- Belfer Center Newsletter

What Role Should the U.S. Play in Middle East?

Graham Allison, Director of Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs

First, think carefully about American national interests.  What do we care about more than something else that we care about?  The United States has no vital interest in Libya but does have vital interests in preventing a substantial interruption in the flow of oil from the Persian Gulf.  Second, know that the US cannot be, or appear to be, indifferent to an Awakening in which individuals are claiming rights our own revolutionary Constitution declares to be their endowment.  Third, analyze comparative histories of analogous revolutions, beginning with Brinton’s Anatomy of a Revolution. Fourth, recognize that the transition from sclerotic, relatively-stable autocracies to more successful societies is certainly to be tumultuous and to risk many dangers.  Fifth, differentiate: each case is different; one size policy does not fit all.  Distinct histories, cultures, and societies will produce distinct dynamics.  Finally, while attending to the downside, be alert to opportunities presented to advance American interests.


Nicholas Burns, Professor of the Practice of Diplomacy and International Politics

Three months after the start of the extraordinarily moving Arab people’s protests that have swept through North Africa and the Middle East, two initial conclusions are obvious.   First, this is the most significant movement for reform in the modern history of the Arab world.  Second, fifty years of American policy that assumed that backing authoritarian rule was the best way to achieve stability and American interests is now in question.

How should the U.S. react to these events?  There are opportunities and dangers alike for the United States in what is still the most vital region of U.S. engagement worldwide.  I believe President Obama has maneuvered in a largely skillful way to advance American policy since the demonstrations began in Tunisia in mid-January.  My image of him is a leader carefully juggling two conflicting and competing interests up on a high wire, without a net beneath him, and in the full glare of the international spotlight.

But, the U.S. will also have to act to protect its central military, economic and counter-terrorist interests in the Gulf, especially in Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Bahrain.   While we should support long-term reform in that region, we should be careful to also ensure that our friends in those countries survive the crisis and contintue to help us with the vital interests that we must protect—blocking the advance of Iranian power in the region, countering radical terrorist groups, helping Iraq to survive as a nascent democracy itself and ensuring the survival of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty.

In short, as Americans watch these dramatic events unfold in the Middle East, we must continue to balance our many objectives—hope for real change but also for stability in this most important region of the world.


Ashraf Hegazy, Dubai Initiative Executive Director

U.S. policymakers are facing two main challenges in Arab countries: the perception of having propped up oppressive regimes, placing U.S. and Israeli priorities ahead of the needs of local populations; and the rise of unfriendly political parties, especially Islamist ones, through the democratic process.

However, Arabs admire U.S. democratic values and are attempting to adopt them as part of their nascent democracies. To address the challenges by building on that admiration, the U.S. should:

  • Adopt a new paradigm for developing regional allies by prioritizing American interests that overlap with those of Arab publics, as opposed to those of autocratic regimes. Using mutually beneficial policies would enhance the U.S.’s value to the region, repair its image there, and improve prospects for future Arab-U.S. collaboration.
  • Continue emphasizing strong support for the democratic aspirations and movements by Arab publics without supporting specific candidates or political parties. Anyone seen as an ally of the U.S. will be DOA on the electoral scene.
  • Publicly commit to working with all peaceful, elected parties, including the Muslim Brotherhood. Their policies may not be aligned with those of the U.S., but including them in the political process is key to their moderation.
  • Maintain a consistent policy of strongly criticizing crackdowns on demonstrators across the region, including those by ally regimes.
  • Transfer some military aid (in Egypt, for example) to civil society programs.


Joseph S. Nye, Harvard University Distinguished Service Professor

While there is a wave of contagion sweeping the region, the so-called “Arab Spring” plays out differently in each country, and that has policy implications.  In Egypt and Tunisia, for example, there is some hope that assistance can help create conditions for democratic change; in Saudi Arabia, those conditions are not present and we should avoid doing anything that destabilizes the country. We should beware of thinking that one size fits all.


Stephen Walt, Robert and Renée Belfer Professor of International Affairs

The upheavals that have swept the Arab world have not altered U.S. interests in the region.  U.S. strategic interests include 1) reliable access to energy supplies, 2) counter-terrorism, and 3) preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction.  The United States also has a moral commitment to Israel’s security and favors the spread of democracy and human rights.

It is the policies used to advance these interests that need to be changed.  In the past, the United States relied on Arab governments whose policies did not reflect their citizens’ opinions.  In the future, most Arab governments will be more responsive to popular sentiment.  If the United States wants the policies of Arab governments to be congenial to its interests, it will have to make its own policies more congenial to Arab peoples, not just Arab rulers.

This approach would be a major departure from past U.S. policy, but wise statecraft anticipates and exploits the tides of history, instead of engaging in a futile struggle to hold them back.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Allison, Graham; Burns, R. Nicholas; Hegazy, Ashraf; Nye, Joseph S.; Walt, Stephen M.. What Role Should the U.S. Play in Middle East?.” Belfer Center Newsletter (Summer 2011).

The Authors

Graham Allison headshot

Nicholas Burns

Joseph S. Nye, Jr.

Stephen Walt