Will the next administration restore diplomacy in the Middle East?

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Assessing the global damage done by the Trump administration’s foreign policy is like trying to gauge the destruction of a still-raging hurricane: it remains unclear what will be left standing in the aftermath.  Indeed, the coronavirus pandemic marks the first time that the United States has abandoned its leadership role during a global crisis since before World War II.  

But the next U.S. administration has an opportunity to restore the United States to its international leadership role through a diplomatic surge — one that puts the voice of the American people on the frontlines of U.S. global engagement. 

The absence of U.S. diplomatic leadership over the past three years has had a damaging effect in the Middle East and North Africa. Withdrawing from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal narrowed America’s policy options and brought America to the brink of war. The lack of focused U.S. diplomatic leadership in key conflicts like Syria, Yemen and Libya accelerated state fragmentation and created a vortex drawing in Russia and other countries from the region. The absence of any serious diplomatic engagement on the Israeli-Palestinian front for years has let tensions build up once again, endangering the peaceful border between Israel and Jordan. 

America is not the primary cause of chaos in the Middle East and North Africa, and there is no appetite in the United States or in the region for more military interventions disconnected from strategy. America has major challenges at home that cannot be delayed and resources for diplomacy and development will be limited, but they are still an essential part of our leadership.

But America needs a better plan than the one it’s been operating with for decades. Simply criticizing the current trajectory and issuing vague slogans calling for “responsible statecraft,” “smart power,” or “ending endless wars” will do little to produce the political consensus at home for a new approach.  These slogans miss two crucial ingredients: rebuilding America’s institutions for global engagement and offering a comprehensive regional strategy that puts diplomacy first.  

The first ingredient involves rebuilding the capacities of civilian agencies, primarily the U.S. State Department and other key agencies involved in foreign assistance and global economic engagement. It requires the next U.S. administration and Congress to make a generational investment in statecraft on the scale and order of what was done during the Cold War. To be clear, this challenge will take years to address — the neglect of these agencies stretches back decades. 

One immediate action the next U.S. administration can take is to fill key posts dealing with the region. It took the Trump administration more than two years to fill the assistant secretary for Near Eastern Affairs position with a Senate-confirmed appointee and ambassadorships in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Moreover, it has been three years since there was a U.S. ambassador in Jordan or Qatar.

To address long-term institutional challenges, the next administration should increase intake into the Foreign Service. At the end of last year, the number of State Department foreign service officers was about the same as it was 70 years ago — under 8,000. That’s despite the vast geopolitical changes that have occurred over those decades, from decolonization to the fall of the Berlin Wall and multiple wars in the Middle East, to the coronavirus pandemic.

The second step is to come into office with an overarching strategy to deal comprehensively with the region’s challenges and put diplomacy first. Looking ahead to the next decade, the United States should turn away from reactive crisis management and move towards a strategy that steps up diplomatic and economic engagement backed by a more precise and targeted use of military and security tools. These tools should support U.S. diplomatic efforts to end conflicts and help countries address the overwhelming pressures for change.  

What does putting diplomacy first in U.S. engagement mean in practical terms? First, the next administration should place U.S. diplomats back in prominent roles backed by the full range of U.S. foreign policy tools to address the festering conflicts in places like Syria, Yemen, Libya, as well as the rift between Gulf Cooperation Council countries. It also entails effective management of two other major challenges — tensions between Iran and its neighbors and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — that also tend to overwhelm the strategic approach of the United States in the region. The next administration should pursue a pragmatic strategy that seeks to produce steady, tactical progress rather than achieving grand bargains or deals of the century.  

All of this amounts to a tall order and agenda for the United States — but one that learns the lessons from the past two decades and seeks to advance a different way of engagement that helps countries help themselves. By working towards a fundamentally different approach to the region at a time when the world is being reshaped by the coronavirus crisis, America can turn the page on the last few decades of confused strategy and mixed results in the Middle East and North Africa and create a new pathway for progress in the region. 

Brian Katulis is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, where his work focuses on U.S. national security strategy, the Middle East and counterterrorism policy. Follow him on Twitter: @katulis

Gordon Gray is the chief operating officer at the Center for American Progress. He was a career foreign service officer who served as U.S. ambassador to Tunisia at the start of the Arab Spring and as deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs. Follow him on Twitter: @AmbGordonGray.

Tags Afghanistan conflict Arab–Israeli conflict Diplomacy foreign affairs international policy Middle East Middle Eastern policy U.S. leadership world wars

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