Memo to the President-elect: The Middle East 2009

You can campaign in the Midwest without alluding to the Mideast, but you cannot govern in Washington that way.

us special 224 (photo credit: )
us special 224
(photo credit: )
Dear Mr. President, I was going to write this to you after you actually won the elections, but since I may be busy in November I figured I'd send you the draft. It could be useful during the campaign itself. I'm not suggesting folks in Cleveland, Ohio or Dallas, Texas will be intrigued by this, but perhaps you should take a look. Congratulations on a hard fought contest and your election. You managed to do it without even mentioning the Middle East, an accomplishment that did not go unnoticed here. You and your opponent wrote great essays in Foreign Affairs but you succeeded in staying away from the issue during the campaign. However, it was good while it lasted. You can campaign in the Midwest without alluding to the Mideast, but you cannot govern in Washington that way. I don't want to ruin your inauguration balls by talking about the Middle East, tarnish the sympathetic press coverage you're getting (be very careful, as you know it's the most perishable commodity in Washington) and be the habitual party pooper that we in the Middle East are annoyingly believed to be. Notwithstanding, there are several things you must be aware of before devising what you'll probably think is and market as a "Comprehensive, coherent, ambitious and bold Middle East strategy". The new Secretary of State you installed is an excellent choice, as is your National Security adviser. I'm sure that during the transition period they ran by you a laundry list of Middle East hotspots and focal points that require attention and policy formulation. I assume they divided the list roughly into two categories that may overlap: Areas and issues that demand immediate US attention and areas and issues that warrant a more complex, careful and thoughtful process of shaping a longer term policy involved. The first thing you should be aware of is a general truism of international politics since the 1960s: As hard as you may try to relegate its centrality on your agenda, the Middle East has a nasty tendency to resurface and superimpose itself on your foreign policy. It's just something you have to accept; join it if you can't beat it. For your convenience, let's break it down into two lists: Challenges and things to expect in 2009. (1) The challenges are self-evident: managing US policy in Iraq, Iran's nuclear program and diplomatic intransigence and its use of terror groups as worldwide proxies, Syria's negative role as a terror-sponsoring and harboring state as well as it's undiminishing practice of undermining Lebanon's political stability, Egypt's role and performance as a US ally and the inevitable, ongoing, ever-fomenting, resolution-defying Israeli-Palestinian conflict. To this humble list we have to add the natural US interest of securing the uninterrupted flow of oil from the Gulf region, at reasonable prices (under $100). That entails reassuring Saudi-Arabia and the Gulf states that Iran poses no clear and present threat to their security. They fear, as should you, the creation of a Shiite arc stretching from Iran, through southern Iraq, into Lebanon. If they perceive this to be a viable threat oil will go up to $150 and the Russians, who already think of you as a novice in these affairs, will be quick to manipulate the price as they often do and benefit from. So by the winter of 2009-2010 Americans, already depressed by a recession and an ongoing credit-crisis will pay $5-$6 per gallon of gas. That may cost you re-election. Just ask Jimmy Carter. You think it's too early to worry? Ask Carter again. (2) Throughout 2009 you can expect the following to transpire: Early in the year Israel will hold elections, as they frustratingly do in 24 months cycles. The delusional appearance of progress in the peace process and internal political pressures will inevitably lead to elections. That means that until 2010 you effectively have very little to work with. Iran will test your resolve and patience by constantly declaring further progress in their nuclear program. Through clandestine procurement or production, Iran may reach the "point of no return" in developing fissile weapons-grade material. A new National Intelligence Estimate will indicate as much. You will have a tough choice to make by mid-late 2009: open negotiations with Iran in the hope that economic pressure combined with dialogue will facilitate a regime implosion or behavioral change. Conversely, if you think a nuclear Iran is intolerable and will trigger a regional nuclear-domino effect, you'll have to consider a military and the consequences. President Husni Mubarak of Egypt is neither getting younger nor healthier. 2009 may present to you a crisis in Egypt that could coincide with turmoil in Pakistan and a possible coup-d'etat in an already nuclear state. Then there is the gold nugget. The issue that captivated, eluded and haunted almost all your predecessors: The Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 2009 will be characterized by further Palestinian internecine violence and you may very well inherit an ongoing crisis in Gaza following Israel's military incursion in mid-2008. Yet conflict-fatigue may settle in and your involvement is critical. The two sides need to really get their act together, but without you and other elements in the international community, it cannot work effectively. Former President Clinton tried a comprehensive, conflict-ending approach at Camp David, in 2000. A wave of terrorism and a shift in emphasis after 9/11 caused former President Bush to explicitly neglect the conflict for seven years. Then, in a last minute hail-Mary futile attempt to launch the peace process, he exposed America's failings. Have no doubt Mr. President, Israelis and Palestinians have a clear vision and understanding of the contours and components of what a settlement will look like. They also understand that Iran and Syria must be restrained and prevented from subverting and undermining a peace process. They are just incapable of turning this into a reality. Take your time in terms of allowing Israelis to elect a new Prime Minister and allow Hamas to weaken in Gaza. By late 2009 or early 2010 you will have to get involved. You may not have been elected on, nor thought of yourself as a "Foreign Policy" President, but like I said, it may be imposed on you. It's what we do.