Haleh Esfandiari, Director, Middle East Program, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars
Aaron David Miller, Vice President, New Initiatives, and Distinguished Scholar, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars
David Ottaway, Senior Scholar, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars
Moderated by Rachel Bronson, Vice President, Studies, The Chicago Council on Global Affairs

Summary by Richard C. Longworth

The second Obama administration faces a Middle East in turmoil – civil wars, revolutions, religious fissures, incoherent governments, nuclear threats, and societal breakdown – unprecedented in recent history, a panel of Washington experts told the Chicago Council Tuesday evening. 

President Obama’s record in the region? So far, pretty good. 

The immediate outlook? “This is the year when we have to decide if we’re going to hit Iran and get involved militarily in Syria.” 

David Ottaway The program, which drew 300 to the Chicago Club, was titled “Turmoil and Turbulence: Barack Obama and the Middle East 2.0.” Moderated by Council Vice President Rachel Bronson, it looked at the Mideast challenges facing Obama in his second term and featured three experts from the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. As Bronson explained, the program is one of a series of collaborations between the Council and the Wilson Center. 

“I’ve never seen the Arab world so besieged by so many problems,” David Ottaway, senior scholar at the Wilson Center and long-time foreign correspondent for the Washington Post, said. He cited the societal and religious splits between Sunnis and Shias, the political struggles between secular liberals and Islamists, the civil war in Syria, post-war Iraq and Afghanistan, the threat of an Iranian nuclear weapon, and tensions in the Persian Gulf, where monarchies fear a possible war between Iran and the United States or Israel, or both. Other speakers spoke of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the coming presidential election in Iran, the declining influence of Turkey and turmoil stretching down into Mali.

Aaron David Miller Aaron David Miller, a Wilson Center vice president and former State Department adviser, added one more problem – the decentralization in post-revolutionary countries, where overthrown autocracies have not been replaced by effective democratic governments.  

“Nobody’s in charge,” Miller said. He noted that the three “most coherent actors” in the region are its three non-Arab states – Iran, Turkey, and Israel. 

It’s a full plate for Obama as he prepares to visit Israel, the experts agreed. They also agreed that, while the Middle East looks to Washington for leadership, America’s ability to influence events there is limited. 

“We’re stuck in a region that we can’t reform and can’t extricate ourselves from,” Miller said. The United States needs to realize that the Mideastern nations control their own future, not Washington. “The Arabs have to do this themselves. We can help – but not in this primary mission.”  

Haleh Esfandiari Haleh Esfandiari, director of the Wilson Center’s Middle East program and author of a book based on her 105 days of solitary confinement in her native Iran in 2007, indicated that the presidential election there in June will be won by a candidate close to the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Under any circumstances, she said, Khamenei will continue to run Iran’s foreign policy – a policy involving not only nuclear weapons but Iran’s ambitions in Iraq and Afghanistan, its relations with Hezbollah and especially the Iranian support for Syrian president Bashir Assad. 

Given this turmoil, the panelists gave Obama a passing grade for his first-term Mideast policies. “I think Obama’s policy (toward Iran) has been the best policy from day one,” Esfandiari said. “Not bad,” Miller agreed, especially compared to his two predecessors. “He’s borrowed the realism of (President) Bush-41 and is a more effective version of (President) Bush-43,” citing Obama’s use of drones and the killing of Osama Bin Laden.

Ottaway defended Obama’s support for the Egyptian revolution, which blocked the succession of President Hosni Mubarak’s son to the presidency. 
“I see the mess that Russia is in through its continued support of Assad,” Ottaway said. Would we want to be in that position today if we’d supported Mubarak and his son?” Abandoning Mubarak was right, he said, “because the alternative was worse.”

Miller cautioned against expecting much from Obama’s Israeli visit. It’s a good idea, he said, if only to help the president and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu overcome their misunderstandings and suspicions of each other. Obama, he said, is the first recent US president with no “emotional ties” to Israel. Instead, he sees Israel as one among many US interests. In turn, Netanyahu feels that Obama doesn’t understand Israeli’s strategic situation.

At any rate, Miller said, no “conflict-ending agreement” in the Israeli-Palestinian situation is possible “any time soon,” because Netanyahu doesn’t want it and Palestinian leadership is split and weak. 

The major issue – the flashpoint – remains Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
If Iran chooses to go nuclear, “we may not be able to stop them,” Miller said. Would this lead to war?  Obama doesn’t want to be the president when Iran gets the bomb, he added, noting that Obama is a tough foreign policy realist – “not who Europe thought he would be” when he got the Nobel Peace Prize.

This program was cosponsored with the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs seeks to foster civil and informed discussion of foreign policy and global issues. Views expressed in event summaries are solely those of the author, not The Chicago Council, which takes no institutional positions.


   Event Audio (81.8MB, mp3) 


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