Progress or Conflict? What to Expect for U.S. Policy in the Middle East

Progress or Conflict? What to Expect for U.S. Policy in the Middle East

Event Information



The Middle East Policy Council held its 101st Capitol Hill Conference on Friday, July 17th: “Progress or Conflict? What to Expect for U.S. Policy in the Middle East.” The event was virtual and held through Zoom due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The event took a broad look at the key trends in the Middle East that will shape U.S. foreign policy and how a continuation of the Trump administration or a new Biden one might react. The panelists focused mostly on the Israeli – Palestinian conflict, Egypt and Iran, while also addressing the Gulf states and competition for regional influence from Russia and China.

Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley (former U.S. Ambassador to Malta; Vice Chair of the Board of Directors, Middle East Policy Council) moderated the event and Thomas R. Mattair (Executive Director, Middle East Policy Council) was the discussant. The panelists were Anne Patterson (Former Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs); Mara Rudman (Executive Vice President for Policy, Center for American Progress); Sanam Vakil (Deputy Director and Senior Research Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme, Chatham House); and Gregory Gause (Head, Department of International Affairs and Professor, The Bush School of Government and Public Service, Texas A&M University).

Ms. Patterson described a Middle East more confused and violent than ever, with Turkish intervention in Syria and Libya, renewed Russian influence, and shocks to local economies and remittances from abroad. She highlighted two potential flashpoints in Egypt: first, possible conflict between the Egyptian military and Turkish forces in Libya and second, heightened tensions between Egypt and Ethiopia over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam which diverts water from a Nile River basin already water-stressed due to impacts from global climate change. In the event of a Biden presidential administration in January 2021, Ms. Patterson sees a return to more emphasis on human rights in the region, a focus on wrapping up the war in Yemen, and a re-entry in some form to an agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear program.

Ms. Rudman advocated for the centrality of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the key to sustainable regional security and U.S. national interests. She highlighted how unilateral annexation by Israel works against this goal, undermines other U.S. opportunities in the region and constrains the options of the United States in dealing with other Middle Eastern countries. To improve the situation, she urged focusing on the context and politics facing both Israel and the Palestinians; keeping an eye on the horizon and broader strategic objectives; engaging all parties directly; and recognizing the value of U.S. assistance in furthering American national interests in the Middle East.

Ms. Vakil focused on Iran and the mistaken assumptions that have derailed U.S. foreign policy there. First, the U.S. underestimates the importance of domestic decision-making and internal politics to drive Iranian foreign policy, noting that conservatives are gaining more power in Iran, something increasingly relevant to succession planning for the Supreme Leader. Second, the U.S. can’t “go it alone” with Iran and has alienated the European countries who support some U.S. positions on Iran but are still committed to the Iran nuclear deal negotiated by the Obama administration. And third, U.S. regional partners are not necessarily feeling more secure since the U.S. withdrawal from the Iranian nuclear agreement and the subsequent “maximum pressure” campaign. In her view, this has not reduced the Iranian footprint in the region and the transformation of Iran into a partisan issue in the United States is complicating matters further.

Mr. Gause explained the regional trends and changes in the United States that he envisions will shape U.S. policy in the Middle East over the next few years. The three regional trends include: a long-term weakening of state authority in the Middle East which welcomes destabilizing interventions by state and non-state actors; a modified return to great power politics; and the gradual decline of oil’s centrality in global geopolitics. As for the changes in the United States, he sees U.S. foreign policy becoming more partisan with Republicans becoming the party of regime change in Iran; an increased belief that the Middle East isn’t really that important to U.S. national interests; and the realization that there is an inability for the U.S. to completely “cut the cord” from engagement in the region.

The full video from the event is available on the Middle East Policy Council website. A full transcript from the event will be posted in a few days at and published in the next issue of the journal Middle East Policy. For members of the media interested in contacting these speakers or other members of the Middle East Policy Council’s leadership, please email

Event Speakers

Amb. (ret.) Anne Patterson

Former Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs

Former Ambassador to Egypt and Pakistan


Ms. Mara Rudman

Executive Vice President for Policy, Center for American Progress

Former Deputy Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs

Former Assistant Administrator for the Middle East, USAID


Dr. Sanam Vakil

Deputy Director and Senior Research Fellow, 

Middle East and North Africa Programme, Chatham House

James Anderson Professorial Lecturer in Middle Eastern Studies,

John Hopkins SAIS in Bologna, Italy


Prof. F. Gregory Gause, III

Head, Department of International Affairs, and Professor, 

The Bush School of Government & Public Service, 

Texas A&M University

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