Saturday, November 17, 2012

The Obama Victory, the Arab Spring and Addressing the Spreading Crises in the Middle East

Barack Obama's victory in the 2012 presidential elections provides the opportunity for new openings and policy initiatives in the Middle East.  Given the region 's current instability - the most pronounced in modern times - the Obama administration faces the daunting task of addressing multiple crises.  What direction should US foreign policy take during President Obama's second term?  

The onset of the Arab Spring in Tunisia in December 2010 suggested that the region might be moving in a new positive, democratic direction.  While democratic governments have been elected in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, far from becoming more stable, the Middle East is currently facing an  unprecedented set of crises.

Israel and Iran stand on the brink of war; Syria is engulfed in a civil war that has produced an unprecedented level of violence, even by regional standards; Israel and Hamas are locked in a series of  attacks and counter-attacks which could not only lead to a major war, but jeopardize the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty; Jordan is facing riots over rising food and gasoline prices that threaten to escalate into calls for the overthrow of the Hashimite monarchy; the Libyan government cannot control an increasingly lawless network of militias; sectarian tensions are on the rise in Iraq; and Turkey is facing an increasingly restive Kurdish population.

What is worse is the interactive or mutually reinforcing effect of these crises.  The Syrian civil war has spilled into Lebanon with fighting between Sunnis and Alawites in Tripoli and the assassination of the country's chief of national security.  In Iraq, Shiite fighters have gone to Syria to protect an important shrine in Damascus and support the Asad regime, while some Sunni Arabs have joined anti-Asad forces. Meanwhile, Iran is supplying Syria with weapons and military advisers.

Israel accuses Iran of supporting Hamas and views Gaza as the front line of Iran's effort to destroy it.  Egypt and Jordan face pressures from their respective populaces to support Hamas and adopt a harder line towards Israel.  If the Hamas rockets and Israeli attacks on Gaza continue, Hizballah could be drawn into the conflict with new rocket attacks of its own raining down on northern Israel.

Syria's civil war has led the Kurdish population in the northeast to effectively declare independence from the central government.  Syria's Kurds are largely supportive of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) which is considered a terrorist organization by the Turkish government.  Many Syrian Kurds  have migrated to Iraqi Kurdistan where Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) president Masoud Barzani is supplying them with training and arms.  The Arab Spring has emboldened the Kurds to push for autonomy if not a Pan-Kurdish state that would unite Turkish, Syrian and Iraqi Kurds.

Because PKK attacks have risen dramatically recently, Ankara has indicated that it reserves the right to attack Kurds inside Syria if they give support to Kurdish guerrilla forces.  Thus the conflict in Syria threatens to draw Turkey into the regional conflict.  Of course, Turkey has been a supporter of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) which is fighting the Asad regime.  However, many Syrian Kurds are suspicious of the FSA because it is overwhelmingly an Arab force and because the Syrian opposition has not indicated that it would give the Kurds greater autonomy in a post-Asad Syria.

Where does this highly dangerous state of affairs leave US foreign policy?  As the debates over the impending "fiscal cliff" indicate, the US is no longer the global power that it once was.   Budgetary constraints, a weak economy and our continued military presence in Afghanistan prevent the US from becoming involved in an protracted military conflict in the Middle East.  After Iraq and Afghanistan, Americans have no appetite for a new war.

Clearly, the Obama administration needs to push for an international approach to solving the problems of the Middle East.  First, the US should address the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.  With Palestine National Authority (PNA) president Mahmoud Abbas having stated unequivocally that he supports a two-state solution within the borders that resulted from the June 1967 Arab-Israeli War, now is the time to put pressure on both sides to come to the bargaining table.

Such an effort would be strengthened if the European Union, Turkey, and Egypt were actively involved in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.  Egypt and Turkey need to convince Hamas not to act as a "spoiler" to any forward movement on an Israeli-Palestinian accord.  Is not the recent violence that Hamas initiated partially a response to Abbas' recently stated willingness to recognize Israel's right to exist within its pre-1967 borders?

The US and EU need to pressure the Netanyahu government to sit down with the PNA to negotiate a serious agreement.  This would entail an immediate halt to the construction of new Israeli settlements on the West Bank, a commitment by the PNA to continue its prevention of attacks on Israel, an agreement to allow East Jerusalem to become the capital of a new Palestinian state, security guarantees which would include a PNA commitment to having the new Palestinian state be de-militarized, and land swaps which would allow Israel to keep settlements that ring Jerusalem but which would compensate the Palestinians with land from other parts of Israel, probably from the Negev Desert in the south.

The settlement issue is the most difficult to resolve in any Israeli-Palestinian deal. However, a process which has already begun by former settlers to purchase the homes and property of settlers and convince them move back to Israel, i.e., within its pre-1967 borders, could be expanded with funds from the US and the EU.  Here US allies in the region such as Saudi Arabia and the Arab Gulf states could help by providing funding for this effort.  Clearly, resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, which will promote regional stability, is in their interests as well.

For Egypt's help in constraining Hamas, the US should pressure Saudi Arabia and the Arab Gulf states to give the new Muhammad Mursi government funds that could be used to generate new economic development and jobs for Egyptian youth.  The US and EU should offer Turkey assistance in solving its problems with its rapidly growing Kurdish population by pressuring Masoud Barzani and the KRG not to support any effort to create a Pan-Kurdish state.  Instead the KRG should commit to improving the lot of the Kurds in Turkey and Syria but within federally designated regions such as the Iraqi Kurds currently enjoy within a federal Iraq.

Russia and China need to be assured that US efforts to resolve the Israel-Palestine dispute and to develop closer ties with Egypt and Turkey are not intended to marginalize them in the Middle East. Expanded bi-lateral contacts, and perhaps a NATO-Russian summit and a US-EU-China meeting as well, could be used to better determine what constructive role these two powers would like to play in the Middle East in the near and long-term.

The US will need to continue to hold together the international sanctions regime on Iran so long as it does not commit to allowing inspections of what it calls its nuclear energy program.  While the sanctions should remain stringent, following Farid Zakaria's suggestion, "carrots" and not just "sticks" should be offered to entice the Iranian regime to forego efforts to develop nuclear weapons.  Not only would such weapons threaten Israel, they would lead to a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, further undermining the region's stability 

Working with the EU, Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Arab Gulf states, Brazil, India, and Indonesia, the US should develop a Middle East Development Fund, akin to the Marshall Plan developed after WW II.  Saudi Arabia and the Arab Gulf states could provide some of its funding.  The fund could provide technical human resources to help promote new investment and economic development.  One outcome would be to provide jobs for the large youth demographic which populates all states in the MENA region, thereby undermining support for radical political organizations.

The Obama administration should launch an all out public diplomacy offensive.  Organizing a series of high profile conferences that would bring together religious leaders from the Arab world, Turkey, Israel, the EU and the US, who emphasize the positive and moderating role religion can play in the Middle East, would go a long way towards demonstrating the West's concern for the region's well being.

Similar conferences held in the Middle East, Europe and the US could bring together a wide range of NGOs, including youth groups, women's organizations, civil society associations and conflict resolution organizations.   Such conferences could focus on developing long-term plans designed to offset the appeals of radical groups in the MENA region, especially among youth.

The Obama administration needs to base its post-election foreign policy in the Middle East on two criteria:  bold initiatives, on the one hand, and internationalizing our efforts in the region, on the other.  Bold initiatives is another way of saying that US foreign policy must view the crises of the MENA region as interrelated parts of a larger and complex problem.  Internationalizing US foreign policy means bringing out national interests in the region as much a possible in line with those of existing and potential allies.  Our successful efforts in overthrowing the Qaddafi regime Libya provides an example of how an internationally based foreign policy in the Middle East should become the new normal.

The spread of Islamism throughout the MENA region should not be viewed as a threat to US interests but rather as a challenge that could enhance the interests both of the US and the peoples of the region. A democratic Islamism is far more beneficial to the Middle East and the West, than the authoritarian regimes that ruled Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen.  In the end democracy, the core goal of the Arab Spring, is key to transforming the Middle East from the most unstable region in the world into one that can achieve its great but as yet untapped potential.

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