Shortly after the election of Barack Obama as U.S. president, one of his advisors–who has since been appointed to a high post–remarked privately, “The Obama administration in the Middle East, unlike its predecessor, will be able to walk and chew gum at the same time.”
This was a reference to an American idiomatic expression about being able to do more than one thing simultaneously. My response was, “The problem it will face is going to be walking and chewing twelve sticks of gum at the same time.”
Such is the first central problem of U.S. regional policy: the sheer number of different problems and crises that must be handled. The first task is to list and analyze each issue and potential solution, followed by an attempt to see how–or if–these fit together in a comprehensive strategy.
Yet a list of these issues and American options demonstrate the second central problem for U.S. policy: devising a strategy. There is a very powerful theme running through all of these issues that points in that direction: the struggle between radical and less radical forces. In every case, the former group poses a threat to U.S. interests and regional stability. Yet failing to perceive–at least fully–this reality, U.S. policy has not yet identified a coherent policy for the region.
THE ISSUES FOR U.S. POLICY
This spectrum of issues is presented in alphabetical order to underline the fact that there are many interrelations between all of them and no one satisfactory scheme for representing them.
U.S. troops are in Afghanistan to ensure the survival of the existing moderate regime, to ensure that the Taliban do not return to power, and–most ambitiously–to try to help Afghanistan become a stable and developing country. During the campaign, President Barack Obama identified Afghanistan rather than Iraq as the place where the United States should place the greatest effort and might have the most success.
Nevertheless, the fact remains that as hard as Iraq is to cope with, Afghanistan is far harder. Victory there is impossible; the emergence of a stable regime–especially if Western forces were to be withdrawn–unlikely. There is a real danger of the radical Taliban reappearing, even accompanied by a reemergence of its al-Qa’ida allies who hit the United States on September 11, 2001. There is no good solution to Afghanistan. American troops will either stay or be withdrawn. Either way, the result will be at best a holding action, at worst a major defeat.
Among the most profound problems holding back Middle Eastern societies is the prevalence of dictatorship. Yet this system is so deeply entrenched that it is impossible for outsiders to alter and possible for members of those societies to change only over many decades. The previous U.S. administration correctly understood the nature of the problem but was mistaken in thinking that a U.S. invasion of Iraq could swiftly and smoothly transform that country. What was achieved–a far less repressive and more representative government–should not be not underestimated, but neither should it be exaggerated.
The Obama administration seems to be following a realpolitik policy, in contrast. Yet such a superficial evaluation would be misleading. Indeed, Presidents Bush and Obama have something in common that reveals an essential point about the U.S. style of diplomacy: Both place a high priority on America being liked. Bush hoped to achieve this by liberating the Muslim masses from dictators, expecting gratitude; Obama expects to achieve this by proving that he is empathetic and wants to be friends.
A realpolitik policy does involve readiness to deal with governments on the basis of national interest. That includes often cooperating with dictatorships despite their internal behavior, corruption, repression, and ideologies that block social-economic progress. Yet a great power must still define its interests and choose its partners and priorities. The problem with the Obama strategy, which will be discussed further, is that it chooses the wrong dictatorships, irrespective of their international strategy and goals, behavior toward U.S. interests, and potential to be useful allies.
This is an issue that has not yet surfaced but is predictable. President Husni Mubarak is likely to leave the scene during Obama’s first term, perhaps in the earlier part of it. He has not yet made clear his choice of successor, though his son is one possibility. Egypt is in no danger of a radical Islamist takeover in the near- to medium-term future but could be headed down that road. Obviously, the United States cannot determine what happens in Egypt–limits on its power are a common theme in U.S. Middle East policy–but how will it try to ensure that Egypt remains stable, friendly toward the United States, and perhaps most important of all ready to play a leadership role in opposing radical forces and Iranian ambitions?
The threat posed by Iranian nuclear weapons is only part of a larger picture; nuclear arms are being sought as an additional means to further existing Iranian goals. Tehran, because of its Islamist ideology, nationalist sentiments, and the regime’s definition of its own interests, seeks to expand its influence throughout the region. In this context, it has created an alliance including Syria, Hamas, Hizballah, and important forces in Iraq as well. This bloc opposes U.S. and Western interests, seeks to destroy Israel, and is trying to gain primary influence over Iraq, Lebanon, and the Palestinians.
While Iran and its allies use subversion, bribery, terrorism, assassination of opposing leaders, and an ideologically consistent propaganda campaign, the United States is uncertain, even of any need to compete with–much less confront–Iran’s strategy. It is withdrawing from Iraq, inactive in Lebanon, and unwilling to energetically seek to defeat Iran’s clients Hamas and Hizballah.
Thus, it is unclear how the United States can constrain Iran or meaningfully support its own allies. The administration’s generalized, unfocused eagerness to negotiate with Iran is unlikely to succeed in altering Tehran’s views or strategies. Similarly, Washington offers Iran’s main ally, Syria, rapprochement and concessions, strengthing Damascus without injuring Tehran.
Iranian Nuclear Weapons
Iran’s drive for nuclear weapons and missiles capable of delivering them, even as far as European targets, poses possibly the single greatest challenge to U.S. policy. To make this more salient, this is the one issue with a clear time frame since Iran will probably acquire the ability to use such weapons within three years or less.
The problems this poses for U.S. policy involves much more than just the possibility that Iran might use such weapons against Israel or that Israel might launch a preemptive attack. Having such weapons will greatly increase Tehran’s leverage in the Middle East by its being able to intimidate Arab and Western states into acquiescing to Iran’s ambitions and being too afraid to oppose them. Equally worrisome, this breakthrough would be seen by radical Islamist forces and the general Muslim publics as a great victory. Groups would become more aggressive, their memberships and bases of support would increase sharply as millions of people concluded that Islamism was the wave of the future and–in many though not all cases–that Iran was its leader.
The result would be a rise in the level of violence and instability throughout the region and even expanding terrorism in Europe. An outcome of this might well be the fall of one or more Arab states to an Islamist revolution, either completely independent-minded or as part of Iran’s bloc. Oil prices would rise due both to the perception of dangerous crises and enhanced Iranian influence on pushing prices upward to increase its own revenue.
It is easy to say, as the Obama administration does, that it will try to talk Iran out of its nuclear weapons program. Still, no matter how friendly the United States is, no matter how much it offers or apologizes, there will be no serious likelihood that Iran will stop. Then what does the United States do? With a military response probably ruled out by Washington, the United States is most likely to accede to a fait accompli and accept Tehran as a nuclear power with devastating consequences and horrifying longer-range ones.
In short, Iran having a nuclear arsenal would be a disaster for U.S. policy and interests. Yet what can Washington do to prevent this outcome, especially if it limits itself to conciliatory engagement, eating up time as Iran races to make its being a nuclear power a fait accompli?
It is quite reasonable for the United States to want to withdraw its troops from Iraq since one can argue that their presence is less needed and that they have done the most they could accomplish. Iraq’s new government has had more than four years to consolidate power and be able to defend itself. Moreover, the withdrawal will be done only gradually.
What will happen, however, as this plan proceeds? It is difficult to formulate even under the best circumstances. How would the United States respond if Iran and Syria, as the sponsors or allies of large forces in Iraq–on both the Shi’a and Sunni sides–raised the level of violence both in general and against the U.S. forces in particular? Might an American pull-out begin to seem like a retreat? In addition, what would the U.S. response be to ethnic massacres or a destabilized regime? Moreover, would Iran be able to fill the vacuum with influence of its own? There are no easy answers to these questions, since the United States would be unlikely to return its troops to Iraq, use air power, or play the political game at the same level of seriousness and toughness as its adversaries.
Islamism Versus Nationalism
This is the central issue in the region today. Islamists have become the main opposition movement and are challenging the dominant nationalist governments in every Arab country. Islamists are reacting both to the failures of the existing regimes and to their own revolutionary ambitions. Nationalist forces also cast the struggle in sectarian terms, identifying their radical Islamist opponents with the Shi’a branch of Islam. Islamism also opposes Jewish nationalism in Israel (Zionism) and Turkish nationalism (Kemalism), seeking to replace them with Islamist-ruled states.
On one level, the main radical factor is an alliance led by Iran that includes Syria, Hamas, Hizballah, Iraqi insurgents, and other elements is seeking regional hegemony. Other Islamists, however, such as the Muslim Brotherhoods and al-Qa’ida, which oppose the Iranian-led bloc, are also trying to stage revolutionary takeovers. In Turkey, an elected government is bent on transforming the society in an Islamist direction. In Lebanon, the political battle is being fought out among a range of political forces that include an alignment of the Shi’a Muslims, Hizballah, and Amal, traditional pro-Syrian politicians, and even a Christian faction led by Michel Aoun.
While there is an ideological Islamist aspect to the conflict, there is also a more opportunist conflict of those competing to take power in their own country. Another dimension is that of a Shi’a versus Sunni conflict, though as noted the Iranian-led bloc includes Alawites (the Syrian regime), Sunni Muslims (notably Hamas), and even Christians (Aoun’s forces in Lebanon).
It is this great battle that is the central feature of contemporary regional politics, and certainly not the far narrower and more limited Arab-Israeli conflict. The challenge for the United States is on how to react to this region-wide contest. One option is to lead the more moderate forces; the other is to attempt to build friendly relations with the radicals. The Obama administration has begun by opting for the latter alternative.
The Israeli-Palestinian/Arab-Israeli Conflict
This issue has received far more attention than any of the others, by a wide margin. It is beset by two myths. First, there is an overestimate of the importance of the question, often as if it were the main problem of the region or at least the key to resolving all the others. Yet while the regimes find the issue useful for proving their nationalist credentials, for mobilizing support from the masses through demagoguery, and providing an excuse for their own failure at home, Arab governments have largely exited from direct involvement in the conflict.
In the Middle East, all the usual principles of politics have not been suspended. Revolutionary movements, factions, and individuals seek power; different ideologies compete; countries strive for influence, hegemony, or survival. The Arab-Israeli conflict does not trump all these factors. Indeed, Egypt and Jordan have opted out through peace treaties with Israel. These and other states have more pressing concerns. Even inasmuch as they would like to see the issue resolved, they do little to help but merely insist the West fix the problem for them. Indeed, the Arab states have not been very helpful in pursuing a resolution, as seen so visibly during the 1990s peace process. One reason this is so is that they do not feel that ending the conflict–especially if that would cost them anything–is in fact such a high priority.
The second myth is that the issue can be quickly and easily settled. In fact, as the events of the 1993-2000 peace process showed, achieving any real progress is far harder than usually imagined. Today, there are many such barriers, overwhelmingly coming from the Palestinian side. These include the continuing radicalism in Fatah; the overwhelming dominance of hardline views in educational, media, and religious institutions; the weakness of the Palestinian Authority leadership, the lack of any real debate on Palestinian options; and a dozen other points. Most obvious of all is Hamas’ control of one of the two sections of Palestinian-ruled territory, its rejection of all prior agreements, and its insistence on Israel’s destruction and replacement by an Islamist Palestine.
It is clear that there is no quick fix for this dispute, and at any rate solving it is no panacea for the long list of other regional problems.
The United States seems barely aware of this crisis at all. The power of the moderate March 14 coalition government steadily eroded, in large part because it lacked real U.S. help while its adversaries enjoyed full backing from Tehran and Damascus, including weapons and support for terrorist activities. Finally, in the Doha Agreement, the regime gave up its exclusive power and made a coalition agreement with Hizballah. At some time in the not-distant future, it is likely that a coalition of pro-Syrian Sunni Muslim politicians, Shi’a Hizballah and Amal, and the Christian followers of Michel Aoun are likely to take power. Lebanon might quickly be carried into the Iranian-led “resistance camp.”
This change would be accomplished through ostensibly democratic means. Yet the triumph of the radical forces in Lebanon would have been made possibly only by a large-scale campaign of intimidation, assassination, and bribery. Already, the country’s president is very close to the Syrians and has begun shifting the nation’s political course. How would U.S. policy deal with such a shift? Its main effort in Lebanon has been to arm and aid a Lebanese army that is ineffectual at best and already largely in the hands of its enemies at worst.
Oil and Natural Gas
The consistent availability of petroleum and natural gas at affordable prices is a major strategic and economic need for the United States and the industrialized world generally. This does not, of course, require direct control over these resources. What is needed is that these resources be available for purchase. In strategic terms, it is preferable that they not be used by a hostile power to fund policies against U.S. interests. Most important of all is that no single country–notably Iran–be able to “turn off the tap” through controlling production levels or blocking transit routes. Both the 1991 and 2003 wars in Iraq were motivated by the need to avoid a radical, anti-American regime having hegemony over Gulf oil, not to secure direct control of these resources for the United States.
With an at least temporary decline in prices from recent high levels, the problems of energy supply have become less urgent for the United States. Still, the fact that there is no major campaign to achieve energy independence or to develop alternative fuels means that the threat could quickly rebound. Consequently, this remains an issue of central importance for the United States and a motivating principle for its many involvements in the Middle East. It incorporates the nature of governments, the location of pipelines, and the security of shipping lanes. In addition to the effect of instability and conflict on petroleum and natural gas supplies, it should also be noted that more radical regimes tend to be price hawks, while more moderate ones are more likely to invest in the West, engage in mutually profitable trade, and prefer lower prices because they take a longer-term perspective.
This issue also poses a paradox for U.S. policy. On one hand, Pakistan is considered a friendly country and an important ally in fighting al-Qa’ida and the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan. Indeed, the United States depends on Pakistan to control the border and prevent terrorists–including Usama bin Ladin, the number-one terrorist being pursued by America–from taking safe haven among Pakistan’s tribes. Consequently, it provides Pakistan with billions of dollars in aid and wants to ensure the current government’s survival even when it is less than helpful on critical matters.
Indeed, the Pakistani government has not been very cooperative. There is evidence that it has been less than energetic in trying to help find or keep out terrorists from Afghanistan. Despite so much U.S. help, Pakistan even released another top-priority enemy of the United States, the rogue nuclear scientist, Abdul Qadir Khan, from house arrest in February 2009 and then cut a deal to allow the Taliban to control the Swat valley, near its own capital city. These events show the limited influence exercised by the United States on an important issue, even after expending large amounts of resources on a weak client state.
So what options does the United States have in Pakistan? By supporting the regime, it allows the government to provide a low level of support in exchange for great rewards. By pressuring it for changes, U.S. policymakers may make themselves feel as if they are accomplishing something but that government will just do the minimum to satisfy the complacent Americans or fool them. By seeking an alternative regime–something that won’t happen with this administration–they would plunge Pakistan into even worse chaos and probably radicalism. This unpalatable choice is the sort faced by the United States in a wide variety of issues.
The reemergence of Russia on the Middle Eastern scene is, of course far less alarming than its far more powerful role during the Soviet and Cold War days. Still, Moscow seems to put a priority on complicating U.S. efforts, for example paying the Kyrgyzstan government in pushing America out of the Manas airbase so critical for supplying its forces in Afghanistan. Russia has also watered down UN sanctions on Iran and continued to supply that country with nuclear technology while becoming a major arms supplier for Syria.
What is most important in the context of current issues is that the Russian government appears to view Iran and Syria as its customers, clients, and key contacts in the region. Will Russia become an increasing problem for U.S. policy there? Washington seems barely aware of this threat.
This is more of a humanitarian rather than a strategic crisis. The governance of Sudan is not a prime U.S. interest. Yet the mass killings in Darfur might be expected to stir U.S. concern. Here is visible an irony in U.S. policymaking, for the last two presidents, though inactive on the specific issue of Sudan, became involved in a number of issues on a humanitarian basis: Bosnia, Kosovo, and Somalia being notable examples. In contrast, Rwanda genocide came about largely from reluctance of the United States–and other Western states–to become involved.
Yet while the supposedly reactionary Bush administration proclaimed its concern over anti-democratic and human rights problems, the supposedly progressive Obama administration proclaims itself as a return to realpolitik, that is, a lack of concern about issues that do not involve strategic interests. What makes Sudan relevant from a Realpolitik perspective is that it is, except for Iran, the only existing radical Islamist state. Thus, even without taking into account the humanitarian crisis, Sudan should be considered an adversary to be undermined by the U.S. government; but it isn’t.
Of course, terrorism is not an ideology or a strategy in itself, but a means of waging war, building a mass of popular support, and intimidating real or potential opponents. As September 11 showed, it can be very effective in doing harm to American power, prestige, and even psychological steadfastness. In response to the attacks in 2001, the United States declared a “war on terrorism,” which the Obama administration now seems to be ending.
At a minimum, the war against terrorism was a campaign to destroy al-Qa’ida and overthrow the Taliban in Afghanistan. The Iraq invasion, although it overthrew a government that was a sponsor of terrorism, related to Persian Gulf security. Yet extending the war on terrorism has been essentially a distraction from the key issue: the battle against the radical Islamist forces that threaten to overthrow all regimes in the Middle East, launch new Arab-Israeli (or Islamist-Israeli) wars dragging in America, destroy Western influence in the region, and even attack Western states within their own borders.
The Obama administration’s reason for downgrading the war on terrorism, however, is not to focus on this issue but rather on the effort to win over Arabs and Muslims in the region by persuading them that America is not their enemy. Ironically, the best reason for ending the war is because it has–in the original narrow boundaries–been won. Terrorism is not hitting at the United States and al-Qa’ida has been weakened, though not wiped out. Yet the Obama administration chooses not to use this argument because, among other things, that approach would credit its predecessor for winning it. So the battle with terrorism as such can be downplayed at present, but a single major attack against the United States or its interests could very quickly reopen this issue in a big way. For now, though, it is restricted to counter-terrorism measures, aid, and cooperation with other countries.
Beyond this looms the dangerous temptation: to believe that changing policies in order to appease terrorists or merely Middle Eastern public opinion will buy America immunity from attack. This has long been a staple of European strategy. The Obama administration hovers on the edge of this alluring mirage and will have to decide whether to pursue it ever deeper into the desert.
This is a new issue of enormous proportions. Turkey’s ruling party has, up until now, denied that it is Islamist and called itself a center-right good government party. Behind the scenes, however, it has been taking over key institutions such as the government bureaucracy, courts, and media. Increasingly it has become more open about its intention of transforming Turkey from a secular republic to an Islamic-oriented or even Islamist state.
This has included mobilizing intense hostility toward Israel, growing anti-Americanism, intimidation of the media, infiltration of the army along with trials of officers for alleged coup plans, and other steps to consolidate its authority, perhaps irreversibly. Iranian, Sudanese, and Hamas leaders have been warmly received. Faced with a choice between attending the moderate Arabs’ Kuwait summit or the radicals’ Qatar meeting, Ankara chose the latter.
Since Turkey has so long been secular in politics and moderate in Islam, a NATO member and a candidate for the European Union, the shift is especially shocking. A good indication of how much things have changed is that the current Turkish government feels more comfortable with Iran than the United States. Once again, U.S. policy is not prepared for this challenge. It is easier to attribute any frictions to the U.S. presence in Iraq and believe that withdrawal will solve the matter or that President Obama can charm the Turkish Islamists into loving America. If, however, Turkey is increasingly aligned with the radical forces, it would tilt the power balance in the region very much against U.S. interests. What then could the new administration do to move it back?
THE PROBLEM OF THEME AND STRATEGY
Even if the above list of problems seems over-stated, even a more optimistic projection would show how serious is the situation. The story is one of:
1. A tremendous variety of dangerous issues;
2. The lack of easy solutions or even any solution for U.S. policy;
3. Washington’s insufficient resources;
4. A shortage of time; and
5. Most importantly, there is a wide gap between the urgent tasks facing U.S. policy and the priorities chosen by the new administration.
As noted above, there is a common factor running through all the disparate points mentioned above. Afghanistan, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Pakistan, the Palestinians, and Turkey as well as other states are all threatened by the forces and ideology of radical Islamism.
This tidal wave is being ridden by Iran, Syria, Hamas, and Hizballah. It blocks a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict, promotes terrorism, takes advantage of the weaknesses of the region’s ruling dictatorships, and causes increases in the price of oil and natural gas while threatening the supply. If Russia aligns with the radical Islamist bloc, the danger will increase further.
In such a situation, the natural policy choice for the United States is to take advantage of the very fact that the threat seems so tremendous. Using clever diplomacy, the threat or at times application of force, a clear political line, and a multilateral approach, the task for this American president is to unite all those who oppose radical Islamism and regional instability. A broad coalition must be assembled, consisting of European allies, Arab regimes, Israel, and all the moderate forces that can be mustered within each country–including those who oppose the Iranian regime at home.
The emphasis must be put on making the Arab regimes feel secure that America will support them, in order to toughen their resolve in the face of an enemy that threatens their very lives. In Lebanon, the moderate March 14 movement must be shown strong backing so that its leaders will be ready to put their lives on the line to resist a Syrian takeover. They must be given the needed resources to survive. A similar strategy must be applied to the more progressive forces in Iraq, and so on.
Unfortunately, the Obama administration’s policy is the precise and exact opposite of what is needed. Instead of emphasizing the need to combat the radicals and reinforce the moderates, it focuses on conciliating the radicals, which undermines the moderates.
The lesson it has taken from the Bush administration’s failures is to blame those shortcomings on a policy of excessive toughness, too much support for democratic change, insensitivity toward Islam and Arab-Muslim grievances, and lack of coordination with European allies. If this conception were to be put in the form of a traditional American saying, it could be phrased as: You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.
At least during its first stage, the Obama administration says it will put the emphasis on seven specific points:
Withdrawal of U.S. Combat Troops from Iraq
After a six-year-long American military presence in the country, it is reasonable to argue that the Iraqi government should be able to stand on its own. The resources involved in fighting this war could also be better used elsewhere.
The administration should be able to implement this action but there are some interesting questions involved. Will it work hard to have influence in Iraq after the withdrawal and how will it compete with Iran and Syria in that respect? If American forces are under increasing attack and the security situation deteriorates, will that have any effect on the pace and nature of withdrawal? To what extent will it continue to have forces in the country, and will they be involved only in training? The logistics of the withdrawal also must be worked out. The speed with which it will be conducted has already brought heated debates within the administration.
Placing a High Priority on Pakistan and Afghanistan
This can be said to be the administration’s second-highest foreign policy priority. Yet what precisely does it intend to do? During the election, candidate Obama said that Afghanistan was more important than Iraq, a questionable assertion. Arguably, Iraq can be–and perhaps has been– “won” to the point that a stable government has been established and U.S. forces are not really needed. It is difficult to envision, however, that this could ever happen in Afghanistan. Either the American or other forces must stay or the government will fall, to be overthrown by warlords or the Taliban, constituting a major defeat for U.S. policy. Thus having named a tough policy coordinator, Richard Holbrooke, what goal could the administration have?
Regarding Pakistan, it is also not clear what the administration proposes to do. The regime is relatively stable, though no Pakistani government can be too secure. It faces tremendous pressure from a range of radical Islamist forces. The Pakistani regime is also not so cooperative either in blocking terrorist attacks on India, helping hunt down al-Qa’ida leaders (Usama bin Ladin is still at large eight years after September 11), or ensuring that Afghanistan does not fall into radical Islamist hands. Other than ignore Pakistan’s failure to provide sufficient support to U.S. objectives and keep the aid programs going, what can the Obama administration do, since it rejects the idea of any tough policy or abandonment of Pakistan?
Ending the “War on Terrorism”
One of the many ways the Obama administration seeks to draw a contrast between itself and its predecessor is by dropping the idea of a war on terrorism, including the closure of the detention camp for enemy terrorist combatants at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The administration has yet to make clear, however, the practical implications of this decision. Presumably, intelligence cooperation with other countries and counterterrorism aid to various countries will continue. If there is another major attack on a U.S. facility or personnel, how would the United States respond to the group involved and any country that had provided it with safe haven?
Expressing Friendly Views Toward Muslims and Middle Eastern Peoples
This is a public relations theme for which the administration has great hopes though it is hard to see what practical effect it will have. Using President Obama’s personal history in the Third World, Muslim family background, and the simple fact that he is not George Bush, the administration hopes to show Muslims that America listens to their grievances and sympathizes with their problems. Yet it is unlikely that many will be convinced in any meaningful way, especially if Washington does not give them what they want; and they do not all want the same thing. Thus, there will be many speeches and symbolic efforts along these lines, but this hardly constitutes a serious strategy for getting anything done.
Energetically Pursuing an Israeli-Palestinian and Arab-Israeli Peace Process
During and after the presidential campaign, the Obama team propagated the myth that its predecessors did little on this issue and that this decision produced a failure to resolve the conflict. In fact, Bush was more active than portrayed, but conditions were not promising for progress. In its approach to the issue, the Bush administration was drawing on the experience of its own predecessor, the Clinton administration, and the failure of the 1990s peace process.
There are indications, however, that the Obama administration does not entirely believe its own claims in this matter. While there has been an attempt to give the impression of high-priority activity, the special negotiator chosen was an elderly former senator known for caution and a lack of zeal, a far cry from its envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan. As outlined above, there are neither easy answers nor simple ways to make breakthroughs. If the Obama administration appreciates this fact, it will do better, no matter how much it purports to be making frenzied efforts on this issue.
This brings us at last to what might be called the two core initiatives of the Obama administration, ones that express its basic philosophy and highest hopes. As noted above, the great threat to the Middle East and U.S. interests there are two overlapping–but not identical–factors: the Iranian-led alliance and radical Islamist forces. The great majority of Arab regimes oppose this challenge and looks for U.S. backing. Europe, too, is basically on the same side, as is Israel. Yet where is the needed U.S. leadership to coordinate, direct, inspire, and give power to this collection of anti-extremist, anti-revolutionary forces that should be formed into some kind of an alliance?
Instead, the emphasis is placed on engaging with the radicals, which will be viewed locally as strengthening these factors, undermining the relative moderates, and showing weakness. At the least, the radicals will use the time bought by American conciliation attempts to try to obtain nuclear weapons, gain control over Lebanon and Iraq, consolidate their leverage among the Palestinians, and bring Turkey into cooperation with them.
The two main components of this Obama administration strategy particularly reveal this flaw in its designs:
Courting Syria to Make It More Moderate and to Split It Away from Iran
Syria wants to get out of its international isolation; obtain more money; take over Lebanon; maintain its position as patron for Hamas, Hizballah, and Iraqi Sunni insurgents; and to destroy the UN-mandated tribunal investigating its past involvement with political assassinations in Lebanon.
For a variety of reasons, Syria is unlikely to make peace with Israel even in exchange for the entire Golan Heights. Portraying itself as a leader of the “resistance” camp is one of the few assets the regime has, especially to maintain support among its Sunni Muslim majority, which is suspicious of its heterodox Alawite rulers. It also will not sacrifice the all-important alliance with Tehran. Nor is it likely to put its trust in Western support to arm the regime and keep it in power. After all, Syria’s real goals are in total contradiction with those of Israel, the United States, and the West as a whole.
The same can be said of the need for the Iran-Syria alliance. Iran provides Syria with large amounts of money, pays for its weapons, and finances its Hamas and Hizballah clients. Iran gives Syria strategic depth and protection. Tehran’s Islamic regime also gives the Alawite regime badly needed Islamic credentials. It is no accident that this alliance has remained solid for three decades, despite recurrent wishful predictions to the contrary. Moreover, why should Syria abandon Iran on the brink of its ally obtaining nuclear weapons and long-range missiles?
It is only reasonable to expect, then, that renewed attempts to conciliate Syria, moderate its regime, and break it away from its alliance with Iran are doomed to failure. What could happen, of course, are unilateral concessions to Damascus that make it stronger without getting anything in return. This is one probable outcome of Obama administration strategy. The other is that at some point the U.S. policymakers will conclude that the effort is futile, but then they will be back at square one.
Trying Friendly Diplomacy to Persuade Iran to Change Course
Similar things can be said about U.S. policy toward Iran though this is an even more dangerous game. Iran wants to buy time to obtain nuclear weapons. It will try to take advantage of a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq to bolster its own influence there. Believing that America is weak and in retreat–while believing that God and time are on its side–why should Tehran give any ground?
The United States basically wants Iran to stop sponsoring terrorism, stop subverting any chance for an Israel-Palestinian peace settlement, and cease pursuing nuclear weapons. The two countries may discuss these matters in some way, but the likelihood of Iran changing course is remote.
As with Syria, then, the United States may make various unilateral concessions that will strengthen Iran. The belief that Washington is weak will encourage Tehran to advance. Yet one thing is sure: The Islamic regime will not believe that even President Obama is benign. What is certain, however, is that Iran will use time to its advantage and that the opposing Arab regimes will be demoralized by American policy, perhaps inspired to cut their own deal with Iran in order to survive.
By the same token, the time will not be used by the United States to organize and fortify a defensive alliance against Iran or revolutionary Islamists. What exists is the most classic of international situations: a conflict of interests between two forces. It is not, as former President Bush would have it, a case for political reform or, as President Obama seems to assume, a problem of international understanding.
The complexity and difficulty of U.S. relations with the Middle East must be understood fully before examining the problems, opportunities, assets, liabilities, and policies needed to address these issues. Yet underlying all these issues is a great battle over who will dominate the region and what vision will direct its societies.
Here is the central point and problem for the United States: Its interests and allies are increasingly menaced by a growing threat whose existence, meaning, and scope, current U.S. policy does not even recognize yet, much less counters effectively.
*This article appeared in Orient, No. 2 (2009).