President-elect Joe Biden’s administration will confront a Middle East filled with many challenges and few opportunities. The arguments for pivoting away from the region are compelling, though they may well underestimate the challenges of counter-terrorism, counter-proliferation, and protracted conflicts that have the capacity to draw the United States back in. Indeed, the United States still has vital interests to protect.
At the same time, if the past two decades have proven anything, it’s that America cannot transform the region. Most of the challenges that bedevil it—the absence of good government, the lack of transparency and accountability, corruption, and sectarian tensions—are beyond America’s capacity to repair.
Without local buy-in from those who live and lead in the region, it’s doubtful that real change is possible. Moreover, faced with the greatest challenge of domestic recovery since the Great Depression, Biden’s bandwidth for engagement will be limited.
There are issues where the United States must continue to act unilaterally, if necessary, in pursuit of its interests. But a strong case can be made that moving forward, a more subtle mix of U.S. unilateralism and selective multilateralism makes more sense for American diplomacy and power projection. For a region this complex, the key may well lie in partnership with others, especially in areas of conflict where management and mitigation rather than short-term solutions rule the field.
These include some of the more intractable conflicts in the region—like in Syria, Yemen, and Libya—and the many endemic social and economic challenges that have thus far been impervious to easy solutions. The United States has always enjoyed the power to convene, that is, the ability to mobilize others to work together on a common problem.
We have seen for ourselves how helpful a multilateral approach can be. Following the 1991 Madrid peace conference, its co-sponsors, the United States and Russia, launched a multilateral process to deal with unresolved issues between the Israelis and the Arab states. The two of us were part of a small team assisting then secretary of state James A. Baker.
We joined him in Moscow to launch the process, and then we oversaw the steering group and the five working groups that were created: water, the environment, refugees, economic development, and arms control and regional security.
Each of these groups pulled no punches, as Israel, most Arab states, the Palestinians, and selective international participants came together to focus on practical problems. Of particular importance was the steering group, a lean cohort of about twelve parties in which Israel sat alongside Egypt, Jordan, Palestinians, Tunisia, and Saudi Arabia to work out the details and goals of the working groups.
Several years later, the United States launched a second multilateral process that focused on economic public-private partnerships. Four conferences were held in Amman, Cairo, Casablanca, and Doha, where Israeli, Arab, American and international officials and business leaders came together to talk about investment, economic challenges, and the like.
In both of these multilateral processes, the results were modest, and their significance was largely in the fact that they took place. During and following the multilateral meetings, Israel and many states in the region with which Israel did not have formal relations began to forge ties.
Israeli ministers and officials traveled throughout the region and built relationships that paved the way for the formal normalization processes that have started this year. Multilateralism both broke the ice and accomplished purposes that the United States alone would not have been able to achieve.
We witnessed this up close. In a steering committee meeting in Canada where the delegates were snowed in, Israelis and Arabs mingled and interacted casually during off hours. During meetings of the arms control and regional security group, Israelis and Arabs locked horns in serious debate over consequential issues but also produced some joint regional activities such as a search and rescue exercise at sea.
And in the refugee working group, the most political of the groups, Israelis and Palestinian refugees talked to each other for the first time. The importance of the multilaterals cannot be overstated, either in the past or looking ahead.
Now more than ever, particularly with the growing contacts between Israel and the Arab states, they are a diplomatic force multiplier for the United States, as we try to maximize achievement while keeping human and financial costs in check in the post-pandemic world.