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Reorienting America's Foreign Policy Toward North Africa and the Middle East

Applying Lessons From the Arab Uprisings
February 12, 2013 |

The Arab uprisings that shook the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) have raised significant questions about the efficacy of America’s leadership in the region. After decades of aligning with and materially supporting authoritarian regimes, the United States was forced to abandon several allied Arab leaders in a remarkably short amount of time, out of deference to universal values and public will. The result left Washington exposed, lacking long-standing traditional allies and doubting basic strategic assumptions.

Many in U.S. policy-circles responded to the uprisings by calling for a foreign policy rethink--a new approach that would improve America’s ability to adapt to geopolitical shifts and support envisaged democratic transitions.  What is distracting from this line of debate is a growing tendency to view the region’s upheaval as disruptive, thereby demanding containment, rather than transformative and requiring strategic innovation. But America's response should not be limited to merely managing crises. A larger opportunity is available for a broader rethink.

The protesters were motivated by longstanding grievances which were rooted in policies that bear an American footprint. American foreign policies contributed to the creation of a maligned political order which, in turn, was rejected by mass movements across the region. Ending U.S. military occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and avoiding new ones, may be a step toward scaling-back U.S. interference. But it would be naive to conclude that the United States has withdrawn or is withdrawing from the region. Washington continues to wield significant diplomatic and material influence in the Arab world.

The question, therefore, is not whether or not the United States is engaged. The pressing questions are: How should the United States engage? Can it play a constructive role in supporting transitions in individual countries and regionally? Does a constructive role necessarily entail an active or interventionist one? Which policy mistakes have been the most damaging to progress in the region? How can they be avoided going forward? These questions implicate the larger strategic context defining U.S. policy in the region. President Obama's second term is a fitting time to delve back into these issues as part of an inclusive, evidence-based rethink.

While it would be naïve to expect an imminent overhaul of U.S. strategy in MENA, domestic politics in the United States and events in MENA have unleashed processes that afford substantial opportunities to begin reviewing previous assumptions. Dialogue between MENA citizens and U.S. policy advocates, focused on how to influence bi-lateral and multi-lateral policies toward meeting the original demands for “bread, freedom and dignity,” may be able to positively influence the processes in play and potentially hasten national transitions in the region.

The New America Foundation’s Middle East Task Force (METF) and the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs of the American University of Beirut (IFI) collaborated to study these fundamental questions. We aimed to delineate an approach of “lessening harms” as a positive framework for debating a policy reset. We focused on Egypt in this first inquiry due to the country’s historical position as a key American ally. Egypt’s status as a country “in transition” was also taken into account.

The study’s methodology relied upon comprehensive consultations and expert study, including a workshop at the American University of Beirut (AUB) in the summer of 2012, convened by METF and IFI. Analysts, academics, and civil society leaders from the United States, Europe, Egypt, and other parts of the Arab world participated. Institutional representation included the METF, IFI/AUB, Carnegie Middle East Center of Beirut, the Arab NGO Network for Development, and the European Council on Foreign Relations. METF also commissioned studies  from Issandr El Amrani, a Cairo-based writer and political analyst on Middle East affairs, and Anne Mariel Zimmermann (née Peters), assistant professor of government at Wesleyan University, and an expert on American foreign assistance policies in the Middle East.  

Although the study was focused on Egypt, the findings presented are relevant to the wider set of U.S.-Arab relations, especially relating to American allies in the region with a high degree of dependency upon the United States (e.g., Jordan and the Palestinian Authority).

Click here to read the full paper.

To better support protesters’ demands for 'bread, freedom, and dignity,' the United States should restructure its foreign policies towards the Middle East and North Africa according to a 'do-no-harm' approach. Focusing on Egypt, this brief proposes a new agenda by taking into account two key pillars of U.S. policy in the region: diplomacy, both public and private, and foreign aid. The brief offers a series of recommendations for the United States to adopt in reshaping its policies.

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