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The Next President and the Middle East

Some policy pointers: Get out of Iraq. Work with (some) Islamists. Create the Palestinian state. Thereby, undercut al-Qaeda.

This is a piece from the March edition of The American Prospect Magazine.

Listen carefully when a new president is inaugurated next January for the sigh of relief coming from most of those Middle Easterners whom President Bush embraced as allies. Conversely, Bush’s rivals in the region are likely to tune in to the occasion in a disgruntled mood. For them the Bush years have been good for business. The menu of grievances on which they’ve fed has become a veritable feast. Opposition to American designs in the region -- deployed with different emphases and with different goals by al-Qaeda, Iran, Hamas, Syria, and Hezbollah, to name but a few -- has been an easy sell and has won countless new adherents.

To be a friend of “Bush the Younger” in Arabia has not been such a comfortable disposition. Even the Israelis have begun to recognize the limited utility of a president, despite all his words of support, who is so vilified abroad and divisive at home that coalition-building and agenda-advancement are beyond him.

A new president can expect to be greeted by an initial spike in America’s standing in public opinion polls both globally and in the Middle East. This phenomenon will likely be magnified if a Democrat is in the White House and further embellished if that Democrat is Barack Obama. There will be a honeymoon period of openness, of a willingness to suspend judgment and to look again at America and what it stands for.

But the next administration will inherit a regional mess that will require more than some presidential goodwill and an image makeover. The president’s Middle East inbox will include Iraq, Iran, al-Qaeda, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and much more. Set alongside this, even health-care reform may take on the appearance of low-hanging fruit.

The temptation will be to focus on improving the mechanics of making and implementing decisions and treating each problem separately, with various regional issues being compartmentalized. Some cosmetic changes might also be thrown in. One could envisage, for instance, the appointment of a special envoy to oversee an Iraq international support group and another for the Middle East peace process. That first appointment would be new; the latter has not existed for the past eight years, and its reintroduction would signal serious intent. A new American ambassador could be appointed to Damascus, symbolizing reengagement in dialogue with adversaries. The last ambassador, Margaret Scobey, was recalled from Syria on Feb. 15, 2005, after the assassination of Rafik Hariri in Lebanon.

Such moves should be welcomed and might even be helpful, but capacity and cosmetics are just the beginning. As Daniel Kurtzer, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel and Egypt, concludes in a recent article, “better a policy without an envoy than an envoy without a policy.”

Policies will have to change. But so too will the framework of understanding from which those policies are derived. Take, as an example, the Israeli-Palestinian Annapolis peace process, launched in November 2007. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice managed to lead a change in policy within the administration and to renew efforts toward a permanent-status peace deal after a seven-year hiatus. She probably deserves credit for even getting this far, but the Annapolis process was straitjacketed from the start by its framing. Even when a breakthrough document on Israeli-Palestinian peace has become a priority, the kinds of policy initiatives that could lead to this goal were rejected at the outset for ideological reasons. Just before the Annapolis gathering, 66 former U.S. senior officials and experts, spearheaded by Brent Scowcroft, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and Lee Hamilton, sent a letter to the president and secretary of state welcoming the new effort and counseling that an “inclusive” process that would involve (even indirectly) and incentivize actors such as Syria and Hamas would be much more likely to succeed than one that excluded them. (In the interest of full disclosure, the New America Foundation -- my employer -- and I were involved in organizing and promoting this letter.) That counsel was not heeded. Syria was indeed invited but not engaged. The policy -- no peace effort -- was changed, but the framing -- Israel/Palestine is part of the war on terror, so one must isolate Islamists, Iran, and their ilk -- remained the same. The Annapolis exercise was thereby handicapped from the start.

Similarly on Iraq, Rice moved to engage with all the neighboring nations in February 2007, but within a mandate so narrow that it severely limited the regional push for a settlement in Iraq. At the micro-level, the U.S. Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Iraq (and Afghanistan) successfully demanded that they be authorized to work with a broad cross section of local actors, including those with problematic histories and Islamist credentials. Likewise, the increasing reliance of U.S. forces on local Sunni Awakening Councils was a new direction. However, none of this led to a reframing of the narrative at the meta-level. The U.S. view on whom to bring into the Iraqi political dialogue -- from both inside and outside the country -- remained prohibitively blinkered. As a result, political progress remains painfully elusive.

Iraq’s more troublesome neighbors, some U.S. allies, some not (Turkey and Saudi Arabia in the former camp, Iran and Syria in the latter), cannot wave a wand and magically end the Mesopotamia mess. They can be instrumental, though, in helping to stabilize the situation. That requires incentives, constant prodding, and a comprehensive rethink from the U.S.
Accordingly, a new administration Middle Eastern “to do” list that amounts just to isolating the issues, managing the processes efficiently, keeping ambitions modest, and throwing everything at Iraq, would be wholly inadequate to the task ahead. The first priority should be to connect the dots of regional issues to reflect the realities and interdependencies on the ground. One cannot solve anything in the Middle East (including Iraq) without looking afresh and trying to solve just about everything.

Change must begin at the Department of Deep Narrative Framing (DDNF). Absent a new narrative for the Middle East, a Democratic administration will inexorably, even unintentionally, slide into the grip of the liberal hawks. The equation will look something like this: unreconstructed narrative + good liberal interventionist inclinations = a more competent (perhaps) but equally misguided (and perhaps therefore even more dangerous) version of neoconservatism, albeit wrapped in a more palatable sales pitch. If the Democrats seize the reins of government next January, they should not forget to grab control of the DDNF. Barack Obama’s claim that he would not only “end the war in Iraq” but also “end the mind-set that got us into that war” indicates that one candidate at least is eyeing up the DDNF for change. What might a reshuffle at the department produce?

Start by redrawing that map of issue interconnectivity, retiring the current war on terror paradigm, and rethinking the appeal to hearts and minds. Cranking up the use of soft power and aid programs and reducing the military footprint is not enough. At least three epiphanies are required of the next president to go forward: First, recognize that certain widely held grievances in the Middle East -- the Palestinians’ most particularly -- are both legitimate and solvable. Second, understand that political Islamists are not all the same, are not all al-Qaeda, and that building a policy based on these differences is crucial to resolving the region’s problems. And third, comprehend that regional stability demands inclusivity and a commitment to multilateralism.

The global war on terror and the democratization narratives that the Bush administration has propagated are irredeemably discredited in the Middle East. They are most commonly seen as a war on Islam and a hypocritical and inconsistent application of a “freedom” agenda that protects autocratic friends and punishes democratic opponents.

A recent sporting episode demonstrates the global resonance of a grievance largely ignored in the U.S. The Africa Nations Cup, a continent-wide biannual soccer tournament (a mini World Cup) was hosted in Ghana this January and February. Egypt emerged victorious, guaranteeing massive interest not only throughout Africa but also across the Middle East on the Arabic satellite channels. The matches coincided with the Gaza siege and Rafah border breakout, and on scoring the tournament’s winning goal, Egypt’s star striker, Mohamed Aboutrika, lifted his national team jersey to reveal a T-shirt bearing the inscription, in English and Arabic, “Sympathize with Gaza.” America’s media was totally oblivious to these goings-on, but for vast areas of our world this simple gesture of solidarity echoed louder than a dozen presidential speeches about why the Palestinians must first recognize their Israeli occupiers and reject the Hamas party that they voted for in free elections.

Travel almost anywhere in the Arab or Muslim world and you will hear the same refrain, including from America’s most ardent friends in the business community and civil society: “Why do you allow or even encourage such things to happen to the Palestinian people? How can we stand with you on this?”

Most Middle Easterners who have no sympathy with al-Qaeda and extremism do nonetheless identify with the Palestinians’ grievances. The sense of U.S. indifference to such grievances and unwillingness to address them is a source of great sustenance to al-Qaeda and their ilk. Recognizing and removing those grievances, where possible, has to be part of an effective al-Qaeda push-back strategy. It has not been thus far.

That does not require abandoning Israel. It does mean delivering on a decent and viable two-state solution that is already, for what it’s worth, official U.S. and Israeli policy. Implementing this perspective does not guarantee that al-Qaeda will disappear overnight. Much of the swamp of anger from which it draws support and recruits will be drained, however, and al-Qaeda-type groups will have to then appeal to a set of grievances that have far less resonance.

The DDNF must also stop viewing political Islamists as one undifferentiated sea of green hostility. This view is utterly self-defeating, artificially increasing the size of the enemy while unnecessarily limiting the pool of potential allies. It also displays a woeful ignorance of the internal debates and harsh fissures among Islamist groups. What has happened locally and of necessity in developing a more discerning approach to Islamists in Iraq and Afghanistan must percolate to the level of big-picture framing.

Finally, the DDNF’s directives must begin to build a new and inclusive regional security architecture. As a prerequisite the U.S. should both repair its image as an international leader that plays by the rules (no Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, or extraordinary renditions) and that embraces multilateralism. Ultimately, the region in general (and post-Iraq stability in particular) requires a security framework that makes stakeholders of all the major actors. That will take time, but as policies shift from “no talking to bad guys” to “tough problemsolving diplomacy,” so the language of “axes of evil” and “pariah states” should be buried.

Even adversaries have legitimate interests. Accept these, reject what is illegitimate, and build buy-in from the broadest array of regional actors.

In reality, of course, there is no government department known as the DDNF (at least not since Doug Feith retired). There is, though, an echo chamber, which can amplify the new president’s perspectives and facilitate a new approach to the Middle East.

How would this translate into specific areas of policy content and presentation? Here are a few ideas.

The new president should dust off one Bush-era relic and reconvene the members of the Iraq Study Group for a widely publicized final meeting. The theater of the occasion would broadcast that the new policies are solidly rooted in the findings of a grand, bipartisan group, whose recommendations were ignored by an excessively partisan predecessor. The ISG report recognized that “all key issues [in the Middle East] are inextricably linked.” It argued for unconditional engagement with Syria and Iran and pushed for a diplomatic surge. Despite a costly two-year delay, the time would arrive for the “New Diplomatic Offensive” envisaged by Baker, Hamilton, and Co. Even the name, New Diplomatic Offensive, might be worth recycling.

Some might see America’s Israeli relationship as the Achilles’ heel of the new strategy. It need not be. The new president would be well advised to explain early and often how the policy shift would protect and carry forward the U.S.-Israel special relationship. Indeed, it’s the policy of “more of the same” that threatens that relationship. For almost a decade the Israeli consensus has been to accept the creation of a Palestinian state. That now needs to happen, urgently, on reasonable terms and with attention to Israel’s real security concerns. Israel also has an interest in strengthening America’s regional standing and coalition-building capacity, something the U.S. cannot do until it addresses the Palestinian predicament. The challenges that America, Israel, and others face, from al-Qaeda’s successful attacks in Jordan and the Egyptian Sinai to its putative presence in Lebanon and Gaza to the threat of growing instability and weapons proliferation -- all this and more should no longer be overshadowed by an argument over a few kilometers of land in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem. America should work closely with Israel in designing a new regional security architecture. Even if Benjamin Netanyahu is again Israel’s prime minister in January 2009, it is worth remembering that he, too, often with American encouragement, handed over land, shook the hand of Chairman Arafat, and secretly negotiated with Syria. Israel would be a beneficiary of the new U.S. policy even if some might be reluctant to accept it.

Turning to Iraq, the U.S should not isolate that nation’s challenges from others in the region. It should not be blaming Iraqis for their inadequacies, nor arming various sides for a potentially bloodier phase of the civil war. The new president needs to state clearly America’s commitment to end the military deployment that began in March 2003, and pledge not to maintain military bases there. This policy would focus the thinking of Iraqi factions on the political compromises necessary in a post-occupation Iraq. Second, the U.S. should make an “outside in” effort with all of Iraq’s neighbors to create the optimal conditions for externally assisted stabilization.

This regional rethink would come at a delicate time in the Iranian election calendar. Iran’s presidential ballot is scheduled for June 2009, and nothing should be done in the preceding months that might strengthen Ahmadinejad -- neither saber-rattling nor White House invitations. Better to sit this one out. The most elegant proposal would be to announce a six- to 12-month policy review on Iran -- avoiding heavyhanded (and probably counterproductive) election interference while gently hinting at future possibilities. After elections, and almost regardless of the results, the new administration should test the option of an unconditional and multi-issue political dialogue. The kind of grand bargain that was apparently offered by Iran and summarily rejected by the U.S. in 2003 (well documented by Flynt Leverett among others), should be re-examined. Israel’s former Mossad chief, Efraim Halevy, an advocate of hard negotiations with Iran, has argued that religious regimes can be the most flexible of creatures, as God is always with them whatever they decide. If a grand bargain or even ad-hoc understandings are unattainable, then Iran’s regional reach can be challenged more effectively by trying to bring actors like Syria and Hamas inside the tent. The peace process and Gulf policy should not be Irano-centric, thereby magnifying Iranian pretensions to hegemony. Containment and mutual deterrence, not pre-emptive military action, must be the fallback policy should all else fail.

Iranian cooperation would have immediate repercussions in the Lebanon-Syria arena. Bush’s policy exacerbated Lebanese internal divisions, eschewed any incentives for Syrian good behavior and discouraged the resumption of Israeli-Syrian talks. In the Israel-Lebanon-Syria triangle the U.S. was part of the problem, not part of the solution. Loyalty to the Cedar Revolution assumed a higher priority than prevention of a renewed Lebanese civil war. The new president should be guided by the principle of no return to Syrian occupation of Lebanon. Beyond that, America needs the good sense to allow flexibility on the Hariri Tribunal if there are important quid pro quo’s to be gained. Its strategic objectives should be to promote internal accommodation, not conflict within Lebanon, to renew Israeli-Syrian negotiations, and to resume its own high-level bilateral dialogue with Syria.

The hobby of regime change should also be abandoned on the Palestinian front. The Bush administration made a dizzying three attempts at shaping the Palestinian Authority leadership. The end result is a Palestinian house so divided that it complicates peace efforts, perhaps fatally, and weakens the political as opposed to militant tendency within Hamas. The opportunity presented by a Palestinian government of national unity, with Hamas endorsing both a ceasefire and Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, needs to be resurrected in some fashion.

Recalibrating policy toward Hamas has become central to progress on resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Contrary to popular misperception, Hamas and al-Qaeda are adversaries, not allies. Hamas is about ending the occupation and reforming Palestinian society; al-Qaeda, about opposing the West per se and spreading chaos in the Muslim world and beyond. One is reformist, the other revolutionary; one nationalist, the other post-nationalist; one grievance-based, the other fundamentalist. Hamas has signaled that it will accept a Palestinian state alongside Israel. It can be worked with, albeit indirectly for political reasons. Under a new administration, U.S. policy toward Hamas should enter a period of deniable ambiguity, as third parties (principally Arab and European) explore a series of propositions with the Hamas leadership.

The Hamas question, though, is about more than the West Bank and Gaza. It touches on whether political Islamists, the Muslim Brothers among them, can be allies and even play a pivotal role in the struggle against al-Qaeda. These non-takfiri Islamists (takfiris, al-Qaeda among them, support an extreme interpretation of Islam, and offensive, not defensive, Jihad) are embroiled in their own bitter fight with the radicals. Democratic Islamists tend to be the big winners when free elections are held in the Arab world, and their very participation in such elections is considered kufran abomination to Islam -- by the takfiri jihadists. They are religiously conservative, sometimes oppressively so, but they are not at war with the West, and America’s unwillingness to enter into a dialogue with them over rules of the game for co-existing and rooting out al-Qaeda has been perhaps the most glaring and stubbornly shortsighted omission in U.S. post-September 11 policy.

These divisions within political Islam are an unexploited opportunity. Lumping all Islamists together is politically and intellectually lazy and dishonest, helping al-Qaeda to portray America as anti-Muslim. It also exacerbates American reliance on repressive regimes fearful of democratic elections that might displace them. The reality is that most Islamists are mainstream, non-takfiri. At the very least, the alternative of a dialogue with non-takfiri political Islam should be explored. Can, for instance, the Turkish model of an Islamic but pro-Western polity be reproduced in the Arab world, and if so, under what circumstances? Which is why a blue-ribbon commission on “Reducing al-Qaeda and Takfiri Influence in Islamic Societies” should be constituted to report to the new president by autumn 2009.

A triangle can be drawn on the map of the world that runs from the Hindu Kush to the Atlantic Coast of Morocco to the Horn of Africa. I haven’t touched on all the problems in that triangle -- Pakistan and Afghanistan or energy policy, for instance. Nor does that triangle encompass all of the Muslim world. This triangle contains only about 6 percent of the planet’s population. The next president will have to focus on relations with China, protecting our environment, and tackling global human security, and rightly so. But this triangle, if irresponsibly managed, has a proven ability to suck America in and leave little oxygen for anything else. But that’s a fate the next president can avoid.

by Daniel Levy

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on March 28, 2008 10:03 AM.

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