Hard Choices Await Next U.S. President on Middle East

Hard Choices Await Next U.S. President on Middle East
U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Kevin Nettnin conducts a dismounted patrol to assess the progress of security measures in the Al Dora market area of Baghdad, Iraq, May 25, 2007 (U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Bronco Suzuki).

In January 2017, a new U.S. president will move into the White House. He or she will immediately instruct the National Security Council to assess American national security strategy and provide policy options, particularly for key regions and issues. In all likelihood, no assessment will be more complex and important than the one dealing with the Middle East.

After the end of the Cold War, U.S. strategy in the Middle East focused on promoting stability largely by supporting like-minded regional states. While nominally opposed to the more nefarious dictators in the region, before 2003 the U.S. did not do much to bring them down, fearing that the instability this would unleash would prove worse than the dictators themselves.

The administration of U.S. President George W. Bush dramatically rejected this approach when it removed Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein from power, choosing to accelerate rather than modulate change. This shifted the foundation of U.S. policy in the Middle East, and it coincided with a massive surge in dissatisfaction across the region. The ensuing revolution fed both violent jihadism and the populist movements that drove the Arab Spring. But as the old regional order collapsed, neither Bush nor his successor, Barack Obama, found an effective response. The old strategy no longer worked, but nothing replaced it.

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