Recent coalition air assaults in Syria – a rarity for the Arab world – show us a glimpse of the rewards of our strategic partnerships in the Middle East. The US benefits tangibly from the willingness of Middle East partners to take bold, concerted and public action. The USG should conclude that sustaining and deepening these strategic partnerships must be our strategy in the months and years ahead. Uncertainty and instability throughout the region demand focus and collaborative effort on a range of issues, not just destroying the Islamic State group. This will require Washington’s engaging governments regularly via senior-level, personal, face-to-face visits, and not just for the purpose of an immediate “ask.”
For years Washington developed a series of transactional relationships with friendly Arab countries. We had interests in the region, and they were expected to help us out. Most of the time they did. When we needed something special from these leaders, a senior US official would visit for an afternoon, dump the request in their laps, and then move on to the next country. Regional leaders understandably chose not to invest too much of their own political capital in a relationship with the US, and kept us at arms distance on many key issues, or at least kept any controversial cooperation very confidential.
At the end of the day the nations of the Middle East must assume responsibility for stability, security, interdependence, and good governance throughout the region. It is in their collective and long-term interest to do so. The US should remain a valued partner in this endeavor, and help shape the pace and direction of these efforts. This will require substantial amounts of trust to be deposited in our respective emotional bank accounts. The result will become especially valuable when partners ask of each other the kinds of future cooperation that might be difficult to swallow, and hard to sell to our home constituencies. Like pro-active support for transformation of the Syrian government, mending some fences with Iran at the right moment, and outreach – even if modest – to Israel for the purpose of regional peace and stability. The US will receive some “asks” too, ones that might be difficult for us, but will earn our partners credibility with their own populations, such as pressing Israel on certain policies, resisting too much eventual compromise and rapprochement with Iran, or softening public criticism of domestic social and human rights policies. These will be difficult trade-offs, and require deft diplomacy. In the end we know we will not always agree to yield to each other’s requests. But as trust and progress build, the likelihood of successful outcomes will grow.