War or Peace: President Obama’s Challenges in the Middle East

| Mar. 06, 2009

Foreign Policy Challenges for the New Administration: Iran and the Middle East
March 5-6, 2009
Cabot Intercultural Center, Tufts University, Medford Campus

I want to thank Tufts University for inviting me to speak at this important conference.  In my view, the challenges in the Greater Middle East will be the most difficult and complex foreign policy test for the United States in the years ahead.

Tufts is speaking quite clearly today by the presence of its university leadership that it agrees.  I am honored to be here with President Laurence Bacow, Provost Jamshed Bharucha, and Professor Laila Fawaz.

Tufts has recruited some of the finest experts on the Middle East in our country to debate these issues over the next two days.  I am particularly looking forward to listening later this afternoon to four of the wisest of them--Gary Sick, Karim Sadjadpour, Shai Feldman and Tufts’ own Vali Nasr--on the dangers posed to our interests by the Iranian government. 

Needless to say, this is an exceptionally  challenging time for the American people as we look out beyond our borders.  Our government, under the fresh and capable leadership of President Barack Obama, faces the most daunting foreign policy agenda  in our lifetime.  As someone who served for nearly three decades in the Foreign Service, I don’t remember a time quite like this.  

The greatest challenge, bar none, is the financial meltdown on Wall Street that has spread all around the world and the subsequent global economic crisis.  We cannot know yet, of course, either the extent or the depth of this crisis.  But, it seems  likely that we have not yet seen its worst.  The appalling loss of jobs, more than 700,000 in February alone, the massive foreclosures, the freeze in the credit markets, the present ineffectiveness of government efforts to cope with the crisis on every continent and the uncertainty that looms over it all for each one of us, seems like a bad dream that we thought could not happen again after the Great Depression.

This is, at once, our greatest domestic and our greatest foreign policy challenge.  Every other  pales in comparison.  As the economy is the fundamental pillar of our national and international strength, our ability to surmount this crisis will likely determine whether or not we can be successful in any of our other international pursuits.  This will be, necessarily,  the singular preoccupation of the Obama domestic and foreign policy teams.

 On the foreign policy front, the number of crises is no less forbidding.  Think of all that is on the plate of our new President.

Two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with no real knowledge of how either will end for the United States. 

The continuing threat to our country and all countries from terrorism.  The specter of climate change and the need for the U.S. to finally place itself at the center of the international effort to overcome it.  The spread of poverty on every continent and the possiblity of global food shortages in the next decade. 

The very real possibility of pandemics and of the further proliferation of nuclear technology and weaponry, of international crime and narcotics syndicates and of the scourge of the trafficking of women and children on every continent.

And, most importantly, there is the clear shift in the nature of this complicated international agenda.  The great majority of the world’s challenges cannot be resolved by the strongest country, our country, either isolating ourselves from the world, as we have done too often in the past, or in attempting to go it alone in the world as we tried and failed to do in the first half of this decade.  Both are sure prescriptions for failure in our international policy.

The only way forward for the United States is to lead, but in a new way and with a new attitude.  We should think of ourselves less as a global titan and more as the leader of a tightly interwoven group of like-minded countries.  We will need to lead by listening and working across borders and in strengthening the multilateral institutions, led by the United Nations, that are the heart and backbone of the international system.  And, we will need a self-awareness in our leadership that we cannot and should not seek to always get our way.  We will sometimes need to compromise.  And, we will surely need to lead through strength, but be mindful always of the need for restraint.

When you reflect for even a brief moment on the this list of top issues, it is suddenly clear that, in this new global age, we can not even contemplate acting alone in the world.  By their very definition, nearly  all of the great issues before us can only be resolved by countries acting together.  Terrorism can only be defeated by common effort.  Climate Change can only be addressed by common purpose and action.  The Middle East will only be made peaceful by many nations acting together.  And, that means that the dominant country, the U.S., must see it in its interest to invite into the leadership circle those countries which can help to mobilize the international community to act--China,  India, Brazil, Japan, Russia, the EU on a global basis, and many others on  the regional level. 

Those who predict the imminent fall from grace of the United States as the preeminent power are simply wrong. We are still the dominant power and we will remain so for many decades. 

As such, we have responsibilities and interests to advance in every part of the world.   We cannot simply focus on the regions that appear most dangerous, like the Middle East.  We have to play on all fields of the global arena.

What can we expect to see as the fundamental priorities of U.S. foreign policy in the coming months and years?

That the U.S. will work, as a first priority, with the G-20 countries to seek to stabilize the economic crisis and then slowly rebuild a shattered international economy.

In our hemisphere, we will need to coalesce with Mexico and Canada to reaffirm NAFTA and prevent the further disintegration of Haiti.

We will need to work closely with Brazil, Colombia, Peru and Panama for social justice and poverty alleviation in the Andes.

We will need to build on one of President Bush’s most significant foreign policy achievements by continuing in Africa our mult-billion and multi-year campaign to fight HIV/AIDs and Malaria and to arrest the continuing violence in the Congo--the bloodiest conflict on earth.

Europe is still vital to us and is the home of our most important alliance--NATO.  Will we be able to maintain the democratic peace in Europe achieved by President George H.W. Bush, Helmut  Kohl, Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yelstin?  Will we find a way to work more effectively with Vladimir Putin?  Can the Balkans finally overcome the savage legacy of its nearly twenty-year civil war and be integrated into a democratic Europe?

In Asia, we have the challenge of building and managing the two most important relationships for the U.S.  for the next century--with China and India.  Can we engage China successfully and avoid a future superpower struggle for supremacy in Asia and avoid war?  Can we build the promise of a partnership with India that can help to maintain a global balance of power in our favor?

Why review our global priorities in a speech about the Middle East?  Because, the United States must have a multi-faceted world view and multi-pronged global policy.  All of these priorities will require the attention and time and capital of the Obama Administration at the same time as it tackles the many problems of the Greater Middle East.

This quick and admittedly superficial review of our global interests leads to one conclusion--it is not possible to argue that the Middle East will be the epicenter of American attention for the next fifty years.  China and India will likely be that overriding priority.

But, if another question is posed--what are the most immediate and vital challenges to American security in the next five to ten years, then the answer is different and I think it is unequivocal--the Greater Middle East.

This region--violent, unsettled, unstable and often unmoored-from Arab North Africa, through Egypt and Israel, the Levant, the Gulf and Arabian Peninsula and extending from the Arabian Sea to the Indian Ocean, to Pakistan, Afghanistan and India--is without any question the place in the world where we face the most serious problems in our time and for the length of the Obama Presidency. 

For most of the last one hundred years, from the Great War to the Great Depression, from the Second World War to the five decades of the Cold War and the four Balkan Wars in the 1990s, Europe was the unquestioned epicenter of our attention because that is where the most dangerous fires were burning.  That is where our most vital interests were at stake.

In our time, those fires are now burning in the Middle East and South Asia.  America’s vital interests are most at risk in these two parts of an arc of war, violence and instability.

It makes little sense, from a policy or academic perspective, to separate these two regions.   They are linked by history, geography, trade, migration, resources and people.  They have been linked for most of human history by common  empires.  They are linked today by common issues, problems, perspectives and by the national interest of the most powerful states in the region.

It was not surprising then, that, on his second day in office, President Obama visited the State Department to announce the appointment of two of our most experienced and capable diplomats, George Mitchell and Richard Holbrooke to coordinate American policy in the Middle East and South Asia respectively.

But, the Obama Administration should go beyond that very logical and positive opening move on the international chessboard.

It  should now create a coherent strategy that links and unites our policies in both regions.  To do otherwise, risks missing the opportunities that lie across both regions and to suffer the dangers common to both.

The U.S. is a case in point.  Our interests mandate that we carefully calibrate our strategies and personnel resources in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  We will need to reflect carefully on the clear linkages that unite our Iran agenda across both regions.  We will need to balance our agenda with India and Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Israel to take account of the interests and perspectives of all these states in both regions. 

China will see that both regions are vital for its energy and trade interests.  India will do the same as it reflects on its need for Gulf oil and the remittances of hundreds of thousand of Indian citizens in that same region.  Britain and France will measure carefully the extent to which they can devote the necessary effort to help us succeed in Iraq, as well as Afghanistan.  Iran itself will clearly focus on the unity between their and our interests in South Asia as well as the Middle East.

This, of course, is not an original thought.  Increasingly, diplomats,journalists and businesspeople  see the requirement for a careful strategy uniting the two halves of this great and complicated region.

In his impressive new essay in the most recent edition of Foreign  Affairs, the journalist and strategist Robert Kaplan predicts that the Indian Ocean will be the primary focal point for conflict and opportunity in the 21st century.  He reminds us of the geographic breadth of this region stretching from the Arabian Sea across the subcontinent to the Indonesian Archipelago.  It encompasses nearly all of the Islamic world, India and China, the politics of energy and of the coming race for supremacy in Asia.  It encompasses the modern Middle East and South Asia. Kaplan reminds us that for the first time since the ascent of Portugese influence in the region in the16th century, western dominance is waning and will  most likely be replaced by a probably unsettled and possibly contentious integration of Chinese, Indian and American influence in the next half century.

We cannot properly understand the traditional agenda at the center of Middle East politics unless we see the larger canvas that is its backdrop.  As Kaplan notes, the Indian Ocean contains half of the world’s container traffic and 70 percent of the world’s oil traffic.  He asks us to think creatively about how we must confront this changing sea and landscape.  Should we expand the NATO alliance to include more of the countries of this vast region as partners?  Should we create, as Kaplan muses, a NATO of the seas to combat the Somali pirates and the regions’s drug and crime kingpins?

Kaplan sees the risk that, absent such a broad-gauged and creative new strategy to have a pan- Middle East and South Asia strategy, we may very well see the emergence of sub-regional coalitions in the future that will be more difficult to contain in an unstable and unsettled time.

As this fascinating and complicated foreign policy future unfolds, we are still left, this year and next, with the traditional and often virulent crises that we know all too well.

In  South Asia, we face in Pakistan a supreme test.  Can the United States manage to work effectively with a weak and unstable government, nuclear armed, in a country teetering on the verge of internal disintegration?  Can we manage to convince the Pakistani military to take on the Taliban and Al Qaida to reduce their influence and prevent cross-border attacks against Afghan troops and our forces in the East and South of Afghanistan.  Can the Pakistanis, at  the very least, make Al Qaida and the Taliban less safe and secure in their protected safehavens along the Pakistan-Afghan border?

In Afghanistan, which threatens to be the crucible for President Obama that Iraq was for George W. Bush, can we create a much more effective counter-insurgency strategy that will rely less on the American military and  more  on the struggle-- through economic aid, the rule  of law and food aid-- for the hearts and minds of the  Afghan tribes?

Can we build on the  extraordinary success of Presidents Bush and Clinton by expanding our regional and global agenda with India as we seek to make it our potentially most important partner in the region?

In the Middle East, I have been impressed by President Obama’s sure and fast start.  From his very first moments as President, he sent the right messages to the Moslem and Arab world in his inaugural address.  First, respect and an open hand to the Moslem peoples.  Second, the memorable reference to the clenched fist of countries such as Iran and Syria.  If you unclench your fist, we can talk.  And to the Al Qaidas  of the world, a firm and resolute, “We will defeat you.”

It is already obvious from that speech, the Al Arabiyya interview and Secretary Hillary Clinton’s trip to the region this week that the Obama Administration will be active, creative and determined to exert American ideas and influence in a positive and consistent manner.   These are very strong and positive first signals from the new Administration.

Of the many tests ahead for President Obama in the Middle East, three loom largest--Iraq, the Israeli-Palestinian division and Iran.

The President has spoken and acted most clearly on Iraq.  I found his speech at Camp Lejeune to be measured, prudent and realistic.  He is on the right track.  As my Harvard colleague, Meghan O’Sullivan said, Obama was right to shift from  “population security” to a sharper focus on counter-terrorism and training of the Iraqi military.  We should expect a fitful and uneven progression as the Iraqis struggle to take over American duties and deal with their fractious and unsettled domestic struggle among the three largest groups. 

And, as Zbigniew Brzezinski suggested recently, the U.S. should merge the military withdrawal with a wider regional process, perhaps even a security conference to prepare Iraq for a full reintegration in the region.  Iran, by definition, would need to play a major role in such a process, alongside the United States.   Brzezinski appears to see an opportunity for the U.S. in the latest phase of the Iraq crisis--the development of a broader regional strategy as the U.S. seeks to maintain its dominant position while reaching out to others to help.  This week’s announcement by Secretary Clinton of renewed dialogue with the Syrian government could be a welcome step in this direction.

In the wake of the humanitarian disaster in Gaza and the hung elections in Israel, it is not obvious that this is the right time for a major U.S. push on the intractable conflict between the Palestinians and Israel.  Both parties are fundamentally disunited.  Can we expect that the Palestinians might yet patch together a creaky Fatah-Hamas coalition?  Can Benjamin Netyanahu assemble a coalition that would agree to pursue peace negotiations?

Despite these seemingly olympian hurdles, I don’t believe the U.S. can sit on the sidelines as we have done too often in the past.  It is now nearly sixty-one years since the birth of modern Israel and the dispersal of the Palestinian people throughout the Middle East and around the world.

During this entire time, the Israelis have not know a single day of peace.  And, the Palestinians have not known a single day of justice.

It is easy to say and infinitely more difficult to achieve, but I see no alternative for Obama and team but to forge ahead in active pursuit of movement, a process, negotiations and a final peace.

Here is what the two must do to produce some energy towards a more positive future.

Can the Palestinians find their way toward even a shaky and perhaps impermanent unity?  Can Fatah and the Arab world convince Hamas to renounce the armed struggle?  Can they agree on a single delegation that would speak clearly about recognition of Israel and its need for security?

The Israelis have no less of a challenge.  Can the new government maintain a commitment to a two-state solution?  Will they admit finally that inaction might very well lead to a one-state solution when Israelis risk losing either the Jewish or democratic nature of their state or both.

Can Israel finally admit that its occupation policies on the West Bank has been self-defeating.  Conditions for average Palestinians in Gaza are intolerable.  For West Bank Palestinians they are  not much better.  Israel’s more than five hundred military checkpoints, the wall and beautiful modern roads reserved for only for settlers make life extraordinarily difficult for Palestinians of all ages.  

The plans to expand settlements are an affront to the U.S. and others who need to see more positive Israeli actions that illuminate the road to peace.  When it is more expensive to ship a container from Ramallah to Gaza than it is from Ramallah to Hong Kong, the increasingly byzantine web of restrictions and impediments to normal life risk radicalizing the majority of West Bank Palestinians.  It is not impossible that Hamas might make in the West Bank in the next few years the kind of inroads it has already made in Gaza.  Should that occur, peace will be but a faint glimmer on the far side of the horizon.

The real test for the new Israeli government will be this--can it put aside the fantasy that improving the economic life of Palestinians is a winning strategy and accept the necessity to drive toward a two-state solution.  We should know the answer to that question by summer.

Finally, Iran.  Obama showed courage and foresight when he argued as early as 2007 that it is self-defeating to boycott talking to governments we don’t like very much and sensible to engage them.  He has never wavered from that basic and correct view of diplomacy.

I hope he will stick to his intention to open negotiations with senior Iranians within the next few months.  The absence of any sustained and serious dialogue with Iran for thirty years now is an astounding and lamentable state of affairs. 

It is simply not in the American interest to know so little about the views, motivations and concerns of our most powerful and dangerous adversary in the world’s most explosive region.  It would certainly be unconscionable to go to war with such a government before we had even tried diplomacy first.

Negotiations are not a gift to an undeserving Iranian government.  Negotiations are not a sign of weakness.  Negotiations will put us on the offensive for the first time in years in this, the world’s most unusual diplomatic non-relationship.

Negotiations will test the Iranians more than the Americans.  Will  the Iranian government be sufficiently unified to actually get a delegation to a table in Geneva?  Will that delegation agree on the shape of the table and be capable of speaking with a unified point of view? 

If we can actually get a discussion going, it would make sense to discuss a variety of issues that are vital to our security--Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon and the nuclear issue.

The nuclear issue is now on the front burner once again with the disappointing news in the IAEA’s latest public report that Iran has made surprising and unexpected progress in its uranium research program. 

President Obama would be wise to stick with the multilateral framework of the P-5 Plus Germany as we will need all the leverage we can achieve and the ability to send multiple, coordinated international messages to an obdurate Iranian regime. 

It would make sense to secure an agreement from the Europeans, and, especially, China and Russia before we agree to talks with Iran.  The deal should be clear that, if the talks fail, which is probable, then Russia and China, in particular, would agree to impose much tougher economic sanctions on Iran.

I suspect that the toughest decision for President Obama and the international community lies ahead.  Should Iran grow very close to a nuclear capability or achieve it, the debate will likely focus on two, very difficult options.  Should military force be used against Iran to slow its progress or should we avoid the use of force and decide instead to contain Iran’s nuclear power much as we contained Soviet and Chinese nuclear programs throughout most of the Cold War.   That will be an excruciatingly difficult dilemma for a new President.  But, I think that very dilemma is the most likely outcome from the next flurry of international activity on Iran.

The Middle East is not for the faint of heart.  But, it is now, with South Asia, the testing ground for a new American Administration.  While the problems ahead are seemingly insurmountable, we do have some remaining strengths from which to draw.

Despite continuing anti-American sentiment in both regions, the U.S. is now the only country that can bring Palestians and Israelis to a historic peace.  We remain the key foreign factor in the drama of Iraq which has several more acts before the curtain falls.  We are surely the only country that can assemble an effective coalition to counter Iran’s most nefarious ambitions.

And, we are closer to both India and Pakistan than any other great power.

The clear influence and leverage still possessed by the United States is a unique asset.  In the hands of a skillful, calm, intelligent and thoughtful American President--and Barack Obama is all of those things--the tasks ahead will be a real challenge but not impossible to attain.  

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Burns, R. Nicholas. “War or Peace: President Obama’s Challenges in the Middle East.” March 6, 2009.