Washington Post columnist David Ignatius gave the keynote address during the conference “Islamists in Power: Views from Within,” discussing President Obama’s Middle East policy and the administration’s response to the regional Arab Awakening.

President Obama’s Foreign Policy

  • Iraq and Afghanistan: President Obama’s commitment to pulling out of Iraq meant that the United States had no choice but to accept the Maliki government. The president’s approach to Afghanistan also involved keeping an open mind and being willing to participate in negotiations with the Taliban.
  • Iran’s Nuclear Program: Although the president has stated his commitment to preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, he remains hopeful that engagement is possible. Any attempt to engage Iran would need to involve the country’s Supreme Leader.
  • Arab-Israeli Peace: While President Obama expressed a clear intent to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict at the very beginning of his presidency, but he was unsuccessful.  Negotiations are now “on life support.”

U.S. Response to the Arab Spring

  • General Approach: Overall, the Obama administration understood that change was coming to the Middle East. The “Obama doctrine” calls for American military intervention only where interests are directly threatened and only with international support.
  • “Secret Commander”:  Yemen and its managed transition, with much diplomacy behind the scenes, suggest that President Obama may be a “better secret commander than a usual commander-in-chief.”
  • Syria: The situation in Syria is difficult but the United States has resisted calls to arm the rebels for fear that militarization of the conflict would lead to the death of more civilians, possibly driving more Syrians to side with the Assad regime.
  • Bahrain:  U.S. foreign policy always seeks to strike a balance between foreign policy interests and values, and this is particularly clear in Bahrain. When Saudi Arabia told the United States that it was not comfortable with the Wefaq-Crown Prince dialogue, initially encouraged by the United States, American officials largely withdrew from the conflict. The work of the Bassiouni Commission was a positive step in an otherwise difficult situation.
  • Next Steps for Egypt: The Egyptian government needs to ensure security, develop the economy, and focus on building tolerance into the political process.