America’s Future in the Mideast
Thomas Friedman, Elliott Abrams, Walter Russell Mead, and Aaron David Miller advise the next president
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.
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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Jay Lefkowitz is the Orthodox Jewish advocate in the real-life drama behind Maggie Gyllenhaal’s new film