No Way Out: The Essential U.S. Role in the Middle East

Philip H. Gordon
Philip H. Gordon Former Brookings Expert, Mary and David Boies Senior Fellow in U.S. Foreign Policy - Council on Foreign Relations

September 1, 2000

In a paradox befitting one of the world’s most complex regions, the Middle East entered the new millennium closer to peace-but also closer to possible conflict-than it has been for some time. Seven years after the Oslo peace process began, Israelis and Palestinians have finally begun to broach the most difficult issues that divide them. Even after the failure of their peace talks at Camp David last July, the two sides are closer to a final peace settlement than they have ever been before, and both sides remain committed to pursuing their intensive and unprecedented efforts to reach a comprehensive deal. On the Syrian front, Israel’s unconditional withdrawal from Lebanon last May ended more than 20 years of constant conflict, and the first peace talks with Damascus in more than four years held out hopes for the eventual conclusion of treaties that would finally end Israel’s state of war with both its northern neighbors. In Jordan and Morocco, successful leadership transitions after the death of popular monarchs demonstrated that transfers of power in the Arab world-such as the Syrian one that observers are watching nervously-need not produce upheaval. And in Iran, the leadership pursued its new strategy of cooperating with the Arab Gulf states rather than destabilizing them, and a convincing electoral victory for moderates showed a genuine public desire for liberalization and change.

In the Middle East, however, nothing is simple, and some of the very developments that moved the region toward peace also heightened the risk of turmoil or even war. The progress in the Israeli-Palestinian talks inspires new hopes but also introduces new risks. By finally confronting the most intractable problems, neither side can maintain the illusion that it will eventually get all it wants; the endgame, even if successful, will bitterly disappoint radicals on both sides. Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon, because it came without a peace deal with either Lebanon or Syria, increases the chances of conflict with Syria, which is now under new and uncertain leadership and which Israel says it will hold responsible for whatever happens on its now unshielded northern border. And even the successes of the long-sought-after moderates in Iran were not unqualified-the very success of the liberal camp brings with it risk of a backlash, as the clerics and other hard-liners see the results of their revolution, not to mention their positions of power, threatened. Add to all this the fact that Iraq’s brutal dictator Saddam Hussein remains in place-and United Nations weapons inspectors do not-and that the oil wealth of the gulf monarchies has still not produced any modern, stable regimes, and it is easy to see how this region-potentially closer to peace than it has been for many decades-could just as easily explode.

The stakes in the Middle East for the next U.S. president are thus very high. With the right combination of engagement, subtle diplomacy, commitment of resources, and luck, he could preside over a landmark settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the signing of two more Israeli peace treaties (with Lebanon and Syria), the development of a new relationship with Iran, and the downfall of Saddam Hussein. But failure to engage sufficiently and appropriately could lead to renewed upheaval in a region that-because of its energy reserves, proximity to key allies, and potential weapons of mass destruction-remains critical to U.S. national security interests.

Israel and the Palestinians

The failure of the Camp David peace talks in July seemed to signal the end-or even the futility-of the Arab-Israeli peace process. If Israel’s most celebrated military officer (Ehud Barak) and the Palestinians’ historic leader (Yasser Arafat)-pressed on by a tireless U.S. president in search of a peace legacy (Bill Clinton)-could not produce a deal, maybe a deal cannot be produced. Viewed differently, however, Camp David showed not that an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal is impossible, but rather how commitment and creative diplomacy could bring the parties closer than ever before to agreements on issues that their negotiators had never previously had the courage to address. President Clinton and his team may not have been able to get the parties across the finish line, but the U.S. role remains essential: to forestall provocative actions (or reactions) that could lead to violence while keeping the pressure on the parties to take risks for a peace that would manifestly be in both sides’ interest.

Even as Israelis and Palestinians continue to claim bottom-line negotiating positions that would seem incompatible, it does not take a great leap of imagination to envisage workable compromises on even the thorniest of issues; some were broached at Camp David. On territory, neither side will get what it wants, but by annexing just 10 percent of the West Bank, Israel could incorporate 80 percent of its 170,000 settlers into its own territory, leaving 90 percent of the West Bank for a new Palestinian state. On Palestinian refugees-now numbering more than 3 million in the region-no one seriously expects a deal permitting an unlimited “right of return,” but generous compensation and new opportunities in Palestine could alleviate some of the problem. Water will remain a tricky issue for the entire region, but new desalination technologies and an agreement on better conservation and sharing could make the issue manageable. Even with a peace with Jordan, Israel will always worry about its security to the east, but a deal to lease part of the Jordan valley to provide for an Israeli troop presence could simultaneously reassure Palestinians on the issues of sovereignty and territory and provide the new state with badly needed income. Even on Jerusalem, the most intractable issue of all, it is possible to imagine creative formulas that would allow Israel to claim the city as its undivided capital while giving Palestinians some form of sovereignty over Muslim holy sites and administrative authority over the parts of the city where they live-enough to legitimately claim also to have their capital there.

On all these issues, the Barak government-wisely supported and encouraged by the United States-has shown considerable imagination and courage. Unlike much of his opposition back home, Barak knows that offering the Palestinians too little territory, too little compensation for refugees, too little water, and nothing in Jerusalem will not result in a “good deal” at the table, but in permanent Palestinian dissatisfaction, the unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state, and heightened risk of renewed conflict. Now, Arafat and his team must do more to prepare Palestinians and Arabs elsewhere for inevitable compromise, as even the most generous offer any Israeli government could be expected to make at the table and sell at home will still leave Palestinians several slices short of the full loaf they set their sights on. The United States can further help not only by offering Arafat recognition, money, and political support in the context of a peace deal, but by using its influence with other Arab governments to give Arafat the cover he needs to compromise.

Israel, Syria, and Lebanon

Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon last May was a triumph for most Lebanese and a relief for most Israelis, but without a Syrian deal it is also something of a leap into the dark. Syria’s greatest leverage with Israel was Israel’s costly presence in Lebanon, where more than 1,000 of its soldiers have been killed. That leverage now gone, Damascus-which still wields power in Lebanon through the 35,000 troops it has deployed there-may have reason to look for other ways to make Israel’s northern border unstable and unsafe. To do so it could encourage the Shi’a resistance movement Hizbollah, now the main force in southern Lebanon, or radical Palestinians from among the 350,000 Palestinian refugees there, to recommence Katyusha rocket or terrorist attacks against northern Israeli villages, now within easy striking distance.

So far the border has been calm, and Syria’s new leader, Bashar al-Assad, would seem to have little incentive to provoke Israel as he seeks to consolidate his power at home. Lacking the political credibility of his father, however, the younger Assad is also in no position to cut a deal with Israel, which makes a revival of the Syrian track unlikely during Bill Clinton’s presidency-a bitter disappointment for an administration that has invested so much in it. The administration will thus probably spend its final few months doing what it can (not much) to help establish the British-educated Bashar as a legitimate leader and hoping that he will be a modernizer who will see the economic benefits of peace. The United States should also push for Hizbollah’s disarmament and Syrian withdrawal now that Israeli forces have departed. Over the longer run, the United States-whether Clinton or his successor-should stand ready to take the lead in brokering a peace when the parties finally come back to the table, as eventually they will be obliged to do. When that happens, the United States should also be prepared to do its part-military aid for Israel, a possible peacekeeping presence on the Golan; and eventual aid and investment for Syria. Given the benefits of a peace treaty between Israel and one of its most implacable enemies-and compared with the risks involved in the absence of a settlement-such measures would easily be worth their cost.

Change in Iran?

With the overwhelming victory of reformers in Iran’s parliamentary election last February, it is no longer possible to question whether Iran is really changing (as many have done for years), but only to ask how much it will change and what the eventual consequences will be. The signs of a desire for domestic reform in Iran over the past several years are unmistakable: the 1997 election of a moderate president (Mohammed Khatami) against two more conservative candidates; the flourishing of political movements and outbreak of street protests in favor of greater freedom of expression; the declining role of clerics and Islamic ideology in the parliamentary election campaign; and finally the landslide legislative victory for moderates and proponents of change.

Not all the news from Iran is good. The conservative clerics-who still control the judiciary, the security and intelligence services, and the state broadcasting system-have already begun a set of rearguard actions, including violence, arrests, censorship, and even political assassinations, against the moderates. The arrest and conviction of a group of Iranian Jews on dubious spying charges and the closure of nearly two dozen newspapers are but the most recent examples of abuse by the Iranian theocracy of its still considerable power. But the overall trend is positive, and the conservatives’ backs look to be against the wall.

Even Iran’s foreign policy is showing signs of change. Tehran still opposes the Middle East peace process, has yet to make clear how Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon will affect its support for Hizbollah, opposes direct talks with the United States, and maintains its long-range missile and probably nuclear programs. But it has also moved far away from the revolutionary aims that marked the Islamic Republic’s first 20 years. Iran no longer foments Shi’a rebellion among the Arab Gulf states and has even reestablished good relations with most of them; it has finally announced that it will not carry out the fatwah against author Salman Rushdie; and while it has not abandoned its opposition to the Middle East peace process, it has agreed to live with any deal that proves acceptable to the Palestinians.

The United States should continue to encourage change in Iran. Secretary of State Albright’s June 1998 and March 2000 speeches outlining a U.S. hope for better relations and a limited lifting of some economic sanctions were useful small steps. Future steps-depending on whether and how Iran’s actions change-could include letting the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act lapse in 2001 without renewal; concluding agreements on outstanding issues like frozen assets; lifting unilateral U.S. economic sanctions; and even, ultimately, supporting energy pipelines through Iran. Most of these measures are beyond what the U.S. political traffic will now bear-and beyond what Iran’s actions merit-but further political change in Iran and progress in the Middle East peace process (limiting the scope for Iranian sponsorship of terrorism or meddling) could make them realistic far more quickly than many expect.

?and Stagnation in Iraq

If only one could say the same about Iraq. Ten years after the defeat in the Gulf War that many thought would lead to his downfall, Saddam Hussein is now poised to outlast yet another U.S. president. The Iraqi people are suffering under brutal repression and crippling international sanctions, yet Saddam shows no sign of willingness to accept the demands of the international community and comply with the post-Gulf War UN Security Council resolutions on weapons of mass destruction. Indeed, Iraq continues to bar weapons inspectors from the country, despite the passage last year of a new UN resolution that would suspend sanctions in exchange for renewed inspections. Saddam prefers to use the increased suffering of his people as leverage in his quest to get sanctions lifted without having to allow the inspectors back in.

On Iraq the options for the next U.S. president are not good. One approach, promoted by many in Congress and some in the Republican presidential campaign, would be to seek more aggressively to topple Saddam: using heavy military force to respond to his provocations, promoting the detachment of the southern part of his territory as has effectively been done in the Kurdish north, and providing more funding and training for the Iraqi opposition. This approach might well increase the chances of ousting Saddam (though not by much), but it would find little support in the region or among European allies. Even if successful, it would risk breaking Iraq up into a sort of Afghanistan, hardly an encouraging prospect; if unsuccessful, thousands of Saddam’s opponents would lose their lives while the U.S. standing in the region and the world would suffer a serious blow. At the other end of the spectrum would be a softer approach, promoted by many Europeans and some in the Arab world, consisting of lifting sanctions on humanitarian grounds even without strong guarantees on weapons of mass destruction. This approach, too, is highly problematic: because there is no reason to believe Saddam would treat the Iraqi people better even in the absence of international sanctions (most evidence is to the contrary), the result could be renewed Iraqi weapons programs without any improvement in the humanitarian situation. This leaves the highly unsatisfactory, but better-than-the-alternatives status quo-containing Iraq militarily while providing as much humanitarian assistance as Iraq will allow (or at least what it cannot prevent). Augmented both by more “carrot” (a clear message that economic sanctions would indeed be lifted if Iraq complies with UN weapons resolutions and treats its people better, or if Saddam Hussein is overthrown) and more “stick” (a more serious campaign to undermine the Iraqi leader through attempts to foment a coup if Iraq does not comply or if it takes provocative actions), this approach may be the best of several very bad alternatives for the next president, barring unforeseeable changes in the regional situation.

On the Road Together

The Middle East may be on the road to peace and it may be on the road to war, but one conclusion is unmistakable: the United States will be on the road with it. The hope expressed by the Israeli government in 1999-2000 that the United States could step back from the peace process and let the parties make progress themselves turned out to be a mirage-without the American role as an honest broker the parties will neither reach nor stick to agreements. The same is true, perhaps even more so, on the Syrian track: the parties may not reach agreement anyway, but without U.S. encouragement, aid, threats, cajoling, and risktaking, they are certain not to. And the need for an active U.S. role in the Gulf is even more manifest: standing ready to pursue new relations with a changing Iran and maintaining its determination to contain a threatening Iraq should be high-priority goals for the next U.S. president.