Middle East Mistakes
All 177 foreign
embassies located in Washington, D.C. are no doubt attempting to read the tea
leaves and figure out what President-elect Donald Trump's foreign policy will
look like. But his inconsistencies
and contradictions render this nearly impossible.
rather than speculate, I'll focus on what U.S. policy in one region, the Middle
East, should be, starting with some general guidelines and then turning to
that this is perennially the most volatile area of the world, the goal is
modest: to minimize problems and avoid disasters. The prior two presidents
failed to achieve even this, and did so in opposite ways. George
W. Bush tried to do too much in the Middle East: recall his goals of
nation-building in Afghanistan, bringing freedom and prosperity to Iraq,
establishing democracy in Egypt, and resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict –
every one of which spectacularly flamed out. Reacting against Bush's "imperial
overstretch," Barack Obama did the reverse, withdrawing
prematurely from conflicts, drawing red lines he later abandoned, declaring a
fantasy "pivot to Asia," and granting nearly free reign to Kremlin
policy should find a median between these twin excesses: protect Americans,
advance American interests, and stand by American allies. Don't aspire to fix
the region but also don't retreat into isolationism. Make promises carefully and
fulfill them reliably. Think before you leap.
to the Middle East, how does this common-sense approach translate regarding
major problems such as those involving Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Syria, Egypt,
and the Arab-Israeli conflict?
is overwhelmingly the greatest concern. The new administration should
immediately and completely abrogate the weird non-treaty
known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, a.k.a. the Iran deal. The
president can unilaterally take this step and it should be followed by an
ultimatum: unless the Iranians shut down their entire nuclear weapons project by
a date certain, the U.S. government will accomplish this task on their behalf.
Only in this way can the Islamic Republic of Iran certainly be prevented from
acquiring nuclear weapons, something imperative not just for Israel and other
Middle East countries, but also for Americans, as Tehran must be assumed to be
building an electromagnetic
pulse capability that could destroy the U.S. power grid and lead to
the deaths of 90 percent of the population.
The Kingdom of
Saudi Arabia has long been a hostile ally of the United States, serving both as
a crucial supplier of energy even as it sponsored an obscene form of Islam.
Lately, Riyadh has taken on a new role, as the regional leading power standing
up to Iran, making the monarchy's security more important than ever to
Washington. Fortunately, the younger generation of Saudi leadership appears
willing to moderate the traditional Islamist aggressiveness were the U.S.
government to push hard enough.
the Obama administration's once-active romance with Turkey's President Recep
Tayyip Erdoğan has slumped to its demise, Washington nonetheless pretends
that Ankara remains a stalwart ally, publicly ignoring that the government has
turned into a hostile dictatorship with growing
ties to Russia and China. The make-nice school of diplomacy having
clearly failed to arrest Erdoğan's ambitions, the time has come to make
clear to the Turks how much they will lose in terms of trade, military
assistance, and diplomatic support unless they quickly change course.
indecision in Syria results from the hostility and repulsiveness of three out of
the country's four main actors: the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS); the
Turkish-, Qatari-, and Saudi-backed Sunni Arab rebels, mostly Islamist; and the
Assad regime, backed by the Iranian and Russian governments. Only the Syrian
Democratic Forces (SDF), consisting of the mostly-Kurdish People's Protection
units (YPG), are decent and friendly. In a near-Hobbesian state of all fighting
all (except that ISIS and Assad steer clear of each other), the Obama
administration cannot find a policy and stick with it. Commendably, it helps the
SDF, but the over-emphasis on destroying ISIS leads it to misbegotten alliances
with Ankara, Tehran, and Moscow. Instead, Washington should assist its only ally
while encouraging the other three actors to battle
themselves into oblivion.
on the principle of favoring democratic leaders, even if dubiously
elected and hostile, the Obama administration has, by withholding
armaments and aid, sought to punish Egypt's Abdel Fattah el-Sisi for coming to
power through a coup d'état. This gratuitous estrangement needs quickly to be
changed so that Americans can help a barely-competent Egyptian leader stave
off famine and defeat the Islamists, thus helping him to stay in
power and keeping the Muslim Brotherhood out.
Arab-Israeli conflict, once the Middle East's most dangerous flash-point, has
receded (at least temporarily) into the background. While low-level violence
continues unabated, it has less potential to escalate in an era of Middle
Eastern cold and hot war. The new administration must immediately
signal that it considers Israel to be America's closest and most important
Middle East ally; it should also abort the endless pressure on Jerusalem to make
concessions to the Palestinian Authority. Better yet, it should discard the
nearly-25-year-old pretense that Palestinians are Israel's "partner for
peace" and instead encourage Israelis to impress on the Palestinians the
need for them unequivocally and permanently to recognize Israel as the Jewish
simple policy of protecting Americans and their allies offers great
opportunities to fix a legacy of ruinous bipartisan mistakes.