John Kerry's visit to Cairo and Baghdad is a sign that the US remains committed to a region fraught with religious and political strife. But a coherent grand strategy for the Middle East is hard to come by.
When it comes to foreign policy, particularly that of major powers, pundits, journalists and the general public expect governments to have a grand plan of how to deal with a certain world region. When political leaders appear to lack what George Bush senior famously called 'the vision thing' they often pay for it through public disapproval in the media and at the polls. The problem with these much-demanded grand strategies is, of course, that it is difficult to fit a policy for a region into a catchy one-liner that is more than a platitude.
The current US administration can tell a story or two about this. Ever since President Barack Obama delivered a landmark speech in June 2009 in Cairo titled "A new beginning" he has been plagued with the expecations raised by that trip. In his remarks he called for a better relationship between Islam and the West, Israeli-Palestinian peace and the fight against extremism. Five years later, reality has dealt a harsh blow to what many considered the president's grand strategy for the Middle East as layed out in his Cairo address.
"There has never been a coherent Middle East strategy since the Bush administration's intervention in Iraq", says Hall Gardner, professor of international politics at the American University of Paris. He regards the Obama administration's early and recently renewed efforts to bring peace between Israelis and Palestinians as a cornerstone of a larger Middle East policy.
"The Obama administration at least tried, but failed, to bring the Israelis and Palestinians together as one of its primary goals." When that peace effort collapsed as many had predicted it sent negative ripples through the entire region, Gardner added.
But the larger lesson from the much hailed Cairo speech is that especially in the Middle East it is easy for any grand strategy to get mugged by reality. That disparate religious, national and ethnic mix that makes up the Middle East is practically impossible to fit into a coherent strategy. That's why, notes Erwin van Veen, a senior research fellow at Clingendael, the Dutch Institute of International Relations, it does not make much sense to demand a coherent grand strategy for the Middle East from Washington.
Impossibility of a grand plan
"I doubt whether that is possible", says van Veen. Instead, it is easier and more useful to speak about US policy objectives for the region. "I think they have a couple of very clear objectives for their Middle Eastern policy and the trouble that they have is that some of them are very difficult to square with each other."
Among Washington's major policy goals for the region are these four: the security of Israel, preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, good ties with regional powers Turkey and Saudi-Arabia, and curbing the rise radical Islamist groups. Those regional objectives, paired with Obama's general goal of avoiding any large scale military intervention, does not make a coherent strategy, but at least creates a blueprint for what Washington wants in the Middle East.
But again, even those limited objectives face the problem that some contradict each other. With the ongoing civil wars in Syria and Iraq, "I think the US is at a total loss what to do because there are so many competing and conflicting interests between the Saudis, the Iranians, the Iraqi government and the Syrian government and all the other forces involved", says Gardner.
"That's the fundamental tension that they face and that's why it looks incoherent and why it's easy to criticize", adds van Veen.
Since it is impossible to fulfill all objectives, the US must prioritize among its core goals for the region. "And implicitly it looks like they are doing it already", says van Veen. "It's well known that Iran supports the regime of President Assad with money, weapons and military advisers.
And the US doesn't look like it's making a big fuss about it. That's probably because they don't want to jeopardize the nuclear negotiations with Iran because if you put too much pressure on one front you will reap the consequences on another."
Making matters even more complicated, while prioritizing its goals, Washington must also be nimble enough to adapt, or alter, its priorities, depending on events on the ground. We may be able to witness the beginning of a shift in priorities - at least for the moment - with the fight against Islamic extremists, like ISIS, taking on bigger importance.
However, at least in that battle against Islamic extremists, it seems, there - finally – may be a catchy one-liner that could help sell the president's strategy. "Obama's against a whack-a mole strategy. He is not going to come out and simply zap any terrorist movement as it pops up", says Gardner.