US soldier Iraq wild west 224.88.
(photo credit: AP [file])
The next US head of state will be a wartime president. Developments in the Middle East almost guarantee that either John McCain or Barack Obama will have to manage one or more wars involving the US or its allies in the region.
The challenges posed by the Middle East are legion: "fragile and reversible" security in Iraq; military fallout from a possible IDF strike on Iran's nuclear program; the destabilizing consequences of a nuclear breakout by the Islamic Republic; a new round of violence between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority - this time in the West Bank; an Israeli military intervention in Gaza to halt renewed rocket attacks, preempt a Hamas military buildup, or crush the nascent Hamas government there; and the possibility of a second Hizbullah-Israeli war.
Given these realities, the US must engage the region to an unprecedented extent to avert or deter those wars that are avoidable, and to prevail (or ensure the success of its allies) in those that prove inescapable.
The next administration's key challenge in Iraq will be to preserve and expand the security gains of the 2007 US military "surge," and to translate those gains into enduring political achievements through relatively free and fair elections in 2009.
Accomplishing this and preserving US influence, while gradually drawing down forces to deal with a resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan, pose major challenges.
For the next few years, the potential for renewed violence in Iraq is high due to a number of unsettled issues: resentment from Sons of Iraq militias due to their exclusion from the country's security forces; the eventual return of Muqtada al-Sadr's Shi'ite Mahdi Army special groups from abroad; the lifting of the Mahdi Army's freeze on military operations; and tensions between Kurds and Arabs in Mosul, Kirkuk and Diyala provinces.
Preventing resurgent violence will require continued American engagement at the local, regional and national levels, and the use of available US leverage to forestall or contain outbreaks of violence.
This will not depend entirely on the size of the American military presence. In fact, the US will gain leverage through its ability to maintain working relations with all major political currents and parties in Iraq, including Sadrists; the credibility of threats to withhold military support at vital junctures in order to secure key US objectives; a willingness and ability to publicize credible evidence of Iranian interference in Iraq and of collaboration between Iran and prominent Iraqi politicians; and assisting emerging political forces, particularly those supportive of a continued US role in Iraq, such as the Awakening Councils, to secure a formal role in the Iraqi political system in forthcoming elections.
The last point could provide the basis for a blocking coalition in the Iraqi parliament involving the Awakening Councils, secular nationalists such as former interim prime minister Ayad Allawi, independents and perhaps under certain circumstances even the major Kurdish parties. This coalition could check Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's growing power or provide Maliki with the foundation for a new governing coalition if he desires to free himself of his dependence on the Islamic Supreme Council in Iraq.
Iran: Two minutes to midnight?
At the current reported rate of processing, Iran might have enough low enriched uranium by late 2009 for its first bomb (although the uranium would require further enrichment and would have to go through several additional steps before it could be turned into a weapon).
Given its concerns about the threat and doubts about diplomacy, Israel might order a preventive strike before then on Teheran's nuclear installations. The next US administration must consider the possibility that Israel might act contrary to Washington's apparent wishes by striking at Iran's nuclear infrastructure, just as it did when it bombed Syria's nuclear reactor at al-Kibar in September 2007.
Accordingly, the next administration should prepare a public response that neither explicitly disavows nor identifies itself with the Israeli action. Washington should also be prepared to take measures to contain a violent Iranian response and to deter retaliatory strikes against US interests.
Iran's progress toward acquiring nuclear weapon capabilities is already transforming the regional security environment in ways inimical to US interests. Egypt, Jordan, Turkey and the Gulf Cooperative Council states have all indicated that they are considering building up their civilian nuclear infrastructure, a possible first step toward developing a weapons capability.
And Iran's acquisition of "the bomb," which could well occur during the tenure of the next American president, could profoundly destabilize the region, enhancing the potential for miscalculation and conflict.
The next administration should therefore exploit the "presidential honeymoon" and the favorable conditions created by lower oil prices (which are putting pressure on the Iranian economy) to place the highest priority on multilateral diplomatic efforts to resolve the standoff.
Although time is of the essence, the US should avoid public advances toward Iran prior to the country's June 2009 presidential elections because Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad might claim credit for any diplomatic progress, thus increasing his electoral prospects.
As such, Washington should quietly approach intermediaries to sound out Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, prior to the Islamic Republic's presidential elections to determine if there is any basis for serious, public contacts or negotiations in the immediate aftermath of the elections, and if Teheran would be willing to suspend enrichment for the duration of these talks.
Meanwhile, the US should once again try to marshal a broader coalition and wield bigger carrots and sticks in support of a new diplomatic initiative or, if diplomacy fails, to further ratchet up the pressure on Iran. Finally, if diplomacy fails, Washington needs to revisit its own military options and review plans for containing the political and military fallout from an Israeli preventive strike.
The US should also roll out plans for a regional security framework to contain and deter a nuclear Iran, which will make the point that acquiring nuclear weapons will harm, rather than help, the Islamic Republic's security.
Palestinian civil war: Round two?
Upon taking office, the next US administration may well find itself in the midst of a Palestinian political crisis, and perhaps even a new round of Palestinian civil violence. The term of PA President Mahmoud Abbas expires on January 9, and he has indicated that he plans to stay on for another year, basing his position on an amendment to the PA Elections Law that requires presidential and parliamentary elections to occur at the same time (the latter are not scheduled until January 2010).
Hamas, however, claims that according to the PA's Basic Law, the speaker of parliament should succeed Abbas when his term runs out. Although Hamas and the PA may find a way to resolve this matter peacefully by January 9, it is also possible that if Abbas does not step down, Hamas might engage in assassinations, kidnappings, or violent demonstrations to loosen the PA's grip in the West Bank.
Accordingly, the new US administration must be prepared to support PA and Israeli efforts to quash Hamas-inspired violence in the West Bank. Providing political support to the PA and Israel and bolstering US efforts to build a professional and effective Palestinian security force will be vital to keep Hamas at bay in the West Bank in the short-run, and to bolster PA influence in the long-run.
In addition, ongoing efforts to define the general parameters of an Israeli-Palestinian final-status agreement are still important, even if implementation of such an deal has to be deferred to some indefinite future date.
Back to Gaza?
Another Arab-Israeli war is a near certainty in the next four years. The current Israeli-Hamas cease-fire is unlikely to last indefinitely, and Israel will eventually reenter Gaza to remove the rocket threat or to dismantle Hamas's terror and governmental infrastructure.
The priority now is to continue to enhance the capacity of the PA's military and civilian institutions to prevent a Hamas takeover of the West Bank. This will also be important if the IDF does reenter Gaza to crush Hamas, since it would be desirable if Israel could then hand over security responsibilities to the PA prior to its withdrawal.
The reform of Fatah and the PA will be a protracted process, and there is no guarantee of success. But if there is to be peace, it will be the result of bottom-up efforts to rebuild Fatah and the PA and to restore some degree of trust between Israelis and Palestinians, as well as top-down efforts to tackle the major stumbling blocks to a final-status agreement.
Disengagement from the conflict, however, is not an option, because if the US is not actively laying the groundwork for peaceful coexistence between the two sides, Hamas and Iran will work to preclude such an outcome.
Hizbullah and Israel: Round two?
In Lebanon, Hizbullah, with the help of Syria and Iran, has rebuilt its rocket forces - it had 13,000 on the eve of 2006's Second Lebanon War and has more than 30,000 now - in violation of UN Security Council Resolution 1701.
Hizbullah also blames Israel for the February 2008 assassination of terror chief Imad Mughniyah in Damascus and has promised revenge, perhaps by kidnapping or killing senior Israeli security officials or politicians at home or overseas.
In addition, Hizbullah has indicated that it might challenge Israeli reconnaissance flights over Lebanon, and once again abduct Israeli soldiers along the border.
These developments suggest that another - even more destructive - war is possible. Senior Israeli military officials have threatened, in accordance with what they call the "Dahiyeh Doctrine" - after the suburbs of southern Beirut that were flattened by Israeli air power during the 2006 war - to wage a scorched earth campaign next time around.
In the event of another war, the US needs to coordinate with Israel better than it did during the last war so that the next campaign is much shorter and succeeds in significantly weakening Hizbullah and undermining the interests of its Syrian and Iranian patrons.
The next American president will face unprecedented challenges and dangers in the Middle East, with few good options and precious little time to waste. He will have to hit the ground running, since the US cannot afford a protracted transition between administrations.
Michael Eisenstadt is a senior fellow and director of the Military and Security Studies Program at The Washington Institute.
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