Magazine article The American Prospect

The Next President and the Middle East: Some Policy Pointers: Get out of Iraq. Work with (Some) Islamists. Create the Palestinian State. Thereby, Undercut Al-Qaeda

Magazine article The American Prospect

The Next President and the Middle East: Some Policy Pointers: Get out of Iraq. Work with (Some) Islamists. Create the Palestinian State. Thereby, Undercut Al-Qaeda

Article excerpt

Listen carefully when a new president is inaugurated next January for the sigh of relief coming from most of those Middle Easterners whom President Bush embraced as allies. Conversely, Bush's rivals in the region are likely to tune in to the occasion in a disgruntled mood. For them the Bush years have been good for business. The menu of grievances on which they've fed has become a veritable feast. Opposition to American designs in the region--deployed with different emphases and with different goals by al-Qaeda, Iran, Hamas, Syria, and Hezbollah, to name but a few--has been an easy sell and has won countless new adherents.

To be a friend of "Bush the Younger" in Arabia has not been such a comfortable disposition. Even the Israelis have begun to recognize the limited utility of a president, despite all his words of support, who is so vilified abroad and divisive at home that coalition-building and agenda-advancement are beyond him.

A new president can expect to be greeted by an initial spike in America's standing in public opinion polls both globally and in the Middle East. This phenomenon will likely be magnified if a Democrat is in the White House and further embellished if that Democrat is Barack Obama. There will be a honeymoon period of openness, of a willingness to suspend judgment and to look again at America and what it stands for.

But the next administration will inherit a regional mess that will require more than some presidential goodwill and an image makeover. The president's Middle East inbox will include Iraq, Iran, al-Qaeda, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and much more. Set alongside this, even health-care reform may take on the appearance of low-hanging fruit.

The temptation will be to focus on improving the mechanics of making and implementing decisions and treating each problem separately, with various regional issues being compartmentalized. Some cosmetic changes might also be thrown in. One could envisage, for instance, the appointment of a special envoy to oversee an Iraq international support group and another for the Middle East peace process. That first appointment would be new; the latter has not existed for the past eight years, and its reintroduction would signal serious intent. A new American ambassador could be appointed to Damascus, symbolizing re-engagement in dialogue with adversaries. The last ambassador, Margaret Scobey, was recalled from Syria on Feb. 15, 2005, after the assassination of Rafik Hariri in Lebanon.

Such moves should be welcomed and might even be helpful, but capacity and cosmetics are just the beginning. As Daniel Kurtzer, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel and Egypt, concludes in a recent article, "better a policy without an envoy than an envoy without a policy."

Policies will have to change. But so too will the framework of understanding from which those policies are derived. Take, as an example, the Israeli-Palestinian Annapolis peace process, launched in November 2007. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice managed to lead a change in policy within the administration and to renew efforts toward a permanent-status peace deal after a seven-year hiatus. She probably deserves credit for even getting this far, but the Annapolis process was strait-jacketed from the start by its framing. Even when a breakthrough document on Israeli-Palestinian peace has become a priority, the kinds of policy initiatives that could lead to this goal were rejected at the outset for ideological reasons. Just before the Annapolis gathering, 66 former U.S. senior officials and experts, spearheaded by Brent Scowcroft, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and Lee Hamilton, sent a letter to the president and secretary of state welcoming the new effort and counseling that an "inclusive" process that would involve (even indirectly) and incentivize actors such as Syria and Hamas would be much more likely to succeed than one that excluded them. (In the interest of full disclosure, the New America Foundation--my employer--and I were involved in organizing and promoting this letter. …

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