Skip to:

America's Middle East Purgatory: The Case for Doing Less



Tamara Wittes, Brookings
Mara Karlin, SAIS and Brookings

Date and Time

May 7, 2019 3:30 PM - 5:00 PM


Open to the public.

No RSVP required


William J. Perry Conference Room
Encina Hall, Second Floor, Central
616 Serra Mall, Stanford, CA 94305

Abstract: President Trump may talk about the Middle East differently than Obama did. But the two seem to share the view that the United States is too involved in the region and should devote fewer resources and less time to it. The reduced appetite for U.S. engagement in the region reflects, not an ideological predilection or an idiosyncrasy of these two presidents, but a deeper change in both regional dynamics and broader U.S. interests. Despite this, the United States exists in a kind of Middle Eastern purgatory—too distracted by regional crises to pivot to other global priorities but not invested enough to move the region in a better direction. This worst-of-both-worlds approach exacts a heavy price. It sows uncertainty among Washington’s Middle Eastern partners, which encourages them to act in risky and aggressive ways. It deepens the American public’s frustration with the region’s endless turmoil, as well as with U.S. efforts to address it. It diverts resources that could otherwise be devoted to confronting a rising China and a revanchist Russia. And all the while, by remaining unclear about the limits of its commitments, the United States risks getting dragged into yet another Middle Eastern conflict. 

It is time for Washington to put an end to wishful thinking about its ability to establish order on its own terms or to transform self-interested and shortsighted regional partners into reliable allies—at least without incurring enormous costs and long-term commitments. That means making some ugly choices to craft a strategy that will protect the most important U.S. interests in the region, without sending the United States back into purgatory. Karlin and Wittes will outline the choices before the next U.S. president and their view of a realistic, sustainable strategy for the United States in the Middle East. 
Tamara Wittes' Biography: Tamara Cofman Wittes is a senior fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings. Wittes served as deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs from November of 2009 to January 2012, coordinating U.S. policy on democracy and human rights in the Middle East during the Arab uprisings. Wittes also oversaw the Middle East Partnership Initiative and served as deputy special coordinator for Middle East transitions.


Wittes is a co-host of Rational Security, a weekly podcast on foreign policy and national security issues. She writes on U.S. Middle East policy, regional conflict and conflict resolution, the challenges of global democracy, and the future of Arab governance. Her current research is for a forthcoming book, Our SOBs, on the tangled history of America’s ties to autocratic allies.


Wittes joined Brookings in December of 2003. Previously, she served as a Middle East specialist at the U.S. Institute of Peace and director of programs at the Middle East Institute in Washington. She has also taught courses in international relations and security studies at Georgetown University. Wittes was one of the first recipients of the Rabin-Peres Peace Award, established by President Bill Clinton in 1997.


Wittes is the author of "Freedom’s Unsteady March: America’s Role in Building Arab Democracy" (Brookings Institution Press, 2008) and the editor of "How Israelis and Palestinians Negotiate: A Cross-Cultural Analysis of the Oslo Peace Process" (USIP, 2005). She holds a bachelor's in Judaic and Near Eastern studies from Oberlin College, and a master's and doctorate in government from Georgetown University. She serves on the board of the National Democratic Institute, as well as the advisory board of the Israel Institute, and is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and Women in International Security.



Mara Karlin's Biography: Mara Karlin, PhD, is Director of Strategic Studies at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). She is also an Associate Professor at SAIS and a nonresident senior fellow at The Brookings Institution. Karlin has served in national security roles for five U.S. secretaries of defense, advising on policies spanning strategic planning, defense budgeting, future wars and the evolving security environment, and regional affairs involving the Middle East, Europe, and Asia. Most recently, she served as the deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy and force development.  Karlin has been awarded Department of Defense Medals for Meritorious and Outstanding Public Service, among others. She is the author of Building Militaries in Fragile States: Challenges for the United States (University of Pennsylvania Press; 2018).