Next month, both President 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 the states, the players in play, and some different approaches to contemplate.
Israel and the Palestinians: Whatever peace process may have taken place in the past cannot be resuscitated in the present. The most that is possible now is the 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 not Palestinian statehood but Israeli extinction, remains firmly in control of Gaza, from which Israel withdrew in 2005 and has received nothing but rocket attacks in return. Abbas is now 78, a heavy smoker 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.
Lebanon: 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 is installing missiles, at least 60,000 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 U.N. and the “international community” have done nothing in response. 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. Time to put some effort into averting this catastrophe as well.
Syria: 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 — with no end in sight. Early on, the U.S. had an opportunity to support moderate Syrian factions. The secretary of state, the director of Central Intelligence, and the chairman of the military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff all advised President Obama to grasp that opportunity. He chose not to do so. Meanwhile, Iran and Hezbollah continue to strongly back the Assad regime. Foreign combatants with links to al-Qaeda 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. There are also Syria’s chemical weapons to consider. What’s the plan to make sure those don’t end up in the hands of Hezbollah or al-Qaeda?
Jordan: King Abdullah II, a moderate from an Arab clan that traces its ancestry to the prophet Mohammed, 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 and is endangered by American weakness and retreat.
Egypt: “The people of Egypt liberated themselves in eighteen days without a single IED 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. The government of 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 made 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.
Iran: The 900-pound camel in the Middle Eastern tent. Iran’s nuclear-weapons program is a threat to the 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 — due to take place in Kazakhstan on February 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 where 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) Give the Israelis military capabilities they don’t now have. That will allow them to exercise more patience, while making Khamenei more nervous. Taken together, such policies would send this message: One way or another, the world’s most threatening regime will be prevented from acquiring the world’s most lethal weapons. Ordinary Iranians need to understand that they are suffering for no good reason.
Turkey: The only Muslim-majority member of NATO, Turkey has become increasingly Islamist since the AKP (Justice and Development Party) came to power in 2002. And note that Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoğlu recently declared that Turkey is actually a NATO “owner.” President Obama’s trust in and reliance on Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan 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 those for later columns.
— Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on national security.