Ask the Expert: Brian Katulis on a broader Middle East strategy

Why does the United States need to develop a broader strategy for the Middle East?

At this point in time, in a period of major transition in the region, it's not enough for the United States to simply respond to events day to day. It actually has to have a broader vision of where it sees the Middle East after a long period of time. What are its long-term goals? For the last 30 years, U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East has been focused on this reactive tactical crisis management and it's insufficient. And it's what we're doing in Libya right now, it's what we're doing in Syria, and we're also doing the same thing in Bahrain and other places. What the United States needs to do is actually figure out—at the end of a long period, say by 2020—what it is they'd like to see from this broader region of the world, and be very specific about it, and commit our resources to help the people of the region achieve that. Otherwise, we'll be continuing to react to events and sinking ourselves more deeply into military conflicts without a political end goal in sight.

What should that strategy include?

Well, first, it's got to include some hardcore security measures, which we have. And we have security relationships with key governments and countries in the region. That's got to be the basis for this. And Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has talked about building security partnerships around the world. But it shouldn't just be that; it actually needs to be serious about political and economic reform—and I'd highlight, an integrated political and economic reform in most of the countries of the region. Now, there's no one-size-fits-all policy that we can apply to the Middle East because you've got some very poor countries like Yemen, you've got some very rich countries like Bahrain. All of the countries in the Middle East need reform, both on the political and economic front, and we can't simply just rely on our Pentagon and our military to help craft this strategy. We need an integrated approach that brings the economic, political, and diplomatic tools into the picture and helps these societies respond to those protests that the people in the streets are calling for, those reforms.

How can the administration build off the strategy the president outlined last night for Libya?

The president's speech on Libya last night, I think, was an important step forward. He spent about half of the speech providing the rationale for U.S. involvement in Libya and connecting it to his vision of American leadership—one that asks of other countries to pull their weight, to actually take part in a multilateral, collaborative effort. About a third of the speech was describing what's been done to date and only 15 percent of the speech was what's going to happen next. I think, first and foremost, the Obama administration needs to bring greater clarity to what its end state is in Libya and how it's going to achieve it. And then more broadly, given that he's outlined a philosophy of multilateral action in places like the Middle East, how this will be applied to some of the toughest test cases like Yemen, like Bahrain. And I think the president needs to take a step beyond sort of the day to day and again articulate a long-term strategy that has long-term goals for the region.