The Middle East and the ‘Paradox of Engagement’

The Middle East and the ‘Paradox of Engagement’

 A new article of mine on Obama’s Middle East strategy has just come out in Democracy: A Journal of Ideas. You can read it here (or inpdf). It looks at the internal contradictions inherent in any policy of "engagement" with the Arab world: how do you appeal to Arab regimes and Arab publics simultaneously? It then proposes what I call a “re-orientation” in U.S. policy based around two policy "pillars": positive conditionality and targeted Islamist engagement.

Among other things, I argue the following: 

1. The Obama administration decided to make the pursuit of Arab-Israeli policy a centerpiece of its Middle East policy.According to this approach, once the conflict is satisfactorily resolved, a refashioned relationship with the people of the region will be possible. This assumption is not necessarily problematic. However, believing that a resolution to the conflict is the missing piece may lead us to attribute greater importance to the peace process than is appropriate. 

2. America needs – or thinks it needs – Egypt’s help on Israeli-Palestinian peace. The more it needs Mubarak to play a leadership role there, the more unwilling it will be to put pressure on his regime to democratize: This is the paradox of engagement. 

3. The pursuit of peace has often come at the expense of Arab democracy, but does it have to be this way? In understanding how to balance competing priorities – by promoting democracy without prejudicing key U.S. interests – there is little history to draw on because, with only one real exception, the U.S. has never made a serious effort to support Middle East democracy. 

4. That one exception is the Bush administration circa 2004-5. Beyond rhetoric, symbolic gestures, and relatively small increases in democracy funding, the Bush administration did not do much. Yet, even a relatively small amount of pressure can go a long way. And it did. This brief period of pressure demonstrates that pressuring friendly regimes to democratize does not necessarily harm our strategic interests. When Bush put pressure on Cairo to reform, Mubarak did not withhold cooperation on key American concerns. 

Taking all of this into account, how can the Obama administration "re-orient" its policy toward the region, and what would that look like in practice? To find out, you’ll have to, as they say, read the whole thing here