After November: 5 Middle East Headaches That Await the U.S.

Last week's U.N. General Assembly session served up reminders that the next White House may have little option but to deal with a number of crises previously deferred

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Zac Baillie / AFP / Getty Images

A rebel fighter is carried down from a third-story apartment after being wounded by a Syrian government tank shell during a battle between rebels and Syrian army forces in Aleppo on Sept. 26, 2012

4. Making a Silk Purse from a Sow’s Ear in Afghanistan

It’s not actually part of the Middle East, but it’s not entirely unrelated, either — and despite being the longest war in American history, Afghanistan also scarcely rates a mention on the presidential campaign trail. And at the General Assembly last week, Obama brushed by the issue with a curt aside: “We have begun a transition in Afghanistan, and America and our allies will end our war on schedule in 2014.” Obama and Mitt Romney agree on that exit date, and beyond that, there’s not much uplifting to say. The Taliban is far from defeated, and it’s not likely to be so by 2014; and the Afghan government and its security forces on which hopes for a stable transition are pinned still look like a dodgy bet. The two U.S. troops killed at an Afghan army checkpoint on Saturday took the total number of Americans killed in that war past the 2,000 mark. And like more than 50 soldiers of the U.S.-led NATO alliance this year, they were killed by members of the very Afghan security forces they’re mentoring.

The “surge” strategy that quietly came to an end last month was designed to pummel the Taliban into accepting U.S. terms for a political settlement, but that doesn’t seem to be in the cards, either. It’s politically difficult for the U.S. to offer concessions that might tempt the Taliban, which recognizes that the U.S. has reached the limit of its military commitment in Afghanistan. And the movement’s longtime backers in Pakistan’s security establishment won’t press the insurgents into a deal unless their own security interests in Kabul are accommodated. In that respect, the Obama Administration’s recent decision to add the Haqqani network, a Pakistan-based faction of the broader Taliban insurgency, to the U.S. list of international terrorist organizations, may actually complicate efforts to reach a political solution before the U.S. withdrawal.

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As things stand, Afghanistan may be on course toward a protracted and messy civil war once the U.S. departs, with dangerous implications for regional security. It will behoove the next Administration to mitigate that danger, and given the limited means at its disposal — the U.S. public is overwhelmingly opposed to continued military involvement in Afghanistan — doing so will require negotiating compromises with power players on the ground, and in the neighborhood, that may further smudge the sheen of the U.S. achievement in its longest war.

5. Learning to Play a Weaker U.S. Hand

Speaking on the sidelines of the General Assembly at the Clinton Global Initiative last week, Romney spoke of Americans being troubled by developments in the Middle East. “We feel that we are at the mercy of events rather than shaping events,” the Republican presidential candidate explained, noting the rising death toll in Syria, Iran’s nuclear progress and the fact that “the President of Egypt is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood.” Formally, of course, President Morsy resigned from the Brotherhood after being elected, in order to better represent all Egyptians, but politically speaking, Romney is correct: a movement long-demonized in the U.S. political conversation has emerged as the most powerful mainstream political force in the emerging Arab democracies. But it ought to have been obvious for some time now that when people in the Middle East are given the right to freely choose their own leaders, more often than not they don’t pick Washington’s preferred candidates. After all, despite the U.S. invasion having gotten rid of Saddam Hussein, democratic elections in Iraq have repeatedly returned a government closer to Tehran than to the U.S. And when the George W. Bush Administration demanded democratic elections in the Palestinian territories in 2006, voters chose Hamas as their ruling party.

Whereas the Romney campaign likes to attribute the declining U.S. influence over events in the region to some fecklessness on the part of the Obama Administration, or a failure to more forcefully champion American values, the reality is that an objective shift in the balance of power has been under way for a number of years now. What made the limits of U.S. power more abundantly clear than anything else was the failure of the massive projection of force by the U.S. military in Afghanistan and Iraq — and by Israel, urged on by the Bush Administration in Lebanon in 2006 and Gaza in 2008 — to impose Washington’s will in those places. Not only did those wars underscore the limits of U.S. power to remake the wider Middle East, but Washington has been further sapped of its appetite for military adventure by a protracted domestic economic crisis.

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Iran was emboldened by the U.S. failures on its eastern and western flanks and continues to defy Security Council resolutions on its nuclear program; Syria’s Assad has been unmoved by Obama’s demands that he stand down. Even longtime allies in the region are less inclined to follow a U.S. lead: Saudi Arabia ignores U.S. support for democratic reform in the region by aggressively backing the repressive option for Arab monarchs; Israel ignores U.S. demands for a settlement freeze to enable a revival of the peace process with the Palestinian Authority; the Authority half ignores U.S. demands that it refrain from taking matters to the U.N. and so on.

Romney sees the situation as a policy failure by the Obama Administration but offers only bromides in response: “Strengthening the three sinews of our influence: our economic strength, our military strength and the strength of our values,” writes Romney, “will require a very different set of policies from those President Obama is pursuing.” And what are they? If he knows, he’s not telling.

No question Obama has largely improvised, with mixed results. But, like “fixing” the economy, there’s no magic bullet to turn back the clock to a time of unchallenged U.S. supremacy in the Middle East. Romney plainly has no greater appetite for new military adventures in the Middle East than Obama does. “I do not believe that in the final analysis we will have to use military action [against Iran],” he told reporters last Friday. “I can’t take that option off the table — it must be something which is known by the Iranians as a possible tool to be employed to prevent them from becoming nuclear. But I certainly hope that we can prevent any military action from having to be taken.”

Hard to tell how that differs from the Obama approach. And whether it’s avoiding a war or a nuclear-armed Iran, the challenge of forging a principled relationship with mainstream Islamists dominating newly democratic Arab polities, ameliorating the downside of U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, settling on a Syria strategy that limits the risks to the U.S. and its regional allies, and even finding a way to prevent Israel becoming increasingly isolated over the failure of the peace process, achieving U.S. policy goals for the next president is going to require some new thinking — and policies that align realistic goals with available means in an erstwhile U.S.-dominated region that has begun to remake itself on its own terms.

MORE: How Many Civilians Would Be Killed in an Attack on Iran’s Nuclear Sites?

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