US Foreign Policy

Presidential Inbox 2013: Reinvigorate American Soft Power to Shape Change in the Arab World

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The Challenge

As turbulent change roils the Arab world, the Obama Administration must develop a coherent, long-term strategy to address the Arab transitions.  At the outset of the Arab uprisings, the Administration undertook useful changes, creating a Special Coordinator for Middle East Transitions and restructuring key bureaus in the State Department. However, as the uprisings spread, rapidly evolving events forced the Administration into “crisis management” mode, careening from one predicament to the next. At times, the policy debate depicted a false choice between “hard power” and disengagement.  Yet, a “third way” exists that bridges US leadership with new and creative applications of “soft power”

Two years into the region’s unparalleled transformation, a new US approach should employ both traditional and non-traditional levers of American power to influence transitions in the Arab world. The challenge is to devise a clear strategy that defines the challenges of transformative change sweeping the region, mitigates threats to US interests, and identifies opportunities to help shape and channel powerful forces for change.

The Context

The Arab world is in the midst of epochal change. Ignited by successive popular uprisings, the region’s transformation will unfold over the next decade or longer. Volatility, dislocation, and cascading crises will mark the Middle East’s “new normal.” However, the Arab transitions also hold the hope for broad reforms as newly-empowered populations seek to shape their destinies. Significant differences distinguish each country’s trajectory.  Yet, a common thread runs through every country from Tunisia to Syria to Jordan: a popular yearning for change that is deep and unyielding.

The Arab uprisings highlight a profound shift in the nature of power. Shaped by broader popular access to cellphones, satellite television, social media and other emerging technologies, power is more diffuse. Forces for change have migrated from Arab society’s traditional establishment to disparate, organic elements often residing at society’s periphery. This diffusion of power has given rise to a new dynamism that is inherently more volatile and less predictable and merits a new approach.

In May 2011, President Obama delivered a speech that attempted to put the Arab uprisings in context. Touting a “new chapter in American diplomacy,” the president underscored the historic nature of change reverberating across the region and called for expanded US engagement.  He underscored the need to “broaden our engagement beyond elites” and build networks with those who will shape the region’s future.

Yet, as unrest continues to reverberate across the region, US policy has yet to fulfill the president’s vision. Instead, it remains hostage to unresolved tensions between US interests and values such as the tradeoff between reform and stability and the contradictions between short and long term interests.  In the absence of a coherent Arab transitions strategy, the region’s winds of change-from Syria’s civil war, to Bahrain’s brutal repression of its Shia majority, to continuing tumult in post-transition countries such as Libya and Egypt-will continue to buffet the United States.

Moving forward, the United States should adopt policies that reflect the complex dynamics propelling the Arab transitions and better anticipate impending challenges. The Administration should invest in more nimble, “soft power” responses that combine US leadership, economic statecraft, and creative diplomacy. The Administration must develop a better mix of policy tools that places greater emphasis on both “soft power” and “smart power” levers. When kinetic responses are necessary-as in Libya and possibly Syria-the Administration must insure that military interventions are bounded and followed by peace-building and reconciliation efforts.

It must adapt to a changing power landscape where traditional modes of engagement are not always effective. It must instead develop new methods of diplomacy that penetrate the region’s grassroots. To reach these new actors and gain greater insights into their worldview, the Administration should also leverage American leadership and know-how for creative policy solutions to the dire economic challenges threatening to derail the transitions.  US entrepreneurship and innovation can play a key role in helping to build vibrant private sectors in the Arab world – critical for job creation.  Likewise, the United States must re-assert its role as the pre-eminent force for diplomacy in the region.  It must rise above deepening sectarianism and seek to build coalitions for peaceful resolution to deepening conflicts such as in Syria.

Pragmatic Steps

The Obama Administration should undertake several steps to better prepare for the Arab world’s impending decade of turbulence. By following certain policy prescriptions, the Administration will be better placed to anticipate future challenges and re-assert American leadership in the region.

1.      Designate a senior level official at the National Security Council to serve as Deputy National Security Advisor for the Arab Transitions, with broad responsibility for directing policy on the Arab world’s transformative change. This official should have close access to the President as well as coordinating responsibility over all relevant US government agencies.

2.      Conduct a broad policy review and develop a long-term, coherent strategy that elaborates on the complex drivers of change in the Arab world, future challenges and opportunities for US policy.

3.      Devise a detailed communications strategy to accompany a US strategy on the Arab transitions to insure that both the American public as well as Arab publics are informed on the significance of Arab transformations for US interests. Underscore the potential dividends for US economic growth and job creation that will accrue by investing and developing Middle East markets. Reach out to Congressional leadership to gain their backing.

4.      Insure that US diplomats have the appropriate resources to promote US trade and investment, particularly in North Africa where the untapped potential for Maghreb trade and investment could contribute to a dynamic new market for US companies.

5.      Deepen US grassroots engagement by ensuring that American diplomats spend extended time away from capitals, touring provincial regions and building networks. Empower and facilitate American NGOs where official US engagement is sensitive.

6.      Spearhead a strategic dialogue with Gulf allies in the region that seeks to tamp down growing sectarianism and builds a new vision for a peaceful and prosperous Arab world. In particular, the United States should focus on both Bahrain and Syria as potential sources for widespread regional instability. It should assert a leadership role that brings all parties in the region together to help build peaceful solutions to these crises.



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