POMED Notes: Policy Choices for the New Administration
The Middle East Policy Council hosted an event Wednesday (10/17) entitled “Policy Choices for the New Administration.” The event examined the Middle East policy issues which the next U.S. president should address. Questions posed included “Will the next administration seek an Israel-Palestinian solution?” “How will they address the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah issue?” “Is there a prospect for bringing Assad down, and if so, is there a post-Assad role for the U.S.?” Additionally, the next president must decide what kind of relationship the U.S. will have with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). The panel was moderated by Thomas Mattair, executive director of the Middle East Policy Council, and included Scott McConnell, founding editor of The American Conservative; Jocelyne Cesari, co-director of the SAIS Global Politics and Religion Initiative; Nathaniel Kern, president of Foreign Reports; and Paul Pillar, a former officer at the National Intelligence Council.
For full notes continue reading, or click here for a PDF.
Scott McConnell first analyzed prospects for a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, opining that the chance for the next administration to oversee a two-state solution is rather slim. He cited the continued construction of settlements in the West Bank as a major hindrance to progress, stating that “Israel wants to build settlements more the U.S. wants to stop them.” McConnell noted that the Israel lobby is beginning to exhibit cracks which are taking away from its strength, even though skepticism of Israel is still considered “weird” or anti-Semitic. According to McConnell, not much will change with a new administration, despite new developments: Mitt Romney would not recalibrate the U.S.-Israel relationship and “the time for two states has probably passed” for President Barack Obama. A few points were offered for what the president can do to change the status quo: He must make clear where the U.S. sees the final-status heading, point out that Israel is becoming an apartheid state, and support equal Palestinian rights if the two-state solution has indeed died. McConnell said that a failure to do so would undermine the ability for the U.S. to credibly support human rights in the rest of the region. Despite these pressing issues, “presidential priorities will not allow the future administration to address the conflict, and without a forceful argument for doing so, success will remain very unlikely.”
Jocelyne Cesari spoke on the Arab Spring stating that it has shown democracy is not exclusively Western and that Muslim majority populations favor democracy more so than those polled in Western countries. She pointed out that democratization has historically taken effect in conjunction with secularization, but that this is not the case in Egypt. She also noted that laws prohibiting the criticism of Islam were already in place under secular regimes in the region and that “U.S. leaders must understand that democracy will not always reflect the American model” in Muslim countries. Cesari also said the promotion of democracy has not worked well in past instances, but we should continue to build partnerships that establish good communication in a “functioning marketplace of ideas,” without giving too much priority to leaders. Another problem has been that, as “one hand of the government is working with NGOs…another is working with the state apparatuses,” causing support for competing interests in some cases, and the local population perceives that the U.S. is not doing anything. Cesari concluded by saying “Social media does not make revolution. Revolution is fostered through education and an empowered middle class.”
Nathaniel Kern shifted the discussion to Saudi Arabia, pointing out issues which affected the U.S.-Saudi relationship in 2005. Those issues include terrorism, visas, oil prices, and the Israel-Palestine conflict. He said the Saudis have done an excellent job in developing their counter-terrorism capabilities which ultimately led to U.S. collaboration. Regarding visas, U.S. citizens have been allowed to travel more freely to Saudi Arabia and there are now more than 60,000 Saudi students in the United States, but he noted “Saudi Shias are disproportionately representative of students in the U.S.” Saudi oil capacity has also greatly increased, but the next administration will have to address sore Saudi feelings that came with U.S. decision to “swiftly dump Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen.” The president must continue to discuss economic aid in the region. Kern noted that Saudi Arabia and Qatar were to extend aid to Egypt, offering to buy Egypt’s one-month treasury bills which would allow the country to address its debt crisis, one which is “worse the Greece’s.” He pointed out that the Iranian sanctions would not be possible without Saudi Arabia’s cooperation and its agreement to step up its oil production. Kern concluded saying “the world would be a different place if hostile elements controlled the oil supply, and thereby the world economy.”
Paul Pillar moved forward with Iran and Syria. He said there will be no good choices, and the available choices will be politically difficult. He suggested that the future administration could try to improve diplomatic relations with Iran, however the nuclear issue will be the focus of the relationship. Additionally, the “agitation of Israeli leaders will prevent any attempt to improve the U.S.-Iran relationship.” Pillar pointed out that both candidates will be constrained. Both Romney and Obama are boxed in by their own public statements saying that an Iranian nuke is unacceptable. Pillar said “there is no intelligence to date to indicate that that Iran has decided to build a nuclear weapon, however its enrichment process is perceived as an attempt to do so.” A negotiated agreement with the Iranians will have to allow some level of enrichment. However, the sequence for the negotiations has failed thus far. Pillar said, “Sanctions are a form of leverage. The problem is that sanctions relief has not been offered for remaining at a certain level of enrichment. Additionally, the Iranians have not been given a reason to believe that sanctions will end if they cooperate.” He noted that sanctions in this case are increasingly seen as a tool to induce Iranian regime change. Pillar thought Obama, given his position as a second term president, could possibly take the risks necessary to improve diplomatic relations with Iran, but Romney would be extremely reluctant. Pillar was adamant that the use of “military force in Iran would be a counterproductive folly.”
On Syria, Pillar said many perceive the Iran connection to be the biggest issue at hand. There will also be continued pressure to do more in Syria based upon the humanitarian crisis and the promotion of democracy. However, Pillar was convinced that “there is little the U.S. can do to end the conflict. An intervention in Syria would most likely intensify the violence.” He said the prospect of pro-Assad forces hanging on for the long-run seems entirely possible, given the highly sectarian nature of the conflict. Additionally, “The opposition is marked by disunity, some extremist elements, and a host of other issues. Once Assad falls, who will establish order?” Pillar asked. Arming the Syrian opposition presents the same problems are arming Afghan fighters in the 1980’s. “We can’t fine tune who gets the weapons and historically it is the extremists who make the best fighters,” he said. There is no observable difference between Romney and Obama’s positions on Syria. Pillar concluded saying, “Turkey is the most important player in this conflict, and because they are a close NATO ally, the future president’s hand may be forced in some way.
During the Q&A session, Thomas Mattair quoted a 1990’s State Department official who said, “We don’t make Iran policy based on our national interests, but rather our domestic politics.” Mattair wondered “What can the next president do to change that?” Pillar proposed an “America first” policy with regard to the Israel lobby’s pressure on Iran. McConnell said that “the road to a Palestinian state may go through Tehran,” and an ensuing détente between the U.S. and Iran. Pillar said Iran’s decision to weaponize depends on the actions of the West and others. He pointed out that “Iranians largely support a peaceful nuclear program, and if the regime were to give in to Western demands to end it altogether, Iranian leadership would suffer a huge political loss.” Cesari added that the Iranian public sees sanctions as attack on the country. “The more the country is attacked, the more the regime will be reinforced,” she said. She continued by saying regional visions are required for both the Iranian and Palestinian issues, not simply a U.S. monopolization of the process. Cesari said the U.S. cannot tell countries what to do on human rights. Neither, can the U.S. completely understand the relational dynamics which exist on the ground. “It is difficult for the U.S. to get out of the ‘we have to do something’ mindset. Instead the U.S. should work hard to reach multi-lateral decisions. This does not mean that the U.S. is declining, but rather exploring new ways of diplomacy,” she explained. When asked about the current situation in Bahrain, Mattair responded saying, “Bahrain has addressed human rights and taken great strides on reform over the last ten years.” A Bahraini member of the audience pointed out that the U.S. position of neutrality in Bahrain is empowering the Khalifa regime, and that there are currently no negotiations or a discussion of democracy. Cesari was asked how the U.S. can improve its image in the region, despite its continued support for the Gulf monarchies after the Arab Spring. She said the U.S. is not paying enough attention to the changes in civil society in the Middle East. Further, “we will miss the opportunity to talk differently to the people of the region if we do not recognize that changes don’t come from leaders and their promises for reform,” she concluded. McConnell said, “It is possible that the Gulf monarchies may not exist within the next two decades.” Pillar disagreed saying, that the monarchies have maintained a sense of legitimacy that the regional autocracies never had. Finally, an Iraqi member of the audience asked why the U.S. uses sanctions as a tool for diplomatic leverage. Pillar said sanctions are either intended to remove a regime or to induce a policy change. He concluded by saying “Sanctions often have a damaging effect on a nation’s people and they do not always produce the intended result.”