Mideast priorities

Obama will quickly be forced to conclude that prevailing on Iran is vital and urgent.

Obama 88 248 (photo credit: AP)
Obama 88 248
(photo credit: AP)
What can we expect of a US president-elect eager to repair America's image abroad in general, and in the Middle East in particular? First, a broad reorientation of American military power in the region. Barack Obama has repeatedly pledged that he will bring all American troops in Iraq home in 16 months. It remains to be seen, of course, how he can turn that campaign rhetoric into reality, and how quickly US forces can feasibly be drawn down, but we will see a dramatic shift in military resources away from Iraq and into Afghanistan. Then there is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which during his visit to the region last July Obama vowed to address "from the minute I'm sworn into office." In a speech to AIPAC in June, Obama promised to "bring to the White House an unshakeable commitment to Israel's security." This entailed, he said, ensuring Israel's qualitative military advantage, and implementing a Memorandum of Understanding that would provide $30 billion in assistance to Israel over the next decade. In a recent Washington Post op-ed, former national security advisers Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski argue that "the opportunity for success has never been greater," and urge that Obama give the conflict his "immediate attention" - and not just to Israel and the Palestinian Authority. "If the peace process begins to gain momentum," they say, "it is difficult to imagine that Hamas will want to be left out." Hamas, for its part, would like nothing more than to take up this far-fetched suggestion. "If the new US president wants a role in the Middle East, he has no choice but to talk to us because we are the real force on the ground," Khaled Mashaal said. For all the misguided lobbying, Obama will doubtless resist the advice to legitimize a terror group avowedly committed to Israel's destruction and demonstrably ready to kill its own people, too, in pursuit of its Islamist ambitions. Contrary to Scowcroft and Brzezinski, there are more pressing regional problems. One of them is Syria. We can expect Obama to push for progress on the Israel-Syria track, and to return the US ambassador to Damascus (the last ambassador, Margaret Scobey, was recalled after the assassination of Rafik Hariri in Lebanon). Less clear is whether Obama will support - as President Bush steadfastly and rightly has - the international tribunal on the Hariri assassination under the United Nations' chapter 7 authority. BUT THE 44th president's first priority in the Middle East ought to be confronting Iran. Obama has reiterated that he is willing to talk with Iran directly, which would make him the first American president to engage in diplomatic negotiations with the Islamic Republic. Such negotiations are not likely to bear fruit. For one thing, Iranian leaders like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Ali Khamenei have no wish to pursue genuine talks. Mehdi Kalhor, Iran's vice president for media affairs, stated recently that "as long as US forces have not left the Middle East region and [the US] continues its support for the Zionist regime, talks between Iran and US are off the agenda." As Iran races unabated toward nuclear capability, Obama will quickly be forced to conclude that prevailing on Iran - with realistic threats of military action, if all else fails - is vital and urgent. As he does so, he should keep two considerations in mind. First, if you thwart Iran, you liberate moderate forces in the region; but allow Iran to go nuclear, and all hope of moderation ceases. This does not mean the next American administration can afford to ignore the Palestinian question, rather that the root problem is the Islamic extremism now championed by Iran. Second, although diplomacy backed by leverage remains a basic tool of statecraft, it is one of many. Talking with our enemies has sometimes done more harm than good. Still less can diplomacy work vis-a-vis non-state actors like Hizbullah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza and Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army in Iraq. In crafting his Middle East policy, Obama may want to place initial faith in the power of transformative diplomacy. Unfortunately, however, as he surely recognizes, that alone will not yield the change he so admirably seeks to foster.