Brookings Institution Press
A Time for Diplomatic Renewal: Toward a New U.S. Strategy in the Middle East
THE FORTY-FOURTH PRESIDENT will face a series of critical, complex, and interrelated challenges in the Middle East that will demand his immediate attention: an Iran apparently intent on approaching or crossing the nuclear threshold as quickly as possible; a fragile situation in Iraq that is straining the U.S. military; weak governments in Lebanon and Palestine under challenge from stronger Hezbollah and Hamas militant organizations; a faltering Israeli-Palestinian peace process; and American influence diluted by a severely damaged reputation. The president will need to initiate multiple policies to address all these challenges but will quickly discover that time is working against him.
President Barack Obama will have to reprioritize and reorient U.S. policy toward the Middle East. For the past six years that policy has been dominated by Iraq. This need not, and should not, continue to be the case. The next president can gradually reduce the U.S. troop presence and combat role in Iraq, increasingly shifting responsibility to Iraqi forces. But because the situation is still fragile there, the drawdown should be done carefully and not so quickly or arbitrarily that it risks contributing to the undoing of progress achieved at great cost over the past two years. All this would be consistent with the accord governing U.S. troop presence being negotiated by U.S. and Iraqi officials.
Instability generated by a too rapid withdrawal could distract the next president from the other priority initiatives he will need to take and create opportunities in Iraq for Iran and al Qaeda to exploit. However, a too slow withdrawal would leave American forces tied down in Iraq and unavailable for other priority tasks, including backing his diplomacy visà-vis Iran in particular with the credible threat of force. He will need to strike a balance.
In no way should this call for retrenchment in Iraq be interpreted as a recommendation for a more general American pullback from the region. The greater Middle East will remain vital to the United States for decades to come given its geostrategic location, its energy and financial resources, the U.S. commitment to Israel, and the possibility both for terrorism to emanate from the region and for nuclear materials and weapons to spread there. Reduced American involvement will jeopardize all these interests.
Instead, President Obama’s principal focus will need to be on Iran, because the clock is ticking on its nuclear program. He should offer direct official engagement with the Iranian government, without preconditions, along with other incentives to attempt to prevent Iran from developing a capacity to produce substantial amounts of nuclear weapons-grade fuel in a short amount of time. Simultaneously, he will need to concert an international effort to impose harsher sanctions on Iran if it rejects an outcome the United States and others can accept. The objective is simple to describe but will be difficult to achieve: to generate a suspension of Iran’s enrichment program before it builds the capacity to enrich enough uranium to provide it with this “breakout” capability.
Preventive military action, by either the United States or Israel, in the event that this diplomatic initiative fails, appears unattractive given its risks and costs.However, the option should be examined closely, both for what it could accomplish and given the dangers of living with a near or actual Iranian nuclear weapons capability. Because of Israel’s vulnerability to an Iranian nuclear first strike, its fuse will necessarily be shorter than America’s. And negotiations—as well as stepped-up sanctions— will inevitably take time to work. To increase Israel’s tolerance for a more drawn-out diplomatic engagement, President Obama should bolster Israel’s deterrent capabilities by providing a nuclear guarantee and an enhanced antiballistic missile defense capability.
A second emphasis should be on promoting peace agreements between Israel and its Arab neighbors, in particular Syria, which is currently allied with Iran and its Hezbollah and Hamas proxies. The Syrian government is in a position to fulfill a peace agreement, and the differences between the parties appear to be bridgeable. Moreover, the potential for a strategic realignment would benefit the effort to weaken Iran’s influence in the sensitive core of the region, reduce external support for both Hezbollah and Hamas, and improve prospects for stability in Lebanon. In other words, it would give President Obama strategic leverage on Iran at the same time as he would be offering its leaders a constructive way out of their security dilemma.
President Obama should also make a serious effort from the outset to promote progress between Israel and the Palestinians. Here, though, factors related to timing appear contradictory. There is an urgent need for a diplomatic effort to achieve a final peace agreement based on a two-state solution while it is still feasible. Yet deep divisions within the Palestinian leadership (not to mention divisions within Israel’s body politic), and the Palestinian Authority’s questionable ability to control territory from which Israel would withdraw, sharply reduce prospects for a sustainable peace agreement no matter what the outside effort. This dilemma does not argue for neglect, which is sure to be malign, but it does call for a devoted effort to create the conditions on the ground for more ambitious diplomacy to succeed.
What these Iranian and Arab-Israeli initiatives have in common is a renewed emphasis on diplomacy as a tool of American foreign policy—certainly more than has been the norm over the past eight years. The United States will want the backing of the world’s other powers— Russia, China, and Europe—and the partnership of America’s regional allies, including Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. Consulting and concerting with all of these actors will also take time and patience.
Realities on the ground also call for a new approach to the promotion of reform in the region. Authoritarian regimes that are repressive and largely unresponsive to legitimate popular needs have set in motion a dynamic in which opposition has gathered in the mosque. Such polarization needs to be avoided. The answer is not early elections, especially not when parties with militias contest them, but rather a gradual, evolutionary process of democratization that emphasizes the building of civil society, the opening of political space, and the strengthening of independent institutions (including political parties, the media, and the judiciary). The parallel encouragement of a market economy can buttress this effort.
Finally, President Obama should understand that his policy toward the greater Middle East will be severely handicapped as long as the United States remains heavily dependent on the region’s hydrocarbons. U.S. consumption is helping to fuel Iran’s bid to assert its influence throughout the region; U.S. dependence also leaves this country highly vulnerable to untoward developments within the region, whether it is the ability of Iraq’s sects to get along or the ability of the Saudi government to maintain stability. The goal of the United States should be to sustain its involvement in the region but to reduce its vulnerability to it. Energy policy is foreign policy.
Some of these initiatives will take considerable time to ripen and bear fruit (rebuilding Palestinian capabilities, promoting political development in Arab countries, increasing energy security), whereas it may be possible or necessary to realize others relatively early on (assembling a new diplomatic offer to Iran backed by the threat of harsher sanctions, drawing down troops in Iraq, promoting Israeli-Syrian peace). At a minimum President Obama will need to remain conscious of the interrelated nature of regional dynamics and try to synchronize the various branches of his Middle Eastern strategy, buying time when there is no alternative while quickly exploiting opportunities or dealing with necessities when they arise.