Middle East Tour d’Horizon
Clifford D. May
Next month, both President Barack Obama and newly minted Secretary of State John Kerry head for the Middle East. They should listen to a range of views, see the sights and pause to smell the hummus. As for policies: This would be a good time to consider a few adjustments. Below is a briefing — a briefer briefing than they will get from their advisers — on the state of countries in the region, the major players and some different approaches to contemplate.
Israel and the Palestinians:
Whatever peace processes that may have taken place in the past cannot be resuscitated in the present. The best possibility now is a resumption of negotiations without preconditions. The Israelis are not about to make concessions just to get Palestinians to talk with them, especially now that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has violated the Oslo Accords by attempting to change the status of the Palestinian territories unilaterally. Meanwhile, Hamas, a terrorist organization whose primary goal is Israeli extinction, not Palestinian statehood, remains firmly in control of Gaza, from which Israel withdrew in 2005, receiving nothing but rocket attacks in return. Abbas is now 78, a heavy smoker and in poor health. He has designated no successor. When he dies, Hamas will attempt to take over the West Bank as well. Israel will do whatever is necessary to prevent that. Surely, heading off a crisis this predictable should be a priority.
Hezbollah is both Iran’s foreign legion and a terrorist organization. Its most recent attack on civilians was in July in Bulgaria. Despite that, or perhaps because of it, Hezbollah has become the most powerful force in Lebanon. Hezbollah has installed at least 60,000 missiles so far, not just in the south, but throughout the country, including in densely populated areas where Lebanese civilians are being set up as human shields. The United Nations and the "international community" have not responded. If these missiles are fired at Haifa, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, thousands of Israelis will be killed. Unless the situation changes, the next war between Hezbollah and Israel — a war for which momentum is now building — is likely to be exceedingly bloody. Isn't it time to put some effort into averting this catastrophe as well?
What started as a peaceful protest against an oppressive dictatorship has turned into a sectarian/religious/ethnic conflict that has taken nearly 70,000 lives, and there is still no end in sight. Early on, the U.S. had an opportunity to support moderate Syrian factions. Then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Director of Central Intelligence Leon Panetta and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey all advised Obama to grab that opportunity. He chose not to do so. Meanwhile, Iran and Hezbollah continue to strongly back the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. Foreign combatants with links to al-Qaida are fighting on the other side. Is it too late to identify and assist factions that share our values and interests so that they will have some clout after Assad falls? The question is worth exploring. Also: Syria’s chemical weapons. What’s the plan to make sure those don’t end up in the hands of Hezbollah or al-Qaida?
King Abdullah II, a moderate from an Arab clan that traces its ancestry to the Prophet Muhammad, faces enormous challenges. Among them: a flood of Syrian refugees, the rise of Islamism, and Iran’s regional ambitions. Jordan needs American help and, like all the reasonable actors in the Middle East, benefits from American strength; in the same line of thinking, they are endangered by American weakness and retreat.
"The people of Egypt liberated themselves in eighteen days without a single IED [improvised explosive device] or suicide bomb," then-chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee John Kerry declared two years ago. That liberation turns out to have been short-lived. President Mohamed Morsi now appears intent on establishing a Muslim Brotherhood dictatorship. The good news is that millions of Egyptians are courageously standing up to him. Morsi must be forced to understand that American support is not an entitlement. It’s true that Morsi has not abrogated the peace treaty with Israel, but that’s not because he wants to sing "Kumbaya" with his Jewish neighbors, it’s because he’s smart enough to know that a war against Israel is not winnable, at least not now.
This is the camel in the Middle Eastern tent. Iran’s nuclear weapons program is a threat to the entire region, and beyond, which is why the Arab/Sunni members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait) last week "categorically rejected" as a "provocation" Iran's proposal that its talks with the P5+1 — the U.S. and five other Western countries — set to take place in Kazakhstan on Feb. 26 be watered down with discussions of other issues. Policy recommendations: (1) Continue along the diplomatic track even though it is unlikely to make progress. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei said earlier this month, "I’m not a diplomat; I’m a revolutionary." Believe him and remember that a bad deal is worse than no deal. (2) Toughen sanctions to the point they cause the collapse of Iran’s currency over the next 18 months. (3) Make the American military threat credible. That’s probably not how it looked as Khamenei watched Chuck Hagel’s confirmation hearings on his flat-screen TV. (4) Provide Israel's military with capabilities it doesn't currently have. That will allow it to exercise more patience, while making Khamanei more nervous. Implemented all together, such policies would send a clear message: One way or another, the world’s most threatening regime will be prevented from acquiring the world’s most lethal weapons. Ordinary Iranians must understand: They are suffering for no good reason.
The only Muslim-majority member of NATO, Turkey has become increasingly Islamist since the AKP (Justice and Development Party) came to power in 2002. Note that Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu recently declared that Turkey not just a member of NATO, but actually an "owner." Obama’s trust in and reliance on Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan merits reconsideration.
What about Iraq, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE, Bahrain, Tunisia, Libya, Mali, Algeria and Morocco? Leave those for later trips; I’ll leave them for later columns.
Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on national security.