POMED Notes: U.S.-Mideast Diplomacy in Transition
The Middle East Institute hosted an event Wednesday (11/14) entitled “U.S.-Mideast Diplomacy in Transition: New Era, New Principles.” The panel included Lawrence Korb, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress; Ellen Laipson, CEO of the Stimson Center; Daniel Brumberg, senior advisor at the United States Institute for Peace; Reuel Marc Gerecht, senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies; and was moderated by former Ambassador to Kuwait, Deborah Jones.
For full event notes continue reading, or click here for a PDF.
Ellen Laipson opened by saying the countries of the Middle East need to set an agenda for the future and the U.S. needs to recalibrate its role in the region. It is clear that the relationships between states and societies are changing, she said. The U.S. ought to pursue a policy that emphasizes engagement with Middle Eastern societies and on education exchange. “The American public is still not sure if the Arab Spring is good for U.S. interests,” Laipson pointed out. It is clear that regional actors still want the U.S. to provide a cooperative partnership, but not the agenda setting it has typically offered. The U.S. is still providing a significant amount of aid to the countries in transition, but a disproportionate amount is allocated for peace and security instead of education and economic support. Laipson touted the MENA Incentive Fund as a possible upgrade to U.S. aid packages; however, military funding remains the major pillar of American assistance.
Daniel Brumberg said the Arab uprisings signaled the end of coercive rackets that had characterized Middle Eastern regimes for decades. “Political change has made leaders more accountable and linked foreign policy to domestic opinions,” he noted. The foreign policy of Middle Eastern states will be complicated and make things more difficult for the U.S., especially with regards to Egypt. However, most leaders in Egypt recognize that they cannot antagonize their relationship with the U.S., as it is the largest provider of foreign aid. “Transition has been complicated because extremists are attempting to corrode the democratic process,” Brumberg said. It will be challenging for the U.S. to avoid walking into “traps” that have been laid out in the region. America must exhibit firmness, but employ a diplomacy that appreciates MENA leaders’ need to gain domestic approval.
Reuel Marc Gerecht claimed that President Barack Obama will “do nothing in Syria, even if the conflict reaches 70,000 casualties.” Gerecht said that the Syrian civil war will superheat the Sunni-Shia divide, a split that will be further complicated if Iran gets “the nuke.” The U.S. came late and awkwardly to the “Arab Revolt,” he added. The administration needs to argue clearly why Egypt aid is justified. Obama has also been too quick to call jihadism and al-Qaeda dead. Arab democratic movements may deal with jihadism, but this is not readily apparent, and furthermore drone strikes will not keep jihadists at bay. He predicted that the Israelis would strike Iran by mid-June. The U.S. must prepare itself if Israel does decide to act unilaterally. Gerecht said that Obama needs to get serious about sanctions, and draw a red line for attack. Gerecht ended by saying that Iranians are taking the Israelis seriously, but not the U.S.
The panel was asked to give three policy recommendations on the Middle East to the Obama Administration. Lawrence Korb suggested that the U.S. work with the international community to foster the transitions, and noted that the al-Qaeda narrative is weakening. He also said the U.S. should do a cost-benefit analysis to its aid packages. Laipson said the administration must work to clarify its direction in the Middle East. She said the U.S. should undertake an analysis of the Marshall Plan in order to draw inspiration for a strategy which incorporates the use of Gulf resources and U.S. organizational capacity, in order to build stability in the Middle East. Brumberg said the administration has to address regional threats, especially Iran. The President must decide “whether we want to fight, or whether we want to negotiate.” Furthermore, the Arab/Israeli conflict must be dealt with immediately. Gerecht said that while others offer several recommendations to the administration, he is convinced that the U.S. government can only do one thing at a time. That being said, Gerercht’s recommendation was “Iran, Iran, Iran.” The U.S. must stop their nuclear program because it is unacceptable. He said a grand bargain would be fine, but that Ayatollah Khamenei would shoot it down. In Gerecht’s opinion, the military option must be tabled. Korb commented that the U.S. should’ve recognized that the Iraq War would empower Iran. The Iran/Iraq relationship will remain strong in the foreseeable future. Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki remains in power because of his Iranian support. Korb closed by saying an Iranian nuke will be seen as a Shia bomb, a perception which could lead to severe instability throughout the Middle East.