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

  • Share
  • Read Later
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

1. Despite Netanyahu’s Retreat, Avoiding War with Iran Will Get Harder

For all of his summer saber rattling and efforts to pressure the Obama Administration into stating imminent red lines for war with Iran, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu effectively retreated at the U.N. General Assembly on Thursday. Despite the familiar apocalyptic rhetoric, Netanyahu took care to signal Israel’s cooperation with the Obama Administration on the issue. More important, he drew his own red line — somewhat confusingly, given the much lampooned graphic on which he relied — at Iran possessing a sufficient stockpile of 20% enriched uranium to reprocess into one bomb’s worth of highly enriched uranium. At present rates of enrichment, he claimed, that point would be reached next spring or summer. Leave aside the considerable body of expert opinion that holds that the U.S. would have a lot more time than Netanyahu suggests to respond to an overt move by Iran to build nuclear weapons, the Israeli leader nonetheless once again wound forward his doomsday alarm clock, setting it to ring sometime early next year.

That seemed to take off the table the threat of an Israeli strike over U.S. objections before November’s election. But the occupant of the Oval Office early next year may face a more acute crisis: sanctions have not so far changed Iran’s nuclear calculations, and such concessions as Iran has offered by way of capping its nuclear work are not ones that the Obama Administration has been ready to accept as a basis for easing sanctions. Iran doesn’t trust the U.S. any more than the U.S. trusts Iran, and Tehran believes the real purpose of the sanctions is to create economic chaos in the hope of provoking an uprising against the regime. Such suspicions will have been heightened by Friday’s U.S. decision to remove the Mujahedin-e-Khalq, an exile armed group that fought for Saddam Hussein against Iran in the 1980s and which is widely reviled even among leaders of the opposition Green Movement, from the U.S. list of terrorist organizations.

(MORE: Apocalyptic Talk Aside, Israel Has Dialed Down Its Threat to Bomb Iran — for Now)

And Netanyahu has given notice that he’ll be loudly banging the drum for action by springtime unless, as remains unlikely, Iran effectively throws in the towel on the nuclear standoff before then. Whether it’s President Obama or a President Romney, the White House early next year may face a stark choice between continuing a policy that escalates toward confrontation or trying to avoid one by taking the political risk of initiating a new diplomatic effort with Iran that goes beyond the current nuclear talks.

2. Syria: Is ‘Revolutionary Patience’ Sustainable?

Syria’s escalating bloodbath hasn’t changed the Obama Administration’s reluctance to consider direct military intervention to topple President Bashar Assad’s regime. While Turkey has pushed for a U.S.-led military operation to create a protected zone on Syrian territory for refugees and rebel fighters, and Qatar has pushed for a Libya-style “no-fly zone” and even intervention by Arab troops, others opposed to Assad — including a number of Syrian opposition groups, and also Egypt’s President Mohamed Morsy — reject foreign military intervention. Of course, Morsy may not include Arab intervention under the “foreign” rubric — one of his aides on Sunday, responding to a Qatari call for an Arab military intervention, said “Egypt is ready to take part in an Arab intervention in Syria as long as this would not be used as an excuse for international intervention.” But such a proposal may not be realistic absent U.S. involvement, given the capabilities of the countries that would support it.

While the rebels and the regime appear committed to a fight to the finish, the question facing international players is whether to push for a halt to the violence and an imperfect political process or escalate backing for their preferred sides in a fight to the finish. Obama last week called for the ouster of “a dictator who massacres his own people” but offered no ideas on how to achieve that goal. “We must remain engaged to assure that what began with citizens demanding their rights does not end in a cycle of sectarian violence,” he warned, stressing one of the key dangers restraining Washington from more direct intervention: the fact that Syria already appears to be descending into a sectarian civil war, which could make any intervention an open-ended quagmire. Instead, Obama vowed simply to support those Syrians fighting for an inclusive democratic future and imposing sanctions on those responsible for repression.

(PHOTOS: Syria’s Slow-Motion Civil War)

The U.S. has until now avoided both direct intervention and also international efforts — like those recommended by former U.N. envoy Kofi Annan — to broker a compromise agreement involving the regime’s key backer, Iran. Instead, the Administration appears to be adopting a long-range strategy in which the tightening noose of sanctions and grinding attrition of an insurgency that can’t be crushed eventually bring down the regime, probably some time next year.

But that time frame may be more than Syria’s neighbors are willing to take, with Turkey under growing strain as a result of the burgeoning refugee crisis, internal sectarian tension and the emergence of a hostile Kurdish rebel zone inside Syria. Ankara fears that a protracted war scenario harks back to the effort to support Afghan mujahedin against the Soviet-backed regime in the 1980s. “President Obama prefers to go down the path of a long drawn-out struggle, like Afghanistan in the 1980s,” analyst Bulent Aliriza of Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies told the Financial Times last week. “But that’s not good enough for Turkey. It does not want to be like Pakistan, which became the forward base for the Afghan rebels. If that were to happen, it could confront all the pressures that Pakistan faced and from which it has never recovered.”

And last Thursday’s announcement by the U.N.’s refugee agency that as many as 700,000 Syrians will have fled to neighboring countries by the end of this year underscores the burden such a timescale will impose. Cross-border insurgency inevitably emboldens like-minded radicals in neighboring countries, as Lebanon and Iraq have already discovered.

No new ideas emerged in Friday’s Friends of Syria confab convened by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in New York City, while President Morsy’s proposed contact group comprising Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran has yet to gain any traction. But the strain of a protracted war on Syria’s U.S.-allied neighbors could force them to put a choice before the winner of November’s U.S. presidential election: either intervene quickly and decisively to settle matters or accept that the urgency of stopping the war may require an imperfect, even unpalatable compromise.

MORE: Despite Syria’s Bloodbath, Libya-Style Intervention Remains Unlikely

3. The Palestinians: Forgotten in Washington, Still an Arab Priority

A drinking game for teetotalers might mandate downing a shot every time the word Palestinian is uttered on the U.S. presidential campaign trail. And last week at the U.N., Prime Minister Netanyahu devoted barely a sentence to the plight of the Palestinians, and then to simply bat aside the appeals of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas for U.N. intervention to set terms for a two-state solution. Netanyahu has largely succeeded in his three-year effort to put Iran’s nuclear program at the center of Washington’s Middle East policy, at the expense of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Obama, in his own speech, hardly gave the issue any more attention than Netanyahu did, and then only to reiterate an anodyne exhortation to the two sides to work together for peace.

But Egypt’s President Morsy, a key voice of an emerging postdictatorship Arab public, presented an opposite set of priorities. He made clear that Egypt expects Iran to abide by its NPT obligations to demonstrate the peaceful character of its nuclear program — which it is currently failing to do — but in the same breath made clear that the Arab world also demands that Israel sign on to the agreement and embrace the effort to achieve a nuclear-weapons-free Middle East. (Israel is in no hurry to do either.) Even Hosni Mubarak’s regime had taken the same position, much to the chagrin of the Israelis and the U.S. The Arab public, Gulf monarchies notwithstanding, appears unwilling to support an Iran policy that protects an Israeli monopoly of nuclear force in the region.

(PHOTOS: Palestinians Take to the West Bank’s Streets in Protest)

Nor are they willing to accept that realizing Palestinian aspirations must be postponed until Israel elects a government more willing to accommodate them. Morsy made clear that the U.S. credibility in Arab eyes will be judged first and foremost on Washington’s willingness to act in support of achieving Palestinian national goals — an intention Obama had signaled in Cairo in 2009, but then effectively abandoned at the end of the following year in the face of Netanyahu’s defiance and mounting domestic pressure.

Washington is only able to ignore the Palestinians to the extent that their leaders are willing to play along by sustaining the impression that they believe the goal of ending Israel’s occupation of lands conquered in 1967 will be achieved under U.S. tutelage. Until now, despite his exasperation and disappointment, Abbas has declined to blow the final whistle on a peace process that effectively ground to a halt a decade ago. Abbas warned in his own speech that Israel’s responses had made clear that waiting for the two sides to agree among themselves while Israel continues to expand the grip of its occupation was to accept failure of the two-state solution. He insisted that only the U.N. Security Council prescribing the parameters for negotiating such a solution would save it.

But international enforcement of a two-state solution against Israel’s will is not an option any U.S. government is likely to embrace for the foreseeable future. If Abbas goes ahead with his threat to take matters directly to the General Assembly, and signals that Washington is no longer doing anything useful for the Palestinians, the White House will find itself diplomatically isolated and pressed to take steps that carry considerable domestic political cost. The problem is that Abbas has a domestic political problem too: a restive population sensing the winds of change blowing across the Arab world and increasingly unwilling to abide by the strictures of an authoritarian Palestinian Authority that has been reduced to being an administrative arm of the status quo.

Events on the ground may yet conspire to make it impossible for the next White House to keep the Israeli-Palestinian issue on the back burner — or the deep freeze, as the case may be.

MORE: Never Mind the Democrats’ Jerusalem Kerfuffle, Where’s the Peace Process?

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.

(PHOTOS: A Long and Distant War: Photos from Afghanistan, 1988–2009)

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.

(PHOTOS: Protests Rage in Middle East, Sparked by Anti-Islamic Film)

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?

  1. Previous
  2. 1
  3. 2
  4. 3