Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Mideast Advice for the Obama Administration

YOU ARE IN: Home Page

Update from AIJAC


November 12, 2008
Number 11/08 #03


Today's Update contains some further advice about various Middle East policy issues for the future Obama Administration in the US  from a variety of knowledgeable experts and observers.

First up is the always insightful Professor Barry Rubin, who has penned an open letter to President-elect Obama. Rubin's basic point is not to be lulled into thinking Middle East conflicts are simply "misunderstandings" nor is it wise in the Middle East to make one's goal to be popular and to appear friendly. He also makes some points about being ready to draw red lines in terms of concessions, time-limits, and keeping commitments in negotiating in the region. Finally, he points out that as hard as the Iraq war was, Afghanistan is actually likely to be a more difficult conflict to end successfully. For all his advice, CLICK HERE. Another letter to Obama on foreign policy comes from former UN Ambassador John Bolton.

We follow up with some advice on various Middle East topics from the experts at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy - Patrick Clawson, David Makovsky and Robert Satloff. They comment respectively on Iran, Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Syrian talks, and general policy advice, including the most important "3am calls" - sudden crises in the region -  the Administration should be worried about. It is all good stuff from very knowledgeable and thoughtful experts, and to read it, CLICK HERE.

Finally, Michael Yon, a reporter and author who has done more embedded work in the region with US forces than anyone else, comments on the serious challenges in Afghanistan. He argues that, while Iraq is all but won,  more soldiers are needed in Afghanistan, and quickly, certainly by next year's northern spring. He says they must be soldiers who are effective against the Taliban and its allies which, he argues, excludes most of the countries with forces currently in Afghanistan. He describes the situation as "like solving a human Rubik’s Cube during a firefight while the media screams every time you make a wrong move — or what is perceived as a wrong move — and there is a clock ticking and at some unknown point the Cube self-destructs." For Yon's full update on this increasingly difficult conundrum for the next US administration, CLICK HERE. Additional interesting comments on the Obama Administration's Afghanistan challenges are here and here.

Readers may also be interested in:


A letter to the president-elect from a Middle East realist


By Barry Rubin
   
Jerusalem Post,
Nov. 10, 2008


Dear President-elect Obama,

They say that you prefer the name Barry, and so it pleases me no end that another Barry is finally president of the United States. In addition, I once worked as a community organizer, so we have two things in common.

On that basis, then, I hope you don't mind my making some suggestions about how you might think about the Middle East. I'm not looking for a job in Washington. In fact, as I look back on my life, I note that if I'd been successful in some obsession for a US government post, I might have been a participant in such endeavors as the catastrophic mishandling of Iran's revolution, the failed US dispatch of troops to Lebanon, the botched trade of arms for hostages with Iran, the crashed peace process and the Iraq war.

So don't be misled. Today, everyone's talking about how wonderful you are. Those are the people who want jobs, favors and access. There are others who want something else from you — like control over Lebanon, Israel, Iraq or Georgia — who are more likely to be psychopathic than sycophantic.

Your expressed theme for your administration's Middle East policy can be described in one word: conciliation. You think that your predecessors made unnecessary enemies and blocked, rather than furthered, progress. Building on the basis of your perceived popularity and sincere goodwill, you believe that it is not so hard to make friends with Iran and Syria, soothe grievances that have caused Islamism and terrorism and solve the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Good luck. We hope you succeed.

But please bear in mind some important points.
• In the Middle East, it is not so useful to think yourself popular and show yourself to be friendly. You have to inspire fear in your enemies and confidence in your friends. And if you don't inspire fear in your enemies — if you're too nice to them — then you will indeed foment fear among your friends.


• Not everyone thinks the same way. When you talk of "empathy," America's enemies hear the word "fear." When you speak of change, they, too, want change. Unfortunately the change they want means wiping other states off the map, creating radical Islamist dictatorships and kicking the United States out of the region.
This is no misunderstanding: it's a conflict.

In the film, Cool Hand Luke, the noble convict (played by Paul Newman) jokes to the sadistic guards, "What we have here is a failure to communicate." The audiences laughed. What everyone has forgotten is that a moment later they shoot him dead. Harvard Law School meets the law of the jungle.

You are going to talk to Iran, negotiate with Syria and try to buy the Palestinians or press the Israelis into making peace. It's your presidency and many Americans think — rightly or not — that this hasn't been tried enough.

But please keep in mind four very important points for when the going gets rough:
1. How much do you offer them and at whose expense? Not too much, please.

2. How closely will you monitor whether or not they are keeping their commitments? Be tough, please.

3. At what point will you conclude that they don't want to end existing conflicts or be America's friends? Don't wait too long, please.

4. What do you do when you figure out this doesn't work? Don't be afraid to admit the truth, blame those responsible and try something else.
Iraq, for example: You want to withdraw and turn the war over to the Iraqis. This makes sense. But what will you do if Iran escalates to make your withdrawal look like a defeat and fill the vacuum — subtly, of course, not too openly.

And what do you do to combat Iranian and Syrian efforts to turn Iraq, Lebanon and the Gaza Strip into their sphere of influence? They will pump in money, pump up hatred and kill anyone who stands in the way. Making a good speech, apologizing for the past or offering more concessions won't work.

If you think Afghanistan is easier to deal with than Iraq, the opposite is true. No one tames Afghanistan. Its endless conflicts are a product of geography, ethnic conflict, a macho militarist political culture and a very low level of development. In Iraq, the majority wants a stable resolution. In Afghanistan, the choice is permanent holding action or collapse.

What happens when the Europeans hug and kiss you, then refuse to extend sanctions on Iran further? Will you remain Europe's favorite American president by asking them to do nothing? How will you convince the Saudis, Jordanians, Egyptians, Lebanese and others that you are their reliable protector against Iranian nuclear weapons and the advance of Iranian-Syrian power when they know how eager you are to make up — possibly at their expense — with Teheran and Damascus?

Westerners are eager to resolve conflicts; revolutionaries want to use conflicts. You think grievances can be resolved; their grievances are insatiable. Make a concession, they ignore it and demand another. Withdraw from a territory, they occupy it and turn it into a base for the next advance. Explain that you feel their pain, and they add to your pain.

This is what it is like to deal with extremists and ideologues.

Right now you don't understand why Bill Clinton and George Bush couldn't solve a little thing like the Arab-Israeli conflict, defuse the massive hatred of America in the Middle East, end terrorism or turn radical Islamism into an ideology of peace.

Don't worry. You will.

Prof.  Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, Interdisciplinary Center, and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs. His latest book is "The Truth About Syria".

Back to Top
------------------------------------------------------------------------

The New President and the Middle East: From Campaigning to Governing



Featuring Patrick Clawson, David Makovsky and Robert Satloff

 
PolicyWatch #1423- 1424

November 7, 2008

On November 6, Robert Satloff, Patrick Clawson, and David Makovsky addressed a Policy Forum luncheon at The Washington Institute. Dr. Satloff is executive director of The Washington Institute, Dr. Clawson is the Institute's deputy director for research, and Mr. Makovsky is the director of the Institute's Project on the Middle East Peace Process. The following is a rapporteur's summary of their remarks.

Patrick Clawson


President-elect Obama has stated that the large-scale U.S. presence in Iraq has allowed Iraqis to avoid dealing with their problems and building the appropriate capacity to cope with the issues facing their country. He has also worried that this presence feeds nationalist resentments, thereby exacerbating the situation.

When Obama made this argument with respect to the 2007 U.S. military "surge," circumstances were different, and indeed the surge proved necessary to achieve security. His position, however, regarding the current problem of slow political progress may well be on target. Iraqi politicians have taken far too long to make important decisions about the budget, provincial elections, the oil law, the future of Kirkuk, and the status-of-forces agreement with the United States. Perhaps if Washington wielded both the "stick" of rapid withdrawal and the "carrot" of sustained commitment, progress will quicken. Obama repeatedly has said that if Iraqis do more to resolve their problems, the United States will do more to help them.

The Obama strategy offers the hope that Iraqi politicians will be motivated to deal with their country's problems, especially since there is a strong common will across Iraq's political spectrum to solve these issues. The large risk of this policy, however, is that Iraq could slip back into instability and that Iran could end up dominating Iraq.

Iran, on the other hand, presents a different set of challenges. A major U.S. effort to engage Iran is inevitable, primarily because the United States must reverse the common perception -- in the United States and around the world -- that Washington is at fault for the lack of progress on the Iran front. The United States is going to have to make a major effort to show that it is prepared to walk the extra mile for compromise. Washington has not been able to secure support for greater sticks against Iran; it can only gather such support if it is seen as also offering carrots. In other words, on the Iran nuclear issue, carrots are the only way to get to sticks.

Engaging Iran will be a challenge for several reasons. U.S. diplomatic efforts could backfire and feed deep-seated suspicions, as they did in 1979 when radicals seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran days after a meeting between the U.S. national security advisor and Iran's prime minister, foreign minister, and defense minister. The radicals thought the meeting was a plot to undermine the revolution, and the resulting chaos severely damaged U.S.-Iranian relations. Even today, suspicion of the U.S. motives for seeking engagement persists. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has indicated that the greatest threat to Iran is a "velvet revolution" that will stem from foreign powers working with Iranian civil society.

U.S. diplomatic overtures could encourage Iranian hardliners who might argue that their tough stance had forced Washington to make concessions. European diplomats already worry that Western offers to Iran improve every six months, thus encouraging Iran to remain uncompromising. U.S. willingness to negotiate with Iran's hardliners could seriously undermine Iranian reformers, by suggesting that Washington will work with the hardliners in a way it did not with the reformers.

Attempts to engage Iran may also promote grave doubts among U.S. friends and allies. European diplomats, especially those in France, worry that the United States is acting as a lone cowboy, preempting what had been a European-led negotiating process. Gulf monarchies may think Washington is making a strategic deal with Tehran at their expense, leading them to either seek accommodation with Iran or develop their own weapons capabilities. For Israel, such efforts may signal America's willingness to live with a nuclear Iran, in the hope that Tehran can be deterred and contained.

David Makovsky

When it comes to the Arab-Israeli conflict, a strategy of "engagement without illusions" will most likely drive the Obama administration. Prospects of diplomatic success are worth trying, but at a minimum, engagement would attempt to reverse the slide toward radicalization.

Since Obama will be preoccupied with a recession at home and two wars abroad, he does not have to be personally involved in every detail of Arab-Israeli negotiations. He could delegate that responsibility and time his interventions to maximum effect. The Obama adminstration's engagement will come under circumstances less auspicious than those at the end of the Clinton administration, particularly Hamas's ascendancy in Gaza and the emergence of the rocket threat to Israel.

The new administration should try to salvage the two-state solution, or at least avert a Hamas takeover of the West Bank. The good news is that Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) have converging interests in the West Bank, since both parties fear the rise of Hamas. Moreover, both seem to believe the way to stave off this threat is by delaying the Israeli army's withdrawal, bolstering the training of Palestinian security forces in Jordan, increasing security cooperation, and building Palestinian civil institutions. This approach has paid at least some dividends: a million tourists have visited Bethlehem this year, unemployment rates have fallen to the lowest levels in eight years, acts of terrorism have decreased, and polls suggest that Gazans think the PA government in the West Bank is more effective than Hamas in Gaza.

The lack of clarity on settlements, however, threatens the stability of the West Bank and the strength of Palestinian institutions. Amid confusion about ongoing Israeli settlement activity, it is difficult for the PA to tell it citizens to be patient in their quest for sovereignty. Fortunately, the territorial differences between Israel and the PA on the final disposition of the West Bank are miniscule, and both agree to the concept of land swaps.

A joint delineation of West Bank land would diminish the mistrust between the two sides, answering once and for all the question of whether Israel is building on territory that will be Israeli or Palestinian. Such a delineation would show Palestinians that moderates can produce results and would give the PA time to strengthen its institutions as Israel maintains security control until circumstances permit otherwise. The large majority of Israeli settlers who live in areas adjacent to the pre-1967 border would become part of Israel, and the remainder would be relocated.

Additional issues come to the fore as the two disillusioned societies try to create a climate for coexistence: economic progress for the Palestinians and demonstration by the PA that it is educating the next generation for peace. In addition, every step taken by Israel toward the Palestinians should be met by steps from the Arab states to integrate Israel into the region.

Regarding Syria, the Obama administration will support Israeli-Syrian peace talks, assuming the new Israeli government wants it to do so. The new administration could explore offers that would draw Syria out of Iran's sphere of influence, just as Kissinger pried Egypt away from the Soviet Union. Such an approach would also weaken Hizballah, given that Syria has been a conduit for the militia's arms. Without this dimension, it is hard to see peace talks being successful.

Finally, the United States needs to reassure Israel about its likely diplomatic approach to Iran. Israel will want to know that such efforts will not be open-ended, thereby prohibiting Tehran from running out the clock in its advance toward nuclear weapons. Engagement alongside economic sanctions may not succeed, but even failed engagement within a fixed time period could make the other options more credible.

Robert Satloff

Change' and Foreign Policy

The 2008 election was about "change." In 2007, for many Americans, change referred to adjusting course on the Iraq war. Today, for most Americans, change has come to mean a new direction on the U.S. economy. Given that shift, it is likely that the new administration will pursue its foreign policy objectives without stirring up unwanted problems, setting unlikely goals, or making huge commitments. One Obama advisor, former Navy secretary Richard Danzig, encapsulated this approach at the Weinberg Founders Conference by offering the phrase "sustainable security" to describe the likely Obama foreign policy -- a maxim that does not imply bold new initiatives, grand plans, or world-changing ideas. As the new team ranks its foreign policy priorities, top spots are likely to go to Iraq, Pakistan/Afghanistan, Russia, and international financial system reform. The Iranian nuclear issue may break into the top tier, but few are likely to argue that -- in terms of urgency -- the Middle East peace process deserves to be in that category.

But despite U.S. preferences, the Middle East will stake its claim on the new president's limited time. Some players in the region will do so in a positive way, hoarding concessions now so they can deliver them to Obama; others will seek to test him in destructive ways. Optimists place Syria in the first category; nearly all observers would put Iran, Hizballah, and Sunni jihadists in the second.

General Comments about Obama and Middle East Policy
In terms of peacemaking itself, Obama has an opportunity to make a much greater contribution than just injecting more vigor, urgency, and activity into the existence paradigm of Oslo/Roadmap diplomacy. His natural skills and unique international standing give him the chance to become a agent of change on the normative aspect of peacemaking -- that is, the psychological, emotional, intellectual, and ideological contest over legitimacy. Specifically, if he is going to invest his personal capital in the peace process, he could do so most effectively with an effort to bring about Arab acceptance of Israel as a Jewish state and an end to all state-supported incitement against Jews. This is the critical missing ingredient in peacemaking, an element that he could address with eloquence and empathy. If such an effort bore fruit, one could expect all potential Israeli governments -- Likud, Kadima, or Labor -- to respond with substantial compromises on most of the negotiating issues dear to the Arab side.

If the peace process is the Obama administration's preferred tool to repair relations with Arabs and Muslims, it would be tragic if, in so doing, the new president's team jettisoned any serious effort at political reform in Arab and Muslim societies. The Bush administration's errors -- most notably, the backfiring of the 2006 Palestinian election, which brought Hamas to power -- made the issue radioactive; sadly, the region's autocrats and radicals are cheering this fact. The United States can promote the conditions for positive change; the challenge is to do it right.

The world is schizophrenic -- it wants America to listen more, but it also wants America to lead. As a consequence, new administrations have difficulty striking the proper balance between hearing out allies and advancing a new president's ideas. The Clinton administration fumbled early on when Warren Christopher visited Europe in May 1993 to solicit views on Bosnia rather than to present an American plan. Iran is the Bosnia of 2009 -- the test of where the administration draws the line between listening and leading. If the administration is too independent, "creative," and open to the idea of any uranium enrichment on Iranian soil, it will lose the goodwill of Europeans who have carried the torch against any enrichment in Iran for years; if Washington is too timid and deferential, the world loses the American leadership that Europeans crave and Arabs need on this issue (and without which there will surely be an Iranian bomb before long).

A wide range of Obama advisors (including Anthony Lake, Susan Rice, Richard Danzig, Tom Donilon, Richard Clarke, Wendy Sherman, and Dennis Ross) have publicly embraced a strategy of prevention, rather than deterrence, to address the Iranian nuclear challenge. Now comes the hard part: although prevention does not begin with military force, one has to recognize that it could end with military force. The implications for Obama's foreign policy planning are profound.

Iran is critical to almost everything the Obama administration will attempt to do in the Middle East, including, for example, maintaining key relationships, the bread-and-butter of diplomacy. There are five mega-relationships with partner countries in the region: Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Iraq. All are complicated; no single issue predominates in any of them. But Iran is the one issue that connects them all, not because Iran is a regional superman but because Iranians have acquired enough assets to cause mischief on multiple fronts. An early definition of overall Iran policy is essential.

Viewed through the prism of Iran, the groundswell of support for retaining Secretary of Defense Gates at the Pentagon seems odd. Despite his many fine qualities, Gates has enunciated views on Iran diametrically opposed to those of Obama. In late September, for example, he delivered a ringing defense of the Bush administration's current approach by noting that an Iranian willingness "to stop their enrichment in some kind of verifiable way is not an unreasonable precondition to high-level talks. I just think this is a case where we have to look at the history of outreach that was very real, under successive presidents, and did not yield any results. I think until the Iranians decide they want to take a different approach, to the rest of the world, that where we are is probably not a bad place." Obama argued that Iran policy was broken; Gates contends Iran policy is working as best as one could imagine. That is a huge difference.

The 3 a.m. call: In anticipating the unexpected, there are at least four political events in the Middle East that could make Obama's hair turn prematurely white, quite apart from a terrorist attack. These include:
  1. The collapse of the Palestinian Authority
  2. A Hizballah takeover of Lebanon, either through next year's parliamentary elections or via extra-legal means
  3. A succession crisis in Egypt, a vitally important country with an octogenarian president and no open, transparent, and accountable system for the transfer of political power
  4. News of unexpected nuclear "success" by Iran

Advice for the President Elect

Keep an eye on your advisors, who are making their own transition. Before the election, their job was to keep you out of trouble. After the election, they are eager to win your interest in their issues. In 1992, for example, Bill Clinton ran on a platform that was to the right of then-president George Bush on at least two foreign policy issues -- Syria and China. Bush, Clinton said, was soft on both. After the election, his tone dramatically changed. Instead of "get tough" language on Syria, Clinton received transition briefings that suggested he could help engineer not one but three Arab-Israeli peace agreements and bring about the end of conflict in the Holy Land. From that moment on, he was hooked on the peace process.

Against this backdrop, you would be wise to define and keep your priorities, husband the remarkable outpouring of goodwill you have received from around the world to focus on the most urgent matters first, be open and receptive to diplomatic opportunities, but not expend energies drilling in a dry.

This rapporteur's summary was prepared by Laura Cohen and Becca Wasser.

Back to Top
------------------------------------------------------------------------

Afghan Quicksand Awaits Obama

The president-elect will face escalating violence, feckless allies, and time that's quickly running out.

 by Michael Yon

Pajamas Media
, November 10, 2008 -

The Iraq war is over. Barring the unforeseen, the darkest days are behind, though we are still losing soldiers to low-level fighting with enemies that are true “dead-enders.” Last month we lost seven Americans in combat in Iraq. Peace, however, is not upon us. Another thirty or so Iraqis died today in suicide attacks. Nobody suffers more at the hands of Islamic terrorists than other Muslims.

A new president will soon begin to make critical decisions about Iraq and Afghanistan, the economic crisis at home, and countless other matters. While the Iraq war began, then boiled, and finally cooled before President-elect Obama will be sworn into office on January 20, 2009, the Afghanistan-Pakistan spectacle is just getting started. He was always a fierce opponent of our involvement in Iraq. And, as with so many Democrats in the Senate, he argued frequently, during the campaign, that we should have been focused on Afghanistan all along, because it is the real incubator of the international terrorist threat. Timing being everything, our new president will get his wish. Afghanistan now moves to center stage. The conflicts in Afghanistan and between Afghanistan and Pakistan have the simmering potential to overshadow anything we’ve seen in Iraq. Here are a few things I hope he understands:

Our enemies are winning. The enemies know it. We know it. Who are they? The Taliban, with its deep local roots, is enemy number one. Al-Qaeda is hanging around to make trouble. Some Paks, who don’t want to see a thriving Pushtun state on their border, are our enemies. They fund and shelter the Taliban even though we rely on them to help us defeat it. Nothing is straightforward in this part of the world. We have other enemies in Afghanistan who hate the Taliban.

Most of our allies are not very helpful. With the exception of the British, Canadians, Dutch, and a few others such as the Aussies, we are not fighting this with an “A-team” of international allies. With a few exceptions, our allies on the ground are comprised of several dozen countries that mostly refuse to fight. The bulk of NATO amounts to little more than a “Taliban piñata.” The North Atlantic Treaty Organization is proving nearly worthless and provides no credible threat to armed opposition groups (AOGs) in Afghanistan. Most of the NATO member countries seem to break out in a cold sweat at the mere mention of “Taliban.” They piled in when the war looked easy and largely humanitarian. But now that it’s getting harder and more dangerous, they would like to pile out.

Success or failure in Afghanistan depends on the handful of countries that step up — and a multi-pronged, combat/political/nation-building strategy. The Brits field excellent soldiers but are short of enabling equipment, such as helicopters, armor, and UAVs, which could greatly enhance their combat effectiveness. Nevertheless, an outstanding British-led operation to deliver a 200-ton hydroelectric turbine to the Kajaki Dam could eventually deliver electricity to 1.8 million people. This dam, with its potential to bring light, heat, and the ability to begin industrializing, is a true and serious victory for the good guys.

So, let me stipulate that it’s still a real fight. While the AOGs are making progress on some fronts, success is no more assured for them than for us. Mostly they destroy things that their countrymen want — including peace and the prospect of increased prosperity. They cut off lips and noses and douse women with gasoline and burn them alive. Just recently, a group of enemies apparently tried to bait us into killing a wedding party. If we are going to get groups to the negotiating table, we must pose a credible threat against enemies and a credible promise to the rest. What we don’t want is the current situation, where it’s actually the AOGs that are forcing us to the table, largely due to NATO’s general apathy and unwillingness to fight.

To ensure that we have influence over the outcome, we need more soldiers in Afghanistan, and fast. They need to be U.S. forces, British, Canadian, and Aussie; we cannot depend on NATO in general and they don’t know how to fight anyway. Unless President-elect Obama knows some kind of magic spell, he will not be able to persuade most NATO countries to do the right thing. Springtime 2009 will likely bring very heavy fighting in Afghanistan. We will not have credible negotiating positions while we remain outgunned by a bunch of old rifles and dinged-up RPGs.

While security in Iraq continues to improve, Afghanistan is drowning in a frothing quicksand. While most of the 2008 fighting season is over, we can be assured that the Afghan national sport — guerrilla warfare — will become the 2009 Taliban Olympics by April. They know this is a marathon.

Whatever else, Mr. President-elect, this is no time to go wobbly. It is important to note that some top British and U.S. commanders believe that we can make a “success” out of Afghanistan. We’ve learned a few things over the past seven years. We’ve truly got a “dream team” of military commanders with great in-theater experience to advise and guide the next phase. They saved Iraq. Use them well, Sir.

President-elect Obama says he is serious about Afghanistan. (Just don’t fumble Iraq, please.) As he must be learning in intelligence briefings, it’s going to be tough stuff. It will be like solving a human Rubik’s Cube during a firefight while the media screams every time you make a wrong move — or what is perceived as a wrong move — and there is a clock ticking and at some unknown point the Cube self-destructs.

Maybe his recent training in the combat of a two-year election cycle will have toughened him up for the international challenges ahead.

Today I am in Kuwait, heading back into Iraq for an end-of-year round-up. Then it’s back to the war in Afghanistan for one heck of a fight. Please stay tuned. Your soldiers are locked in a deadly struggle tonight.


Michael Yon, author of
Moment of Truth in Iraq: How a New 'Greatest Generation' of American Soldiers Is Turning Defeat and Disaster into Victory and Hope, spent more time embedded with U.S. and British combat troops in Iraq than any other correspondent. Michael Yon has changed his focus to Afghanistan.

Back to Top