A cradle of civilization and a crossroad of cultures, the Middle East remains perhaps one of the most volatile regions of the world that superpowers have struggled to contain throughout history. Unlike other hotbeds of conflict where issues revolve mostly around political disagreements, socio-economical challenges and security risks, the Middle East offers an added layer of complexity often ignored in debates and conventional policy discussions. Its people may share a lot of common features, beliefs and cultural habits but have always maintained ideological divides routed deeper in their emotional nature than their intellectual prowess. These rather unique characteristics require a delicate approach to policy flexible in style but firm on principles.
To his credit, President Obama’s policy towards the Middle East has been very flexible in style. The President and Secretary Clinton, with a quiet tone and a refined approach, have been quite successful in softening the hawkish image of the USA developed by the previous administration. However, where their policy succeeded in style, it fell short on clarity and was lax on principles. An example is putting an end to the war in Iraq. While this may have sprung out of tactical and economical necessities, the decision seems to have been made in fulfillment of a campaign promise and with disregard to the future of Iraq or American long-term interests therein.
A similar shortcoming can be seen in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Yemen. In the span of a year, dictators in these countries fell without the US firing a shot. Some like to call it the “Arab Spring”; arguably, it may have been the “creative chaos” proposed by the neo-Conservatives but with a more positive spin and a less expensive bill in lives and dollars. On its face, regime change in these countries was a great success for democracy and freedom; but when terrorists are substituted for dictators, an inquiry anent the role of the US, or lack thereof, is warranted. The prudent course for US foreign policy would have been, and still remains, a conditional engagement of these new regimes directly tied to American security, interests and values.
What happened in Libya on September 11 is a case on point and reflects a gargantuan failure of the Obama administration in the region. Despite Obama’s fanfare for killing Bin Laden, Al-Qaeda is on the rise again throughout the Sunni Muslim World, not as an “organization” with card-carrying members – as it is often portrayed in the West – but rather as an ideology infiltrating Sunni societies and gradually taking over. The absence of alternative leadership has given the extremists, and the terrorists among them, an opportunity to capitalize on the vacuum and rise to power. This is where the Obama administration had a chance to provide a forward-looking vision and affect a change towards modernity, but missed it. In the aftermath of the terrorist attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, the President and his aides launched a media campaign pandering to peoples’ religiosity to conceal, with false pretenses, Al-Qaeda’s strike; a tragic example of style trumping principle and giving Muslim extremists an opportunity to silence moderates and portray all Muslims around the World as anti-American. Instead, the administration should have seized the moment to proclaim and defend America’s freedoms and secular values and to reaffirm its resolve in the war on terrorists.
The war in Syria is another area where Obama has failed to show leadership. For nearly two years now, civilians are killed in the bloodiest sectarian struggle for power that the Middle East has seen since Lebanon’s civil war. Except for the context of the Cold War, the staging is quite similar: the US and Russia on opposite ends of the spectrum; disgruntled Sunni groups leading the fight to grab power from a non-Sunni president and in this case “political Alawism.” Ironically, the regional and local actors are nearly the same: the Assad regime as well as Arab regimes financing armed groups – local and foreign – under a “revolution” banner; some of the slogans are even borrowed verbatim from the Lebanese civil war. The only difference seems to be the substitution of the Palestinian factor with possibly an Iranian one. If history is any lesson, continuing to pour arms into Syria will not hasten a solution but is certain to drag its neighbors (Lebanon, Israel and Turkey) into the Syrian quagmire and aggravate the calamity. A reasonable approach would be for the US and Russia to reach an agreement whereby Russia will be given free rein to solve the Syrian crisis in return for guarantees to end the bloodshed in a reasonable time with no spillover into neighboring countries. In exchange, the USA gets an unfettered green light to deal with Iran.
On Iran, the failure to engage the Iranian government in any bilateral talks over its nuclear program, or to support anti-government activists, is a reminder of the policy towards North Korea: lingering and ineffective containment; except that Iran has oil and presents a major geostrategic interest in the region, not just for the US but also for Russia and China. Thus a US war with Iran is unrealistic and all the talk about it is huff and puff and pre-election grandstanding. A confident administration should have the vision to use the prestige and clout of the USA to fully isolate Iran and deal with it one-on-one. A small price will need to be paid to Russia and China; they have Syria in mind.
Reining in Iran will appease any fears for Israel’s security. The US commitment to the security of Israel is undeniable and unwavering and must not be used as political football in American elections. Additionally, it would be wrong to gauge it by the “daylight between US and Israel” on policy, as Mitt Romney seems to suggest, or by the level of intimacy between the President – any president – and Bibi Netanyahu. Although this seems to be a mantra of the Republican ticket in recent debates, it comes across as pandering and a poor attempt at appealing to Jewish voters. The Jewish communities in the US happen to comprise some of the most educated intellectuals and high-minded voters in the country. Although many of them, deep-down, care about the security of Israel, they are not a “single-issue voter” and are unlikely to put Israel’s interests ahead of America’s when the two diverge. To speak of a “Jewish vote” or to approach Jewish voters otherwise reflects how distant the candidate is from the Jewish community and how hypocritical he may be on these issues.
However, Israel’s security will not be whole without an equitable and just solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the problem of more than a Million Palestinian refugee without a home. Obama seems to be the least interested of all presidents, since Carter, in doing anything to bring the parties closer to a two-state solution. Meanwhile, extremism is growing on both sides and Israeli settlements are on the rise.
Finally, US aid and support (political, economical, military, etc.) to any entity or country in the Middle East or elsewhere around the world must be tied to a set of core values, among those are basic human rights, women’s equal rights, freedoms (speech, creed, assembly, etc.) and the promotion of more tolerant societies and secular governments. Short of that, America would be compromising on principle and financing missions that are antithetical to its raison d’être and that is sure to backfire against US interests in the future.