Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Is The U.S. Leaving A Leadership Void In The Middle East?


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.


And I'm Robert Siegel. In this part of the program, we're going to address a question that keeps bubbling up in news stories and commentary from the Middle East. It's a question President Obama addressed indirectly in his State of the Union speech Tuesday night.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: In a world of complex threats, our security, our leadership, depends on all elements of our power, including strong and principled diplomacy.

SIEGEL: The president was answering complaints from the Middle East that the U.S. has left a power vacuum, a void in the region, a void that might be filled by Iran. There's no question the U.S. military presence is smaller. Back in 2011, President Obama remarked on the end of the U.S. military role in Iraq.

OBAMA: The end of war in Iraq reflects a larger transition. The tide of war is receding.

SIEGEL: And some players in the region see something else receding: American power and American influence. For example, in Iraq, the deputy prime minister, Saleh al-Mutlaq, a Sunni Muslim, says the U.S. should've done more to create a government that Sunnis could trust. He told me Washington should have and could have.

SALEH AL-MUTLAQ: America is America. America is the biggest and most important country in the world. If they are really serious in trying to enforce reconstruction of the country, they will be able to do that.

SIEGEL: Another example, Syria. Saudi Arabia's ambassador to London wrote an op-ed article about what he called his country's responsibilities in Syria and he wrote: We will act to fulfill these responsibilities with or without the support of our Western partners. The op-ed was in the New York Times. The intended readership was clearly American.

There's enough talk about a void created by American disengagement from the Middle East that Secretary of State John Kerry felt obliged to rebut the notion in a speech last week in Davos, Switzerland.

SECRETARY JOHN KERRY: You cannot find another country, not one country, that is as proactively engaged, that is partnering with so many Middle Eastern countries as constructively as we are on so many high stake fronts.

SIEGEL: NPR's State Department correspondent Michele Kelemen has followed the back and forth on the question of U.S. engagement in the Middle East. Hi, Michele.


SIEGEL: When Secretary Kerry speaks of high stake fronts, I assume he means Iran's nuclear weapons, Israel, Palestine, Syria. How high a priority is the region for the U.S. these days?

KELEMEN: Well, for Kerry personally it's a high priority, and that's one of the reasons why he says he's so perplexed by this argument that the U.S. is disengaging. I mean he's there constantly. He's meeting with officials constantly. He's pushing hard for the Israelis and Palestinians to reach what he's calling a framework agreement to try to keep the hope of a two-state solution alive.

But you know, all this frenetic diplomacy doesn't really make up for what people see as a lack of strategy for the region and at times it looks like Kerry's sort of winging it when he's out there in the region.

SIEGEL: What does the administration make of statements like those by the Saudi ambassador to London, say, that it's time to go it alone without the U.S.?

KELEMEN: They've certainly been trying to downplay this rift with Saudi Arabia, but it is hard to hide, particularly when it comes to dealing with Iran. You know, Kerry talks a lot about how diplomats need room to reach a compromise with Iran on the nuclear issue, but he's been much more careful when it comes to Iran's regional ambitions.

So you saw him kind of holding out the possibility of Iran taking part in the Syrian peace conference, but ultimately urging the UN to rescind Iran's invitation at the end.

SIEGEL: Is that what you mean by a lack of strategy?

KELEMEN: Yeah. I mean you see him kind of going - taking opportunities where he can, dealing with all the players as best he can, but you don't get the sense that he's really tethered to an overall strategic vision for the region.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Michele Kelemen. Thank you, Michele.

KELEMEN: Thank you.

SIEGEL: And now to the case of Egypt, where U.S. engagement includes a big military relationship and a history of having negotiated the Egyptian/Israeli peace back in the 1970s. Emad Shahin is a political scientist. He's based at American University in Cairo. Professor Shahin has been named, preposterously, he says, in an espionage case linked to ousted President Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood.

He's in Washington this week. Welcome to the program.

EMAD SHAHIN: Thank you.

SIEGEL: And I gather you are not affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood.

SHAHIN: No, I'm not a member of...

SIEGEL: You're not a spy.

SHAHIN: I'm not a spy.

SIEGEL: Egyptians routinely fault Washington for all sorts of sins of omission and commission in their national affairs. Today, is the U.S. deeply engaged in Egypt or has Washington decided to back off?

SHAHIN: Just to answer, let's recall President Obama's speech in Cairo, 2009, and they promise and the hope that it gave to millions of Egyptians. To many, they thought that there would be a drastic change in U.S. policy, more involvement to the side of principles and values that can actually address many crises in the region.

One of them, of course, the issue of democracy, the right of self determination, and other issues. Now, if you compare 2009 to 2014, I think many Egyptians are viewing this as some kind of a void that has been created by a disengagement on the part of the United States.

SIEGEL: What do you say to the argument that a very vocal U.S. role could have a perverse effect - that is, people in Egypt could receive it as an intrusive America that's trying to throw its weight around and interfere in domestic affairs?

SHAHIN: I realize, of course, this is a tough position because it is exactly what the military-backed government is trying to play and is trying to project to the Egyptian people, this idea of ultra-nationalist, anti-Americanist, so of course the United States has to be careful about this. But I think there are many ways and channels through which an explicit message could be conveyed to the military-backed government.

SIEGEL: Are you confident that the U.S. actually has the power, has the influence to make Egypt more democratic, or that at this stage beyond the limits of American power?

SHAHIN: I believe so. Egypt has very strong ties with the military institution. I think this is the only institution has the strongest ties with the United States. The United States also gives $1.5 billion a year of aid to Egypt, so there is leverage. And also there is this idea of standing up by the democratic values and by principled foreign policy.

And I think, you know, this is a lot of leverage that could be exercised in this case.

SIEGEL: Emad Shahin, thank you very much for talking with us.

SHAHIN: Thank you.

SIEGEL: And we're going to turn now to NPR's Middle East correspondent, Deborah Amos, who joins us from Beirut. Deborah, do you hear these complaints often about the U.S. playing too modest a role in the Middle East these days?

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: You hear it all the time from the Syrian opposition, from Syrian refugees, and it's particularly galling to U.S. officials when they say we spend more - we are the largest single contributor to humanitarian aid for Syrians, $1.7 billion by this January, but you hear it over and over again from Syrians in the same way that you hear Iraqis. If the Americans wanted to, they could move Bashar al-Assad out of office.

But what Syrians see is instead of bombing the government or sending military aid to the rebels, the president turned this issue over to the UN, and what they're talking about is the Geneva talks, the peace talks for Syria.

SIEGEL: Now, you mentioned the Iraqis. I want to play something that Saleh al-Mutlaq, the Iraqi deputy prime minister, told me. He is a Sunni Muslim from Anbar Province and I put it to him that President Obama's harshest critics say that the U.S. is not just leaving behind a void that Iran might be filling, but that the U.S. is about to tilt to Tehran, become friendly with Iran. And here's what the Iraqi deputy prime minister said.

AL-MUTLAQ: Well, I mean this is the question of everybody in the region, that something is happening which is strange, that from all that conflict between Iran and America and after America has given the region, especially Iraq, to the Iranian, now they are getting on in dialogue in order to improve their relation. And this is not only my concern. It's the concern of everybody in the region. And it's the worry of everybody in the region, because if you strengthen Iran to that extent, then Iran is going to be the policeman of the region.

SIEGEL: You feel that Iraq has been handed over to Iran.

AL-MUTLAQ: Definitely.

SIEGEL: Definitely - Deb, there's an interim six-month nuclear agreement with Iran on nuclear issues. And there has been a civil phone call between Iran and President Obama. Do people really feel that the U.S. is about to tilt toward Iran?

AMOS: You have to see if their perspective to understand why they say it. We are in this region and engage in a cold war between Iran and Saudi Arabia. It is also a sectarian war. The Saudis are a Sunni power. The Iranians are a Shia power. Those issues are bubbling through Iraq, Syria, Lebanon. And so, when you hear Saleh El-Mutlaq talk about the Americans tilting towards Iran, what he means is in this sectarian war it is a tilt towards Shiites over Sunnis. Americans just don't see it that way.

For America this is an issue about nuclear weapons, more regional stability. But if you're here and the biggest issue is between Saudi Arabia and Iran, you - many, many, many Arabs see the Americans tilting towards Shiite Iran against Sunni Saudi Arabia that has been their ally for years. Listen to his language. Did you hear him say they want to the Iranians to be the policemen of the region?

SIEGEL: Policemen of the region, yes.

AMOS: That's a very old policy of during the shah's time that was American policy that the shah was the policeman. The fact of the matter is now the Americans are the policeman of the Gulf and that is not what this nuclear deal is about. But you are hearing people talking historically rather than rationally.

SIEGEL: Deb, let's go back for a moment to what John Kerry said in Davos last week. He was putting the current U.S. position in the Middle East in terms of how different it is from the 10 years of engagement in Iraq.

KERRY: After a decade that was perhaps uniquely and, in many people's view, unfortunately, excessively defined foremost by force and our use of force, we are entering an era of American diplomatic engagement that is as broad and as deep as any at any time in our history.

SIEGEL: What I hear you saying, Deb, is people in the region might say: we can do diplomacy, from you we want something more.

AMOS: Indeed. You know, the Americans, if they are too engaged, people are angry. If they are not engaged enough, what you see are regional powers stepping into what they perceive as a void. That is what makes people so uncomfortable in this region. In the past, they always felt that if the regional powers got out of line, the adults - the Americans, the Russians - would come and sort things out. They feel that America as a sorting power is absent and that is what they are reacting to.

SIEGEL: Deb Amos in Beirut, thanks.

AMOS: Thank you.

SIEGEL: And we are likely to be hearing a lot more about the U.S. role in the Middle East. Efforts continue to end the war in Syria. Within a couple of months, Secretary Kerry is expected to present the framework of an agreement to the Israelis and the Palestinians. And by the summer, there will either be a deal guaranteeing no Iranian nuclear weapons, or a push for more sanctions - If not the use of force.

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.