest on illusions about US support for Arab monarchies. She explained that the US should engage in an open discussion with Gulf leaders, in which it identifies shared interests, but also is frank about American support for democracy and human rights in the region.