the Middle East after the Election
By Clifford Smith
November 4, 2016
The next U.S. president will have a difficult job in the
Middle East. The Obama administration's failure to
appreciate the long-term consequences of its actions (and
inactions) have allowed forces unfriendly to the United States to make
unprecedented strategic, political, and even territorial gains.
The Obama administration's recently reaffirmed
strategy toward ISIS has required Iraq's security forces to spend two years
gradually getting the upper
hand hand over an enemy they outnumber well over 10 to 1. Nonetheless, ISIS
is on the verge of losing Mosul. The next administration should help the Iraqi
Government consolidate these gains, even if it means more boots on the ground.
Additionally, it should get over our hang-up about providing heavy weapons to Kurdish
Peshmerga who have proven themselves loyal U.S. allies time and again.
In Syria, the years-long conflagration and the Obama
administration's failure to deter heavy Russian military intervention has left
the next administration with few good options. The status quo is producing not
only a cataclysmic death toll, but also a massive refugee crisis that threatens
political stability in Europe. One presidential
candidate has proposed no-fly zones and safe-havens, while working to arm
and protect certain, narrowly-defined rebel groups who stand against both the
Assad regime and ISIS. While far from perfect, it beats our current policy of
A longer-term problem is what to do with the Islamist,
increasingly authoritarian President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, the man
responsible for channeling
the flow of refugees from Syria into Europe. This longstanding NATO
jumped off the secular democratic train. The historic role of the military
secular democracy is a thing of the past.
Erdogan's Turkey is busy establishing itself as an
Islamist force, oppressing
its Kurdish minority, and even threatening to expand
into Iraq and other surrounding areas. The effects are aiding
ISIS and further destabilizing the region. Erdogan nevertheless has the gall
to actively provoke
nearby Russian forces and then call
on NATO for support. This kind of behavior risks drawing the West into a
much larger conflict with Russia.
The next administration will be forced to redefine our
relationship with Turkey. It should work with our European allies to exert
maximum pressure on Erdogan to change course. If he won't, we must disentangle
ourselves from Turkey, including working to end
its NATO membership.
Iran is arguably the gravest immediate and long-term threat
to American security in the region. The Iran
to moderate the regime or end the threat posed by the Islamic Republic's nuclear
program, and the price
keeps getting higher. The costs now
include ransom payments, allowing Iran access
to ballistic missiles, and increased
Iranian terror financing. Though international sanctions have been lifted
and funds transferred, the U.S. can still back out of the agreement.
But this will not be enough — the next president must
prioritize the rollback of Iran's nuclear program, as well as its aggressive bid
for regional hegemony, for which Syria, Iraq, and Yemen are paying a devastating
daily toll. A robust effort to weaken Iran (like opposition to the Iran deal
last year) is sure to command large, bipartisan majorities.
The Iranian regime is
at home or in the region, and a thousand signs, small
large, show its vulnerability. The next administration should use all its
leverage working with our allies and the regime's opponents, internal
external, to change course. Of course, as the existential threat of a
nuclear-armed Iran draws nearer, the
military option must be considered.
No individual policy decision, or series of decisions, will
fix these problems. As former Secretary of State Dean Acheson said, "At the
top there are no easy choices. All are between evils, the consequences of which
are hard to judge." However, a forward-looking policy that prioritizes
long-term interests over expediency can reassert America's leadership and help
improve our lot in the Middle East, and that of those in the region who want
peace and stability. The U.S. is still the "indispensable nation."