The Future of U.S. Engagement in the Middle East

Event Information

The Middle East Policy Council convened its 96th Capitol Hill Conference on Friday, April 12th: “The Future of U.S. Engagement in the Middle East.” Convened at the end of a week where the Trump administration designated the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a foreign terrorist organization and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu narrowly won reelection, the panelists presented different lenses through which to evaluate both the present and future of U.S. engagement in the region.


Richard J. Schmierer (former U.S. Ambassador to Oman; President and Chairman 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 Joan Polaschik (Acting Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, U.S. Department of State; Former U.S. Ambassador to Algeria); Geoffrey Kemp (Senior Director of Regional Security Programs, Center for the National Interest; Former Senior Director for Near East and South Asian Affairs, National Security Council); and Daniel Benaim (Senior Fellow, Center for American Progress; Former Middle East Adviser at the White House, the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Senate).

Ms. Polaschik highlighted that engagement in the Middle East is a priority for the Trump administration anchored around counterterrorism cooperation, ensuring the secure flow of natural resources, preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) and defending U.S. allies. This engagement is based on three core principles. The first is to tackle problems through coalition building while working to promote partner country self-reliance. She described the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS as an example of how this coalition building can realize success in practice. The second is to counter Iran as the greatest threat to regional security through tighter and more aggressive sanctions designed to further limit revenue for its malign activities. And the third principle is that U.S. military intervention cannot be the answer to the region’s challenges. This means greater focus on humanitarian support (e.g. Yemen, the Western Sahara), protections of religious freedom, and other peaceful solutions to conflict.


Mr. Kemp believes that U.S. influence in the region over the past two decades has never been as weak as it is today. This weakened position arrived gradually over three key periods: 1991 and the successful first Gulf War where U.S. President George H.W. Bush declared a new world order; 2001 marking the end of unipolar U.S. power with the beginning of the Afghanistan (justified) and Iraq (unjustified) wars; and 2011 with the Arab uprisings and a confused and illusionary U.S. response, particularly in Syria which resulted in the U.S. having no real influence on what happens there today. The result is that in 2019 the U.S. now faces competition from outside powers (Russia, Turkey, Iran and maybe China in the longer term). Yet none of these country competitors has the ability to replace the U.S. fully, suggesting a period of friction, conflict and a lack of easy solutions to managing the political, security and increasingly environmental complexities of the region.


Mr. Benaim advocated for a “restrained but sustained” approach to the Middle East, praising some initiatives of the Trump administration while suggesting that there needs to be greater investments made beyond rulers to see real progress on the ground. He believes that many of the key relationships in the region have become hyper-personalized in a way that risks leaving U.S. partners feeling whiplash. He also criticized the Trump administration for underinvesting on the civilian side and downgrading U.S. diplomatic tools in a manner that leaves the U.S. worse off. Further, he does not see the escalated rhetoric against Iran being matched with funding and programs on the ground to tangibly reduce Iran’s nefarious activities in the region. All of these dynamics are being complicated by the growing impact of nature on national security within countries in the Middle East, something that current U.S. policy is not well designed to confront.


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

Joan Polaschik 

Acting Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, 

Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, U.S. Department of State

Former U.S. Ambassador to Algeria 


Geoffrey Kemp

Senior Director of Regional Security Programs, 

Center for the National Interest

Former Senior Director for Near East and South Asian Affairs, National Security Council 


Daniel Benaim

Senior Fellow, Center for American Progress

Former Middle East Adviser at the White House, 

the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Senate

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Scroll to Top