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America’s Future in the Mideast

Thomas Friedman, Elliott Abrams, Walter Russell Mead, and Aaron David Miller advise the next president

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(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photos Getty Images and Kaveh Sardari/Council on Foreign Relations)

Thomas Friedman:

Regarding Iran, the Iranian currency has taken a sharp dive, which suggests that sanctions are working. We should be patient and give the sanctions more time to work, because ultimately the goal there is regime change. There is nothing like a 50 percent devaluation to get the regime to think differently about its nuclear strategy.

The peace process seems to be stuck right now, and it gives me a headache just to think about it. If there is a breakthrough, it will be because of something the Israelis and Palestinians do—not because of something we do.

As for Syria, I’m for the United States getting together with Russia much more energetically to find a balanced way to secure the interests of the Alawite minority, as well as other minorities, and the Sunni-majority opposition. What we’re seeing in Syria is an attempt to reverse a longstanding political order, and different sides seem to need to test each other’s power. Both sides seem to recognize that neither has the power to assert its will entirely.

The challenge with Syria, as with all such low-trust societies, is that you need a midwife to manage any transition from one power structure to another. It’s the role we played in Iraq, very imperfectly and with plenty of mistakes, but I don’t see anyone stepping up to play that role in Syria today. So, it seems like a good time for a much more aggressive approach to Russia, which has been the acting lawyer for the Assad regime. Maybe a negotiated deal is not possible, but it’s time for more energetic efforts.

Most importantly, the big thing is nurturing the next phase of the Arab awakening. The United States needs to start a race to the top in the Middle East, incentivizing creative approaches in modern education and modern democratic institution-building. Now that we have finished the fun part—bringing down nasty dictators—here’s where the really difficult part begins, in building a new model for consensual politics. And we should be thinking of innovative ways to abet that process so if people choose an Islamist government, they’ll opt for a model that looks more like Turkey than the Taliban; and if the government they choose is secular, it won’t be a return to dictatorships, but will be based on some form of consensual governance, with regular rotations in power and an independent judiciary.

Elliott Abrams:

There are three major issues. The first is that both Arabs and Israelis feel there is an alarming American passivity and want to see the United States play a much stronger role. I think this begins in Syria, which is the most serious case of American inaction. We need to have a policy that gets Assad out as soon as possible and strikes a blow against Iran and Hezbollah and eliminates the vacuum—which jihadists are now filling—by providing serious American leadership.

Then there is the Iranian nuclear arms program. We are not achieving what we need to by increasing sanctions on Iran. The problem is that there is no clear connection between the sanctions and how they might be affecting the Iranian economy and the regime’s decisions with respect to the nuclear program. We should stop squabbling with the Israelis in public and instead make it clear that there will be a devastating military strike unless Iran gives up its nuclear weapons program. The Iranian regime simply does not believe that now.

The third issue is more general. The administration is indicating that it believes the Muslim Brotherhood is the wave of the future. It has adopted a policy that Arab moderates, liberals, and secularists see as accommodationist with the Brotherhood. This explains Secretary Clinton’s reception in Cairo, where in July she was snubbed by liberals and leaders from the Coptic community.

I think their perception is correct and the administration’s accommodationist policy should be abandoned. First, it’s a misreading of the region. The election results in Libya and Egypt show that a lot of people don’t want Islamist governments. In Libya the Islamists lost, and in Egypt Ahmed Shafiq lost by a very small percentage of the vote. Islamism may be the future, but that remains to be decided by Arab populations—and many Arabs will resist such an outcome. They deserve such help as we can give and will be useful. Second, the kinds of societies and international policies that are best for the United States are not those the Brotherhood wishes to promote and achieve. We need a policy that supports our interests as well as our principles in the region.


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I am surprised that Thomas Friedman was asked to contribute to this symposium. He has been a long – time distorter of the actual situation in the Arab- Israeli conflict. And his consistent antagonism toward the Israeli Government and especially toward Prime Minister Netanyahu have been evidence of an ugly unfairness toward the Jewish state. His continuing to ignore the fact that there is not so much an ‘Arab Spring’ as an ‘Islamic Brotherhood takeover’ in countries throughout the Middle East shows again his bias and poor perception of the realities of the ground. I agree with Walter Russell Mead about the Syrian situation being one of the keys to Iran’s power drive in the Middle East. I agree with Aaron Miller about the largely wasted efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and about the worsening of conditions for at any kind of Peace at the moment. I do not think anyone here however has really given a prescription for the correct ways the U.S. must act in a whole complex of situations. One point should have been underlined. The U.S. must somehow prevent Iran from becoming a Nuclear power and succeed in getting some real supervision on Pakistani nuclear arsenal. This latter goal may be unachievable and the U.S. failures in regard to Pakistan are one of the great unwritten stories of American Foreign Policy from the Clinton Administration through the present.

Shalom is 100% correct. How can Thomas Friedman be a contributor. All his columns are continually expousing his Anti-Bibi venom which includes his inequitable Bias against most of Israel Domestic and Forign Policy’s
Harry Guttman

At least Abrams has his head on straight. The others just want more of the same failed policies of the last 20+ years.

fred capio says:

every single comment is completely useless and the worst is friedman…..

herbcaen says:

Thomas Friedmann has been thoroughly discredited as an expert in the Middle East. First, not a single prediction of Friedmann has turned out to be correct. Second, his columns in the New York Times have crossed the lines into plain anti-Semitism, and could be transposed upon similar writings in White supremacist literature on Jews. I believe that the expertise of Friedmann is no greater than that of David Duke, and probably not much difference in opinions either. Aaron David Miller is also a hasbeen, but is not as virulent as Friedmann. I hope that one day, Israel bars entry to Friedmann as it has to Norman Finkelstein and other professional Israel haters

Beatrix17 says:

On the evening news was a story of our soldiers in
Afghanistan hiding behind huge boulders and only allowing the two
Afghani commanders into their post because Americans are being
slaughtered by Afghani soldiers who are supposed to be allies.

Going into Iraq to rid the country of a bad man (who
had invaded Kuwait) and his two crazy sons made more sense than
going into primitive Afghanistan, which did nothing to us except to
inadvertently allow a group of madmen into their country whose goals
they couldn’t have guessed.

Mubarak, a dictator, was nevertheless an ally for 30
years. We did nothing to assure his safe passage out of Egypt as
Carter at least did with the Shah. We are allowing him to be tried
and to eventually face hanging.

Qaddafi, a terrible man, who was nevertheless an ally
at the end, was slaughtered by the rebels.

Obama lacks sophistication, and for all their
craziness, Mideastern leaders are sophisticated. The only one who
cares what we think is Netanyahu.

Hershl says:

Friedman is a traitor to his people, a professional haus jude, who uses his NYTimes column to curse Israel every chance he gets. When it comes to sheer chutzpah, Friedman gets first prize. Evil incarnate.

julis123 says:

Its too bad that you trot out the usual gang of “experts” who are known for being mostly wrong about things connected with the Middle East. Why not speak to somebody with a proven track record like Barry Rubin?

Yaw Mandy says:

I like your post but totally disagreed with you about going to Afghanistan. What was the alternative-remember Bush gave the Talibans ample time to handover Osama?

Domestic and foreign policy a la Bibi fairly difficult to defend don’t you think?

Domestic and foreign policy a la Bibi fairly difficult to defend don’t you think?

LtcHoward says:

I agree with all the negative comments about Tom Friedman. From his early days at Brandeis he has not changed. I find that if the left would not be so active in undercutting Bibi, he would be much more effective. I am amazed at American liberals and Israeli liberals and how little they understand the Middle East. My main source of information comes from Arabs. They understand and express those views of contempt for the soft liberals as costing many hundreds of Muslim and Jewish lives.

LtcHoward says:

One of the major concerns I had with Aaron David Miller was his firm belief of tough love for Israel when he did not recommend cracking down on Palestinian incitement. He supported Robert Malley in his contacts with Hamas (which were communicated to Hezbollah) which basically told Hamas to act against Israel below a certain threshold. This gave Hamas the green light to fire rockets or missiles against Israel.

Thomas Friedman is anti Israel, and more so anti Netanyahu.. he should never be included in any discussion about Israel.

Beatrix17 says:

You’re right. But as I said before, it was too
much—a huge 20th century war for a 21st
century terrorist strike. Yet, I understand. It was just 2001 and
Bush’s only precedent was Pearl Harbor. Americans would have been
very angry if we’d been attacked and Bush hadn’t fought back

Nat Ben Zimri says:

I take great comfort in the fact that our great US of A has a staunch ally in the Middle East called Israel. Israel has sometimes been called the largest aircraft carrier in our fleet. And for good reason. While the whole Mideast region radicalizes and boils over in anti-USA violence and hatred, we can always count on Israel for a safe landing, to represent our real interests and to be our only true friend in this region that hates the West more and more with each passing day. We both share the same Judeo-Christian values. We are both democracies. We are both proud countries that respect human life, human rights and freedoms of all kinds. We are both the West. Like it or not, we need Israel perhaps as much as Israel needs us. I dare say maybe even more. That’s why I am more than a bit concerned about our government’s misguided foreign policy towards Israel. It seems that far from supporting her as we should be, we’re throwing her under a bus. We appease her enemies. We disrespect her prime minister. And most disturbingly, we try to push through what’s euphemistically called the “Two State Solution” to the Israel-Palestinian issue.
This Two State Solution is bad for Israel – no, it’s deadly for Israel. It’s deadly because if this “solution” is crammed down Israel’s throat (which is what Obama is trying to do right now), then Israel will be forced to surrender her most important strategic asset – the high ground – and will be left defenseless. She’ll be left to swim in a pool full of sharks without a harpoon. Don’t believe me? Take a look at the following website for an explanation. The pictures that you’ll see herein don’t lie. They make a convincing argument why Israel must never agree to this trap called the “Two State Solution”. A vote for Obama is a vote for Israel’s demise.
Click here:


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America’s Future in the Mideast

Thomas Friedman, Elliott Abrams, Walter Russell Mead, and Aaron David Miller advise the next president

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