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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

Lee Smith
October 04, 2012
(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photos Getty Images and Kaveh Sardari/Council on Foreign Relations)
(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photos Getty Images and Kaveh Sardari/Council on Foreign Relations)

When Barack Obama took office four years ago, the United States was fully engaged in two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; strongmen sympathetic to the United States ruled Egypt and Tunisia; and Bashar al-Assad’s Syria was the standard-bearer of resistance to Israel and the United States. Now, at the end of Obama’s first term, U.S. troops are out of Iraq and on their way out of Afghanistan. Iran, on the brink of acquiring nuclear weapons, is filling the vacuum the American exit from both countries leaves behind. In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, Tunisia and Egypt are ruled by Islamist parties; Syria is torn by sectarian conflict that threatens the Assad regime; and Libya, in spite of free elections that brought a non-Islamist party to power, is still up for grabs.

The region is in a state of flux perhaps more volatile than it has been since the end of the Ottoman empire—and in some cases, the situation is more hopeful than ever. Politicians, militiamen, journalists, liberal activists, jihadis, Muslims, Christians, and Jews across the region are intently focused on the upcoming presidential election: They know that the outcome may play a large role in determining their future. Would a President Romney take military action against Iran’s nuclear weapons program in his first year in office? Would President Obama, secure in his second term, push hard on the peace process, determined to secure a negotiated agreement between Israelis and Palestinians as part of his historical legacy? What about Syria? Would either candidate step up and support the rebels intent on bringing down Assad?

This week, we asked four leading thinkers what Mideast policies the next American president should prioritize. Aaron David Miller, now a distinguished scholar at the Wilson Center, has served six secretaries of state as an adviser and negotiator on Middle Eastern issues. Walter Russell Mead, a top foreign-policy expert, blogs at Via Media and is the author of Power, Terror, Peace, and War: America’s Grand Strategy in a World at Risk. Elliott Abrams, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, is a former deputy national security adviser to George W. Bush. Thomas Friedman is the foreign-policy columnist for the New York Times.

Aaron David Miller:

Our predicament in the Middle East issues from the fact that the regional agendas of the Israelis, Palestinians, Iranians, and others are in conflict with ours, and our capacity to shape decisions is fundamentally constrained.

We’ve largely failed at war-making and peace-making over the past 20 years. Today we’re extricating ourselves from the two longest and among the most pointless wars in our history. So, an appropriate question should be: When and how do we project power in a region that we can neither fix nor leave? How do we pick our spots?

The Obama Administration killed Osama Bin Laden, has conducted a tough and effective counter-terrorism policy, and carried out a sound approach to get rid of Muammar Qaddafi, so it’s unfortunate that the administration’s competence is now being questioned because of the way it handled the security threat at the U.S. embassy in Benghazi.

Our street credibility under Obama is as low as I have ever seen it.

The last time we had a serious and compelling foreign policy in this country was under Bush 41. We ended up succeeding in war- and peace-making. Bush and James Baker pursued a limited and successful war in pushing Saddam out of Kuwait and got everyone else to pay for the campaign. Then we moved on to peace-making with the Madrid conference. It was effective and successful, and as a result American prestige was at an all-time high. From there it proceeded to diminish. Now we are neither feared nor respected nor admired in that part of the world. Our street credibility under Obama is as low as I have ever seen it.

I remember what Bill Clinton said to us before we went to the Camp David summit and how inspired I was: Trying and failing is better than not trying at all. But this is a better slogan for a high-school football team, not for the world’s greatest power. Success is the world’s most compelling ideology.

Walter Russell Mead:

I think Syria is the focus of everything going on in the Middle East right now. If U.S. policymakers really want to change the calculations in Iran, the fate of Syria will change thinking in Tehran more than anything that is likely to happen with the sanctions leveled against them. This is a way of confronting Iran that might put it in a position in which its leaders are more interested in compromise.

Iran’s regional strategy is two-pronged. It’s based first on the notion of the Shia crescent, including Iraq, Syria, and Hezbollah in Lebanon. With those in place, Iran becomes a major player in the region—not a peripheral figure trying to force its way in, but one with a comfortable place on a nice couch right in the living room. Knock Syria out of the equation, and Hezbollah’s position in Lebanon is adjusted, while Sunnis in Iraq will start pushing for a new deal where they get more power. Taking Syria out of the Shia crescent brings Iran’s frontier much closer to Tehran.

Second, Iran is attempting to replace the Sunni-Shia sectarian conflict with resistance to America and Israel as the dominant political narrative in the Middle East. The ongoing civil war in Syria, whatever else it has done, has made this idea much harder to sustain. For instance, it’s forced Hamas to look for support from Turkey and Egypt rather than Iran, which weakens Iran’s narrative about the united front of Islamic resistance.

The longer this conflict drags on in Syria, the more destructive it will become, and bad actors, like Sunni jihadists, will become more powerful. I don’t advocate U.S. military intervention but do think we should look for ways to bring this conflict to an end by supporting the best elements in the resistance—not only because of the effect on Syria itself, but as a way of promoting a positive outcome for American interests with respect to the confrontation with Iran.

We don’t really know, but the Iranians seem not to be totally opposed to some sort of accommodation with Washington. Up until now the price they’ve wanted is so ridiculously high that serious discussions have seemed beyond reach. But if Iran is knocked back in Syria, perhaps the grand bargain with Tehran that some people talk about might really become a possibility.

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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Lee Smith is the author of The Consequences of Syria.