Over the next four years the U.S. will face a number of foreign policy issues, most of them regional, some of them global. Dispatches From The Edge will try to outline and analyze them, starting with the Middle East.
The most immediate problem in the region is the on-going civil war in Syria, a conflict with local and international ramifications. The war-which the oppressive regime of Bashar al-Assad ignited by its crushing of pro-democracy protests- has drawn in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, Iran, and the monarchies of the Persian Gulf, in particular Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The United States, France, and Great Britain are also heavily involved in the effort to overthrow the Assad government.
The war has killed more than 30,000 people and generated several hundred thousand refugees, who have flooded into Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq. It has also badly damaged relations between Turkey and Iran. The former supports the insurrection, the latter supports the Assad regime. Pitting Shite Iran (and to a certain extent, Shite Iraq and the Shite-based Hezbollah in Lebanon) against the largely Sunni Muslim opposition has sharpened sectarian tensions throughout the region.
The war itself appears to be a stalemate. So far, the regime's army remains loyal, but seems unable to defeat the insurrection. The opposition, however, is deeply splintered and ranges from democratic nationalists to extremist jihadist groups. The U.S. and Britain are trying to weld this potpourri into a coherent political opposition, but so far the attempts have floundered on a multiplicity of different and conflicting agendas by the opponents of the Assad regime.
Efforts by the United Nations (UN) to find a peaceful solution have been consistently torpedoed, because the opposition and its allies insist on regime change. The goal of overthrowing the government makes this a fight to the death and leaves little room for political maneuvering. A recent ceasefire failed, in part, because jihadist groups supported by Qatar and Saudi Arabia refused to abide by it and set off several car bombs in the capital. The Sunni extremism of these groups is whipping up sectarian divisions among the various sects of Islam.
There are a number of things the Obama administration could do to alleviate the horrors of the current civil war.
First, it should drop the demand for regime change, although this does not necessarily mean that President Assad will remain in power. What must be avoided is the kind of regime change that the war in Libya ushered in. Libya has essentially become a failed state, and the spinoff from that war is wreaking havoc in countries that border the Sahara, Mali being a case in point. In the end, Assad may go, but to dismantle the Baathist government is to invite the kind of sectarian and political chaos that the dissolution of the Baathist regime in Iraq produced.
Second, if the U.S. and its allies are enforcing an arms embargo against Assad's government, they must insist on the same kind of embargo on arms sent to the rebels by Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
Third, China and Russia should be asked to negotiate a ceasefire and organize a conference aimed at producing a political settlement and transition government. China recently proposed a four-point peace plan that could serve as a starting point for talks. A recent Assad government controlled newspaper, Al Thawra, suggested the Damascus regime would be open to such negotiations. A key aspect to such talks would be a guarantee that no outside power would undermine them.
The conflict that will not speak its name-or at least that is the way the current impasse between Israel and the Palestinians was treated during the 2012 U.S. elections. But as U.S. Gen. James Mattis, head of U.S. Central Command, the military formation responsible for the Middle East, said last spring, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is a "pre-eminent flame that keeps the pot boiling in the Middle East, particularly as the Arab Awakening causes Arab governments to be more responsive to the sentiments of their populations" that support the Palestinians.
Rather than moving toward a solution, however, the government of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu recently announced yet another round of settlement building. There are approximately 500,000 Jewish settlers currently on the West Bank and East Jerusalem, although all such settlements are a violation of international law. While Netanyahu says he wants negotiations, he continues to build settlements, which is like negotiating over how to divide a pizza while one of the parties is eating it.
Proposals to annex the West Bank, once the program of far-right settlers, have gone mainstream. A conference this past July in the West Bank city of Hebron drew more than 500 Israelis who reject the idea of a Palestinian state. The gathering included a number of important Likud Party officials and members of the Knesset. Likud is Netanyahu's party and currently leads the Israeli government.
"Friends, everybody here today knows that there is a solution-applying sovereignty [over the West Bank]. One state for the Jewish people with an Arab minority," Likud Knesset member Tzipi Hotovely told the audience.
Conference organizer Yehudit Katsover put the matter bluntly "We're all here to say one thing: the land of Israel belongs to the Jewish people. Why? Because!"
A major argument against absorbing the West Bank, is that it would dilute the Jewish character of Israel and threaten the country's democratic institutions. "As long as in this territory west of the Jordan River there is only one political entity called Israel it is going to be either non-Jewish or non-democratic," Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak argues. "If this bloc of millions of Palestinians cannot vote, that will be an apartheid state."
But right-wing conference goers dismissed that argument because they reject that there is a demographic threat from the Palestinians. According to The Times of Israel, former ambassador to the U.S., Yoram Ettinger, told the crowd that estimates of the Palestinian population are based on "Palestinian incompetence or lying" and that there are actually a million fewer than the official population count.
Legal expert Yitzhak Bam said he expected there would be no fallout from the Americans if Israel unilaterally annexed the West Bank, since Washington did not protest the 1981 annexation of the Golan Heights from Syria. Both areas were conquered in the 1967 War.
The Times reporter Raphael Ahern writes that that the conference reflects "The annexationists are growing in confidence, demanding in outspoken fashion what they always dreamed of but have never dared to say quite so publically."
The expanding settlements are rapidly making the possibility of a viable two-state solution impossible. Eventually there will be no pizza left to divide.
The Obama administration has dropped the ball on this issue and needs to re-engage, lest the "pot" boil over.
First, the Tel Aviv government needs to be told that all settlement expansion must cease, and that failure to do so will result in a suspension of aid. At about $3.4 billion a year, Israel is the U.S.'s number one foreign aid recipient.
Second, the U.S. must stop blocking efforts by the Palestinians for UN recognition.
Third, negotiations must cover not only the West Bank and Gaza, but also the status of East Jerusalem. The latter is the engine of the Palestinian economy, and without it a Palestinian state would not be viable.
The immediate danger of a war with Iran appears to have slightly receded, although the Israelis are always a bit of a wild card. First, the Obama administration explicitly rejected Netanyahu's "red line" that would trigger an attack on Teheran. The Israeli prime minister argues that Iran must not be allowed to achieve the "capacity" to produce nuclear weapons, a formulation that would greatly lower the threshold for an assault. Second, there are persistent rumors that the U.S. and Iran are exploring one-on-one talks, and it appears that some forces within Iran that support talks-specifically former president Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani- are in the ascendency.
Netanyahu continues to threaten war, but virtually his entire military and intelligence apparatus is opposed to a unilateral strike. Israeli intelligence is not convinced that Iran is building a bomb, and the Israeli military doesn't think it has the forces or weapons to do the job of knocking out Iran's nuclear infrastructure. Polls also indicate overwhelming opposition among the Israeli public for a unilateral attack. This doesn't mean Netanyahu won't attack Iran, just that the danger does not seem immediate. If Israel should choose to launch a war, the Obama administration should make it clear that Tel Aviv is on its own.
U.S. intelligence and the Pentagon are pretty much on the same page as the Israelis regarding Iran's nuclear program. Even with its powerful military, U.S. generals are not convinced that an attack would accomplish much more than delaying Iran's program by from three to five years. At least at this point, the Pentagon would rather talk than fight. "We are under the impression that the Iranian regime is a rational actor," says Gen. Martin Dempsey, chair of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff. Polls also indicate that nearly 70 percent of the American public favors negotiations over war.
In short, a lot of ducks are now in a row to cut a deal.
However, the US cannot make uranium enhancement a red line. Iran has the right to enhance nuclear fuel under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and as long as inspectors are in place-as they currently are-it is virtually impossible to create bomb-level fuel in secret.
Not only has intelligence failed to show that Iran is creating a nuclear weapons program, the country's leader has explicitly rejected such a step. "The Iranian nation has never pursued and will never pursue nuclear weapons," says the country's supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei, calling nuclear weapons "a great and unforgivable sin." The Iranian government has also indicated that it will take part in a UN-sponsored conference in Helsinki to create a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East.
The Obama administration should endorse this effort to abolish nuclear weapons in the Middle East, although this will force it to confront the only nuclear power in the Middle East, Israel. Israel is not a NPT signatory and is thought to have some 200 nuclear weapons. Such a monopoly cannot long endure. The argument that Israel needs nuclear weapons because it is so outnumbered in the region is nonsense. Israel has by far the strongest military in the Middle East and powerful protectors in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). While Egypt and Syria did attack Israel in 1973, it was to recover territories seized by Tel Aviv in the 1967 war, not an attempt to destroy the country. And that was almost 40 years ago. Since then Israel has invaded Lebanon twice and Gaza once. Countries in the region fear Israel, not visa-a-versa.
While the White House has recently eased restrictions on the sale of critical medicines to Iran, the sanctions are taking a terrible toll on the economy and the average Iranian. So far, the US has not explicitly said it will remove the sanctions if talks are showing real progress. Since no one likes negotiating with a gun to the head-in this regard Iranians are no different than Americans-there should be some good faith easing of some of the more onerous restrictions, like those on international banking and oil sales.
Lastly, the option of war needs to be taken off the table. Threatening to bomb people in order to get them not to produce nuclear weapons will almost certainly spur Iran (and other countries) to do exactly the opposite. A war with Iran would also be illegal. The British attorney general recently informed the Parliament that an attack on Iran would violate international law, because Iran does not pose a "clear and present danger," and recommended that the US not be allowed to use the British-controlled island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean to launch such an attack.
Because US relies on the energy resources of the Persian Gulf countries, as well as strategic basing rights, it is unlikely that the Obama administration will challenge the foreign and domestic policies of its allies in the region. But then Washington should not pretend that its policies there have anything to do with promoting democracy.
The countries that make up the Gulf Cooperation Council, led by Qatar and Saudi Arabia, are monarchies that not only suppress dissent but also systematically oppress women and minorities and, in the case of Bahrain, the Shite majority. The extreme jihadist organizations that the countries of the Gulf fund and arm are destabilizing governments across the region and throughout Central Asia. Washington may bemoan extremism in Pakistan, but its Gulf allies can claim the lion's share of the credit for nurturing the groups responsible for that extremism.
The Gulf Council is not interested in promoting democracy-indeed, political pluralism is one of its greatest enemies, nor does it have much interest in the modern world, aside from fancy cars and personal jet planes. This past summer Saudi Arabia executed a man for possessing "books and talismans from which he learned to harm God's worshippers," and last year beheaded a man and a woman for witchcraft.
Lastly, the Obama administration should repudiate the 1979 Carter Doctrine that allows the US to use military force to guarantee access to energy resources in the Middle East. That kind of thinking went out with 19th century gunboats and hangs like the Damocles Sword over any country in the region that might decide to carve out an independent policy on politics and energy.
This article originally appeared on the author's blog, Dispatches from the Edge. Photo: President Barack Obama talks with his Middle East team. At center is Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who will step down next term. (Pete Souza/White House)