To: The Next President
Re: Prominent Faultlines
The Middle East can best be understood as a complex geological zone, one prone to earthquakes along one or more of its prominent fault lines: the Arab-Israeli dispute in all its dimensions, the multi-dimensional challenge posed by Iran, the very different challenge constituted by Saddam’s Iraq, and the uncertain internal futures of many of the region’s countries. Any one of these situations can erupt, causing direct harm to U.S. interests and possibly triggering activity along one of the other fault lines, thereby increasing the threat to regional stability and to the United States.
Two of the fault lines are likely to call for immediate and sustained attention by the next administration. The first is Israel’s relationship with the Palestinians. Reasonable people can debate what led to the failure of the Camp David Summit and the subsequent violence; what is beyond dispute is the reality that the peace process cannot resume as if none of this took place. What is needed is a fundamental rethinking of U.S. strategy in order to determine whether attempts at solving the dispute should be set aside and replaced by a return to the sort of step-by-step gradualism that informed U.S. diplomacy for decades. Still another option worth exploring would be “concerted unilateralism,” a process by which both sides would tacitly arrange to take specified steps that for political reasons they could not agree to formally.
The second potential crisis involves Iraq. It is a question of when and not if Saddam tries to break out of his current predicament. Maintaining the bulk of the sanctions so that Saddam cannot gain direct control over oil revenues or import militarily useful technology or equipment is a must. Any evidence that Saddam is reconstituting weapons of mass destruction proscribed by UN Security Council resolutions ought to be met by heavy, sustained military punishment. And the United States should act to strengthen the appeal of opposition forces and diminish the hold of the regime. Consultations along these lines designed to reinvigorate the anti-Saddam coalition should be a priority.
Less likely to evolve into a crisis is the relationship between Israel and Syria and Lebanon, the two Arab countries that neighbor Israel but who have not signed peace accords with it. The new administration ought to develop a working relationship with Syria’s new leader-all the while pressing for Syrian military withdrawal from Lebanon and the demilitarization of Hizbollah. Peace talks between Israel and Syria should be promoted only if there is reason to believe negotiations could resolve those issues that precluded agreement in the past.
It is impossible to predict how (and how fast) Iran’s internal politics will evolve. But the United States has an interest in re-establishing a comprehensive dialogue with Iran, if need be using authorized private individuals if an official relationship is judged to be impossible by Iran. Such an unconditional dialogue should address a full range of
bilateral, regional, and global issues, including but not limited to the peace process, Iranian support for terror and Hizbollah, and weapons of mass destruction.
The last fault line, that created by a lack of open economies and political systems in most of the region’s countries, is the most difficult for outsiders to address. Still, the United States should be a quiet but persistent advocate for market economic reform and political liberalization, including a greater allowance for civil society. Gradual change is essential if the region’s societies are not to become even more brittle and as a result more vulnerable to dramatic (and most likely destabilizing) change.
One last point deserves mention. U.S. policy toward the greater Middle East cannot be designed or carried out in a vacuum. To the contrary, U.S. policy toward this difficult part of the world must rest on a firm foundation that in turn requires adequate funding of military, intelligence, diplomatic, and assistance programs. No less important is the holding of regular, high-level consultations, be it with regional countries and close U.S. allies in Europe and Asia or with key members of Congress and American society.
[The resignation of assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs Wess Mitchell] is surprising news, which seems to have caught everyone off guard. He doesn’t appear to have shared this news with his ambassadors, who were in Washington last week for a global chiefs of mission conference. His deputy is also slated to retire soon, which raises question of near term leadership on European policy at a time of challenges there.
[Wess] Mitchell was a strong supporter of NATO, particularly in Eastern Europe where he will be sorely missed. His departure comes follows the resignation of senior Pentagon officials – Robert Karem and Tom Goffus – working on NATO along with Secretary Mattis. Without this pro-alliance caucus, NATO is now more vulnerable than at any time since the beginning of the Trump administration.