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The Next US President and the Middle East: Agenda for Gulf Security, Syria and Iraq

The flaws of President Obama’s approaches to the Middle East are clear to almost everyone, if only by their results. The President used rhetoric to replace trust in his diplomacy, all the while failing to understand that for diplomacy to work, it has to be given a concrete foundation on the US’s ability to persuade, pressure, and implement.

Failure to address problems in an early stage, then defending this failure as the right thing to do, turned those problems into an unmanageable crisis and exacerbated their negative impact on US interests and regional security. Instead of admitting mistakes, we heard unintelligible terms like “leading from behind” or blaming everyone else but the administration, just to reveal the gap between rhetoric and capacity.

However, all the mistakes stem from one source: The lack of a grand strategy. Failed tactics have reached absurd levels during the last few years. We have seen a President who spent several million dollars to train fifty Syrian fighters, all of whom later vanished. We have seen a President who compares ISIL to an unimportant sports team then send US soldiers to fight it. All those comic moments came from the original absence of an articulated view of what US strategy, globally speaking, should be.

This approach gave us a picture of delayed and reactive responses, failed diplomacy, and erosion of US global interests, particularly in the Middle East. The problem of terrorism continues to grow unchecked, Russia and Iran have kept pushing the limits of the global order to test US resolve while the President remained unmoved, failed states or quasi failed states have mushroomed, attempts to reshape the world have increased at the expense of the West and global stability, allies do not trust the US in the same way they used to, partnerships are weaker, and even small-time thugs like Bashar al-Assad are openly challenging a retreating US that often forgets what it has said. The US is certainly losing ground in the region, and is threatened in the Baltic region and East Asia, and the world order has come under tough tests.  

It is true that the US cannot fix the problems of the Middle East. After all, those who keep repeating this mantra seem to be talking to themselves. No one ever suggested that the US can fix all the cultural, governance, economic, social, and political troubles deeply rooted in history. No one even wants the US to impose a Washington lab-prepared remedy and force it down the throat of a region as old as written history.

In general terms, “what is desired” is that the US works with allies to preserve stability, where minting stability is possible. The naïve objective of getting things to an imagined “end-state” presupposes that there is such an “end-state” in a region going through historic transformation.

Rather, the objective should be based on a long-term view that begins with managing and shaping this transformation in a way that limits the spread of instability. Stability must become the organizing principle for the next President. Moving to reduce instability should be swift and fast. Time and hesitation are the worst allies in the rapid and consecutive twists and turns of a region built on quicksand.

Accepting the mantra that “the US cannot fix the problems of the Middle East” should not be allowed to magically develop to a defense of the “do nothing” policy. It is not either all or nothing. The world is not perfect and the US should not see its mission in any messianic terms to make it perfect.

The marriage of stability and change is particularly difficult in the Middle East. While the US can play a role in enhancing stability, all its past attempts to bring change have ended in instability. Shouldn’t this repeated failure make administrations think about the shortcomings in their approaches?

The balance between stability and change should strongly tilt towards stability under the current conditions in the Middle East. Would that require supporting regimes that share little with the US values? Yes, it would. Change is the responsibility of the region’s people, not of anyone else. If those people do not create it, they will not defend it.

Yet fixed, engraved-in-stone principles are characteristic of dead strategies. A plan needs to be flexible, as the military strategists say, a plan is made to be changed. In many cases, the US can lend a helping hand to forces of change once they prove their merits and capabilities. One of the badly needed areas that needs encouragement is that of attempts by some Muslim scholars to develop a critical approach to the version of Islam commonly adopted by extremists.

Still, a view of what should be done in the Middle East in the immediate future remains urgent. Here are some thoughts:

Iran:

Tehran has a choice to make: either to live like a normal country and tackle the problems within its own borders, or continue its attempts to expand its influence in the region.

In order to convince the Ayatollahs to stop their persistence in testing their limits, probe and sense reactions, and erode further any prospects of stability in the region, the next US President, in partnership with regional allies, should make it a costly endeavor for them to interfere. Making such tactics fruitless, or at least not very profitable, for the Iranians is a powerful practical argument, as it provides support to the moderates in their domestic power struggle .

This requires enhancing Gulf Arab countries’ security, and moving swiftly against Iranian-supported insurgencies. Iran’s intervention in other countries’ affairs should not go unpunished.

Iran should be rewarded for ending its intervention and support of terrorism, and punished if it continues this policy. The central point here is behavior. The nuclear deal is understandably defended by its supporters as an agreement that prevents Tehran from possessing a major tool of extortion and blackmail, or instigating a nuclear race in the region. Yet, the very same deal has furthered Iran’s aggressive behavior. While the deal was presented as a means to curb Iranian adventurism, the underlying problem of Tehran’s behavior grew more complicated since it was signed without addressing the reasons Iran wanted to possess a nuclear bomb – that is, without addressing how it views itself and its regional role. The nuclear deal rewarded Iran for its defiant policy and gave it more fuel to continue this policy unabated.

Gulf Cooperation Council:

The foundation of diplomacy is trust. Friends have to trust that you will keep your commitments, and foes have to trust that you follow through on your red lines. For 16 years, this foundation has received one blow after another. We can detail numerous meetings held in 2012 and 2013 between US officials, representatives of Gulf countries, and the Syrian opposition during which commitments were given only to be neglected later.

Even in the realm of direct commitments related to GCC security, several promises have been breached. Trust has to be re-established through swift action to prove to the US’s regional allies that the new administration is serious about following through on what it has expressed in words with concrete action.

The GCC has to see that the US is seriously mindful of threats to the member countries’ security and stability. A candid and honest discussion with their leaders is of paramount importance early on in the new President’s first term. Practical steps to fulfill US commitments should follow quickly, so that Gulf Arab leaders sense that something has changed in Washington’s policy.

Dialogue for the sake of dialogue is meaningless. Dialogues should lead to something practical or else they will become an unproductive protocol. The US does not have to agree with all Arab policies, just as the Arabs are not required to accept all US policies. But differences have to be managed in a way that keeps them under the umbrella of the two sides’ core interests.

Egypt and Turkey:

The two countries are close allies of the US, yet they are nearly enemies of each other. The main principle here is that the stability of both is integral to US interests in the region. Many aspects of the domestic policies of the two countries are currently under fire, for understandable reasons. But it is only the Egyptians and the Turks who have the right to sort out their problems and decide their paths.

Domestic policies are internal affairs. From the US perspective, those policies are objectionable when they run against US interests or when they encroach grotesquely upon international agreements and norms. However, the US needs to consider how it expresses reservations about these policies with a view to their impact on the stability of each country.

President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi should be aided in his uphill struggle to rebuild the economy of his country all the while talking to him frankly about whatever reservations there are. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan should be aided in confronting terrorism within his borders. In these two areas, it is important for the US to provide as much help as it can, as it would also serve its own regional interests.

Iraq and Syria:

The cardinal aims in both Iraq and Syria are: 1. To preserve the state; 2- To preserve territorial integrity.

However, to reach those objectives, the road leads through some odd ups and downs. In Syria, there is no chance of preserving the state or reaching any reasonable degree of sustainable stability without a political solution that rids the country of the current political mafia in Damascus. Even the most optimistic observers do not see how to combine Assad as a head of the state and future stability.

Assad opposes any political solution that leads to his ouster. That does not mean abandoning the political track; it means that a reasonable political solution, which aims to create a relatively sustainable stability in Syria, is unattainable through the current proposals and in the process’s current configuration. It is only through proposing a solution that aims at creating sustainable peace that such a peace can be reached. This entails modifying the current balance of power on the ground to get Assad to listen.

The diplomatic road should be kept open. But it should not turn into the primary road for the time being. It is being tried out to no avail. For diplomacy to reach its objectives, it should be based on reasonable and realistic grounds.

In Iraq, we have repeatedly criticized how President Obama squandered US assets in the Central part of the country. ISIL grew in the vacuum and the US had to start over again in gathering those assets, but against the backdrop of neglecting them throughout Obama’s 8 years.

Those assets are extremely valuable. They are “the forces on the ground” that the President, who abandoned them, keeps lecturing everyone about, as an empty and unrealized concept of reducing US burdens.

For the US to influence any situation, it has to have leverages or else we will see again another John Kerry who, standing virtually on nothing, turns out like the Secretary of State who is trying to reinvent the foundations of American foreign policy.

Russia in the Middle East:

Russia and Iran keep testing the limits of US responses, establishing a pattern for their subsequent encroachment. If the US makes a display of intent, which it did when getting ready to bomb Assad for his use of chemical weapons, for example, they then step back. However, as if to remind us that the US’s threat was merely a storm in a clear sky, Assad resumed manufacturing chemical weapons the moment the international community took away his initial arsenal.

The next US President has a heavy load to deal with. The first task needs to be repairing the damage caused by 16 years of failed Middle East policies.        

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