Webcast Recap

A panel of experts discussed American enterprises and influence in the Middle East, noting struggles and opportunities that the second Obama administration faces.

On November 20, the Joseph and Alma Gildenhorn Middle East Forum of the Middle East Program hosted a meeting, “Defining American Priorities in the Middle East,” with Ellen Laipson, President and CEO, Stimson Center; Robert Malley, Program Director, Middle East and North Africa, International Crisis Group; and Marwan Muasher, Vice President for Studies, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Aaron David Miller, Vice President for New Initiatives and Distinguished Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center, moderated the event. Haleh Esfandiari, Wilson Center Middle East Program director, gave welcoming remarks.

Laipson focused on U.S.-Iran relations, feeling that now is a “propitious moment” for diplomacy, given that both countries are currently between elections. Laipson made two key statements: that negotiations are insufficient alone to change Iranian policy and that sanctions have so far had an effect on Iranian well-being. Laipson noted President Obama’s apparent willingness, as evidenced by remarks at a November 14 press conference, to pursue “non-traditional approaches if need be” to open and maintain dialogue with Iran. Arguing that focusing on the nuclear issue alone is not productive, she suggested that taking a “wider lens” and meeting with Iran over areas of mutual interest, such as security in Afghanistan, could produce a “favorable environment” for nuclear talks. Laipson said that the punitive tone of sanctions further hinders dialogue; the U.S. needs to rethink sanctions so they act as a “means to an end” not an “end state.” Laipson hoped that the U.S. and Iran will not “miss each other’s messages” on opening bilateral talks and posed the question of how the U.S. can “signal that we can treat Iran with respect.”

Malley then brought up three themes of how the Obama administration is approaching the Middle East. First, he emphasized that although the U.S. faces the same conflicts in the Middle East, these conflicts are now “on a completely different battleground” in which American influence is declining relative to other actors. Second, although the U.S. is present in the Middle East, it is “not of the Middle East,” and increasingly lacks the ability to “frame the agenda” of regional actors, running the risk of becoming “the tail that others are wagging.” Third, Obama faces a “host of unresolved issues” left over from his first term, and American goals and alliances may sometimes contradict one another. Malley pointed to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as “microcosm” of all he had mentioned. He argued that the U.S. needs to adjust its approach to the peace process, saying, “Just as you cannot pursue yesterday’s war, you cannot pursue yesterday’s peace.”

Muasher outlined a number of recommendations, emphasizing that “the U.S. needs above all to set realistic expectations” regarding its ability to influence the domestic processes of the Arab Awakening. Muasher stated that the U.S. can no longer “pick winners and losers,” asking for support for democracy as a whole, not only for secular-liberal individuals. Furthermore, he said, “political Islam is not monolithic;” although groups such as the Salafis—not peaceful, pluralistic, or democratic­—should be opposed, the U.S. needs to give other Islamist actors room. Turning to the Arab monarchies, Muasher advocated a “tough love policy” where the U.S., while not imposing reform, is candid about the need for political solutions to local problems. Muasher spoke also of the need to “break the regional deadlock” on Syria by bringing all actors together to avoid more destruction and radicalization. Similarly, on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he said, “It’s peace now or never,” feeling that if interested parties do not work together and “something drastic is not done today, we will lose this opportunity” to pursue peace.

Miller wrapped up the panel discussion with several observations about the Obama administration’s approach to the Middle East. He explained that over the course of his first term, President Obama became less ideological in his foreign policy yet more effective and better able to prioritize. Miller discussed Obama’s constraints going into his second term, in particular the necessity of tackling America’s “broken house” of domestic issues and the fact that there are no “neat solutions” to any of the Middle East’s issues. In this context, credible political processes can be most effective in managing regional outcomes.

By Laura Rostad, Middle East Program


  • Ellen Laipson

    Distinguished Fellow and President Emeritus, Henry L. Stimson Center; Former Vice Chair of the National Intelligence Council
  • Robert Malley

    Program Director, Middle East and North Africa, International Crisis Group
  • Marwan Muasher

    Vice President for Studies, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and former Ambassador of Jordan to the United States
  • Aaron David Miller

    Aaron David Miller

    Vice President for New Initiatives and Distinguished Fellow