What the next American president needs to understand about the Middle East

A change in America’s Iran policy is the key to promoting American national security interests.

BUILDING BLOCKS of the next US policy in the Middle East? LEGO statues on park benches in the South Lawn of the White House in Washington DC. (photo credit: REUTERS)
BUILDING BLOCKS of the next US policy in the Middle East? LEGO statues on park benches in the South Lawn of the White House in Washington DC.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
When the absurdity of the 2016 US presidential race comes to an end, the new president will be confronted with agonizing problems across the Middle East, from Syria to Lebanon, from Yemen to Pakistan, from Israel to Iraq.
The first lesson for the next president is humility. America is indispensable for regional stability, while at the same time incapable of solving its difficult problems. The new president will be severely handicapped by the Obama administration’s foreign policy choices, which set precedents that neither an alliance with the US nor American ultimatums are sacrosanct.
The Israelis, Saudis, Egyptians, Kurds and the Sunni world, which represent 85 percent of Islam, are unsure about American support, especially after the signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran. Islamic State (ISIS) distracted the administration from understanding that in the long term, Iran, more than ISIS, is the most dangerous threat to regional stability. Sunni nations and Israel believed US President Barack Obama would keep his word never to allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon.
America must re-engage in the Middle East for American interests, and must begin by reassuring our allies.
So what should the next president do? In the first week after the election, invite the Israeli, Saudi and Egyptian leaders together to the White House.
The president should explain that American foreign policy interests are not about empowering an Iranian- controlled Shi’ite crescent from Tehran to Baghdad, and from Damascus to Beirut.
The new president on day one should send a clear message to Congress that the time of marginalizing it on foreign policy by executive actions is over. Congress would welcome an opportunity to ensure that the JCPOA is strictly enforced, and on a bipartisan basis would be supportive against Iranian- supported terrorism and destabilization of our allies.
President Obama’s premature withdrawal from Iraq evaporated the hard fought American advantages of postsurge Iraq, where a new American president must now confront an Iranian- dominated Iraq. The rise of ISIS is directly related to the American vacuum that created an Iranian-dominated Shi’ite Iraq.
Both candidates must keep their eyes on the primary causes of long-term regional instability: Iran, Russia, Hezbollah and Syria. Sunni Islamists from the Muslim Brotherhood to al-Qaida are also of long-term concern, but they will be much harder to deal with if Iran is in ascendancy.
The new administration needs to understand how differently the Arab and Muslim world view themselves, especially in contrast to how Westerners self-identify, primarily by nationality.
Most Arab and Muslim people see themselves aligned by clan and tribe, with nationality a secondary identity.
They only use nationality as a primary identity when speaking to Western foreign policy experts, a prescription for miscommunication and bad policy choices.
An assessment of allies must include the Kurds, a people who truly deserve their own nation-state. The Iraqi Kurds are our friends, and will be lost as future allies if we continue to treat them as we treated the Syrian Kurds, whom President Obama abandoned at the request of the Islamist Turkish government.
Turkey will at best be an unreliable ally for the foreseeable future, as it only recently changed sides to support attacks on ISIS. The next American president needs to tell the Turks that the Kurds in Iraq are our friends, and that we will not abandon the Kurds in Syria.
Russia will certainly take advantage of this situation, but Turkey is already an ambivalent member of NATO that shouldn’t be trusted until the Islamist Erdogan regime is gone. Iran and Turkey are in rapprochement, and we need to make our displeasure known with tangible actions.
As far as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, if the administration wants to truly make progress it should abandon the idea that the settlements are most of the problem, when in reality no part of Israel is really less objectionable to its enemies.
The next secretary of state should read an unbiased analysis of international law, acknowledging that the West Bank is technically disputed occupied territory, where Israel has rights that it has been willing to abandon in whole or in part for peace.
Without this, a true peace or longterm cease-fire will be illusory. The best approach to manage the conflict is to find a way for the Sunni states to diplomatically recognize Israel.
The bywords for American Middle East foreign policy in 2017 should be: • Clearly achievable goals • Stabilization • Reassurance to Israel and Sunni allies • A harder line with Iran, the one player in the region that can most harm American interests • Unilateral concessions are considered a sign of weakness.
And finally remember that political Islam, Islamism, is the problem, not Islam. Identify your enemy and you will gain many moderate Muslim allies who share your interests in the region.
The author is the director of MEPIN™. He regularly briefs members of Congress, their foreign policy advisers, members of the Knesset and journalists. He regularly briefs Congress on issues related to the Middle East.