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Policy Analysis

Policy Notes

General Principles to Guide U.S. Middle East Policy

James F. Jeffrey and Dennis Ross

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Transition 2017: Policy Notes for the Trump Administration

January 2017

Given the unprecedented turmoil and uncertainty afflicting the Middle East, the new administration will need to devote particular care and urgency to understanding the essence of America's interests in the region, and applying clear principles in pursuing them. This is the advice offered by two U.S. diplomats with a distinguished record of defending those interests under various administrations.

As Trump and his team take office, they face a regional state system that is under assault by proxy wars that reflect geopolitical rivalries and conflicts over basic identity. Rarely has it been more important for a new administration to articulate clear goals and principles, and Ambassadors James Jeffrey and Dennis Ross outline both in this transition paper.

With 30 percent of the world's hydrocarbons still flowing from the Middle East, safeguarding that supply remains a critical U.S. national security interest, along with preventing nuclear proliferation, countering terrorism, and preserving stability. In their view, the best way to pursue these interests is to emphasize a coherent set of guiding principles, namely:

  • Containing Iran and its Shiite proxies
  • Defeating the Islamic State
  • Combatting other radical Sunni Islamists
  • Maintaining alliances and partnerships
  • Exercising U.S. military power with caution
  • Complementing hard power with economic and soft power
  • Avoiding transformational approaches


AMBASSADOR JAMES F. JEFFREY, the Philip Solondz Distinguished Fellow at The Washington Institute, is a former deputy national security advisor and U.S. ambassador to Turkey and Iraq.

AMBASSADOR DENNIS ROSS, the William Davidson Distinguished Fellow and counselor at The Washington Institute, formerly served as special assistant to President Obama, as National Security Council senior director for the Central Region, and as special advisor to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. He was U.S. point man on the peace process in both the George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton administrations.


Founded in 1985, The Washington Institute is a nonpartisan organization dedicated to scholarly research and informed debate on U.S. policy in the Middle East. Following in the tradition of seven previous presidential election cycles, the Institute's Presidential Transition Papers are designed to provide a new administration with sound analysis, creative ideas, and useful recommendations to advance U.S. interests in the Middle East.