The Future of American Involvement in the Middle East

With U.S. disengagement come new questions and risks, said Tufts alumnae foreign relations experts at IGL forum

U.S. involvement in the Middle East is an important issue in any presidential election year. Already in 2020, the Trump administration has announced a Middle East peace plan, while recent news reports suggest the COVID-19 pandemic will cause further upheaval in an unstable region.

Three alumnae who are experts on U.S. Middle East policy returned to Tufts in February to share their insights on the future of  American engagement in that region at a forum sponsored by the Institute for Global Leadership (IGL). Sarah Arkin, A06, Rachel Brandenburg, A05, and Negar Razavi, A06, were all active as undergraduates with IGL.

The three have held positions in academia, think tanks, and government, although at the forum they were expressing their personal opinions. Arkin is policy director for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Democratic staff, Brandenburg is senior policy adviser for Michigan Congresswoman Elissa Slotkin, and Razavi is a political anthropologist and visiting assistant professor at The College of William and Mary.

The Middle East and U.S. Middle East policy have changed dramatically since foreign policy experts, from left, Negar Razavi, Rachel Brandenburg, and Sarah Arkin graduated from Tufts, seen here in February. Photo: Institute for Global LeadershipThe Middle East and U.S. Middle East policy have changed dramatically since foreign policy experts, from left, Negar Razavi, Rachel Brandenburg, and Sarah Arkin graduated from Tufts, seen here in February. Photo: Institute for Global Leadership
All agreed that new trends have emerged in a region that has changed enormously since their Tufts days. These were their main takeaways.

People in the Middle East are the center of hope. Popular expectations about how to drive change are vastly different following the Arab Spring a decade ago. “When we were graduating from Tufts in 2005 and 2006, there was still this hope within the government that the U.S. could do something dramatic to change the region,” said Razavi. Now, however, the people of the Middle East have said “not only do we not want the U.S. to be intervening, we also don’t want Iran to be intervening. Iraqi people are saying ‘Iraq for the Iraqis.’ In Lebanon, the people want all of the corrupt leaders to go, to start over with a clean slate.”

The U.S. is in the back seat. Compared with previous presidencies, the Trump administration has taken a very different approach to foreign policy in the Middle East and beyond. War-weariness within the U.S. aligns with that approach of disengagement. No longer is there a widespread conviction that the U.S. can or should use its military power or its values to help solve problems, according to the three speakers. “Ten or fifteen years ago, the U.S. would have jumped right in,” said Brandenburg.

Disengagement is creating a “kind of experiment” and important questions are emerging, from the future of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to migration in Europe, noted the panelists. But it has come at a cost. “One of the tragic things we’ve lost is a lot of values-driven human rights programs, democracy programs, support for civil society initiatives, and engaging in public diplomacy,” said Arkin.

If and how the U.S. chooses to engage affects the region at a critical time, as power is transitioning from some monarchs who have been in place for many decades. In the past, U.S. policy had been to serve as a check on many Middle East leaders. “Their worst intentions were often at least curbed a bit by the U.S. coming in and saying, ‘you can’t do that,’” said Brandenburg. Now, unrestrained leaders are creating a “pretty dangerous” state of affairs, she added.

Palestinian-Israeli conflict is no longer the linchpin to peace. Fifteen or twenty years ago, people who monitored Middle East affairs generally believed that solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would be the key to peace and greater stability. Today experts no longer view the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as a linchpin of stability or the starting point for policy discussions. Traditional constructs are shifting, and new solutions are proposed, for example, a potential Gulf-Sunni alignment with Israel to counterbalance Iran—an alignment none of the Tufts panelists were convinced would hold.

Challenging assumptions and asking questions are key. Sound policymaking demands that private citizens and public leaders ask the right questions and rigorously examine underlying assumptions, agreed Arkin, Brandenburg, and Razavi. What are the core assumptions people take for granted when considering the U.S. presence in the Middle East? What does success look like in a war on terror? “We will not see a post-American Middle East as long as core logics are not challenged,” said Razavi. “We have to define what U.S. interests are and how we are trying to accomplish them.”

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