Next U.S. President cannot save the Middle East

Joyce Karam
Joyce Karam
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It is rather tempting to consider the 2016 U.S. elections as a pivotal turning point for the Middle East and its many problems. Truth is, the scope of these crisis, and the platform of the different U.S. candidates suggest that while more leadership and engagement could alleviate the suffering, resolving the conflicts is not contingent on the U.S. Presidency.

If the last decade and a half offers any clue on the Middle East, it is that no one actor has full command over any one situation. Even when the U.S. starts the fire as in the case of the Iraq war in 2003, it quickly lost control over the post-war dynamic. However, finding the right balance between the very assertive approach of George W. Bush and the very reluctant Presidency of Barack Obama will be the biggest challenge of the next U.S. President as he or she tries to restore American influence and clout in the Middle East.

The 2016 campaign has already broken the record of promises to voters on the domestic and foreign policy turfs. Republican frontrunner Donald Trump is promising wins and victories allover the Middle East, against ISIS, Iran, Al-Qaeda and in blocking refugees. Other rivals are pledging to “rip the Iranian deal to shreds” or create fantasy coalitions against ISIS with Iran and Arab countries on the same team.

The next resident of the White House, whether he or she is a Republican or Democrat or Independent, will be confronted with tighter limitations on U.S. influence and a more defiant Middle East.

Joyce Karam

It is not uncommon, however, for U.S. candidates to make popular promises on the campaign trail and then execute a different set of policies while in the oval office. After all, it was Bush in 2000 who ran on anti-nation building platform, and ended up taking on the most expensive nation-building project for the U.S. in the Middle East. Obama for his part has promised to end U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan, but was forced to change course, and extend U.S. presence to counter the Taliban. When it comes to breaking free from the Iran deal, it is worth noting that the next President will be bound with UN resolutions and international commitments of his predecessor.

In the context of Middle East conflicts, there are no magic wand, or at the very least clear roadmaps from the candidates how to move forward. While every candidate has called for more strikes against ISIS, only the Republican rivals Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and the Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, are supporting establishing safe zones in Syria. But even if those ideas are implemented when they come to office, they don’t promise an end to the conflict.

14 years since the war in Iraq, and five of heavy bombardment in Syria, have shattered those states to a point of no return before the conflict. The central government in Baghdad has little to no control over what happens in Basra, or Mosul or Kurdistan. This reality is also copied in Syria and Libya, where militias and outside actors are dictating the rules of the game.

A changed regional landscape

The regional destabilization was abetted by lack of U.S. leadership, and its intensification has very much constrained U.S. policy and forced a decline in Washington’s role and ability to affect the Middle East landscape.

From the wars in Yemen, and Syria, the aftermath of intervention in Libya, the U.S. is increasingly finding itself reacting to events rather than having the ability to change them. This is also due in part to mistakes that the U.S. has inflicted upon itself in Iraq, a trust gap with the governments in the region, and a changed dynamic in these countries and regionally that Washington has little control over.

Today, regional countries from Iran to Turkey to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, have grown more confident in their ability to project power regionally and fill the void left by the American withdrawal in Iraq in 2011, and the decline of traditional strong state actors such as Syria and Egypt. This environment has triggered GCC action in Yemen, and airstrikes conducted by UAE and Egypt in Libya. It has also prompted direct entry for Turkey in Northern Iraq, and more chatter about a ground operation in Syria. As important, is that these events have happened despite U.S. objection at times, and without direct military involvement or consultation with Washington.

In that lens, the future U.S. President will inherit a more defiant and stubborn regional dynamic, where allies and foes alike are showing readiness to act independently without referring to Washington. Russia’s intervention in Syria, and China’s increasing economic clout in the region are also part of this crowded landscape that overlooks the U.S. role.

The next resident of the White House, whether he or she is a Republican or Democrat or Independent, will be confronted with tighter limitations on U.S. influence and a more defiant Middle East. While saving the region is not in the U.S. reach at the moment, restoring leadership and mitigating the suffering should be pursued if Washington were to restore any of its lost credibility in the region.


Joyce Karam is the Washington Correspondent for Al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with focus on U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a Journalist in Lebanon, covering the Post-war situation. Joyce holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Twitter: @Joyce_Karam

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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