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US Needs to Rethink Strategy in the Middle East, Must Get Back to Basics

By Joe Barnes and Andrew Bowen

Baker Institute, Al-Jazeerah, CCUN, June 29, 2015 



The United States must rethink its strategy in addressing key Middle East concerns, from the Islamic State to Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, according to a joint paper by experts at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy and the Center for the National Interest. They advocate for the U.S. to use its substantial military, economic and diplomatic means to overcome recent shortcomings in the region and influence developments to the country’s advantage.

“Rethinking U.S. Strategy in the Middle East” was co-authored by Joe Barnes, the Bonner Means Baker Fellow at the Baker Institute, and Andrew Bowen, senior fellow and director of Middle East studies at the Center for the National Interest.

“As we will stress in this paper, any such strategy must go beyond the usual bromides of U.S. ‘leadership’ and ‘engagement,’ terms routinely deployed in the absence of any consideration of what the goals of that leadership and engagement should be,” the authors said. “U.S. leadership and engagement must, of course, play a part in any U.S. strategy in the Middle East. But leadership and engagement must be subservient to the objectives of U.S. strategy, which are the protection and, if possible, the advancement of our core interests in the region.” Barnes and Bowen concede policymakers and opinion shapers are aware of those interests, ranging from the unimpeded flow of oil to international markets to reducing the threat of terrorism to the U.S. But they said such considerations can often be lost during a crisis when there is a rapidly deteriorating situation and the demands for decisive action “can lead to policies unmoored from a sober assessment of the United States’ true stakes in the conflict.”

“A successful strategy must possess the flexibility needed to address rapidly changing events; an understanding of the limits of U.S. power, as significant as it is; the necessity of matching abstract rhetoric to actual policies; the imperative of accepting trade-offs -- even excruciating ones -- between U.S. interests and values; and an appreciation of the risks posed by 'mission creep,' by which limited, short-term interventions can expand in scope and lengthen in duration,” the authors said. “But the first and, arguably, most critical step is to ‘get back to basics’ by a hardheaded examination of our core interests.”

The authors provide recommendations on a range of issues of strategic importance, from Iraq to oil and terrorism. In addressing Iraq, “the U.S. needs to be realistic about what it can accomplish …,” they said. “Containment of ISIL comes first; without the introduction of substantial U.S. ground forces, retaking Sunni areas will be a long-term project. Even should major population centers be occupied by anti-ISIL forces, the U.S. can expect continued low-level combat; and the arming of anti-ISIL Sunni Arabs may simply lay the groundwork for more sectarian conflict if and when the immediate ISIL threat subsides.”

Looking to Syria, the U.S. should pursue a policy of enhanced containment that focuses on how the U.S., working with its allies, can better support Syria’s neighbors as they deal with the security and socio-economic challenges posed by an ongoing civil war across their border, the authors said. “The stability of these states, which in the case of Jordan and Israel are long-standing allies of the U.S., is critical for the stability of the region and the protection of the United States’ interests in the region,” they said. In relations with Iran, it is in the interest of the U.S. to conclude a nuclear deal that substantially extends the amount of time it would take Tehran to achieve “breakout” nuclear capacity, the authors said. “The provisional arrangement announced in April 2015 is an important step in this direction,” they said. “The opposition to any final agreement will be fierce. But the question is not whether any such agreement is the best we could have achieved; it is whether any such agreement is preferable to the alternatives.”

When it comes to Israeli-Palestinian peace, the U.S. should be “very wary of launching another high-level round of negotiations without a clear signal from both Israel and the Palestinian Authority that they are prepared to make new and significant concessions,” the authors said. “Such high-level negotiations not only raise expectations the U.S. must be prepared to meet, they can also -- as witnessed by (Secretary of State John) Kerry’s intensive involvement in his failed 2013-2015 initiative -- consume the immensely valuable time of senior U.S. policymakers.”

The following is one of the paper's sections but the full paper can be accessed through the link below. 

The Arab-Israeli Peace Process

The United States has long supported a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. It has undertaken extensive negotiations to achieve this goal under Presidents George H.W. Bush (the Madrid conference), Bill Clinton (the Camp David talks), George W. Bush (the Annapolis conference), and Barak Obama (the Kerry initiative of 2013-2014.) The United States’ reasons are several. First, the U.S. has believed that a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute is a precondition to full normalization of relations between Israel and Arab states. Second, the continued Israeli occupation of the West Bank and, until 2005, Gaza has complicated U.S. relations with the Arab world.

Repeated U.S. efforts to broker an agreement on a two-state solution have failed. Indeed, such a solution is arguably further away than it was at the time of Oslo Accords 20 years ago.

At an abstract level, an agreement would appear reachable. Both the Israeli government and the Palestinian National Authority have formally endorsed the idea of two states (the position of Hamas, which has refused to recognize Israel, is ambiguous). Even Israel’s commitment is suspect; toward the end of the recent Israeli election campaign, Prime Minister Netanyahu signaled his opposition to a two-state solution. Though he subsequently backtracked, his statement confirms what many have long suspected: that he sees peace negotiations primarily as a means to placate the United States. Whatever Netanyahu’s real motives, significant and intractable issues nonetheless divide the two sides. Theoretically, the U.S. has vast leverage over both parties. Israel is a recipient of significant military U.S. largesse; more importantly, perhaps, is the diplomatic support that the United States deploys on Israel’s behalf in international fora like the United Nations. The United States also has significant leverage of the Palestinians, who understand—given U.S. support for Israel and the power the U.S. wields in the Middle East

and, indeed, globally—that an independent Palestinian state is simply impossible without Washington’s active support. Yet the U.S. has never effectively used this leverage to broker a final settlement; in particular, the extreme sensitivity, in the U.S. Congress and elsewhere, to any perceived effort to pressure Israel has severely limited any president’s freedom of action when it comes to pushing the two parties to a settlement.

The time hardly seems opportune for a U.S.-led effort to achieve a two-state solution. The Palestinian leadership is divided between the PLO and Hamas. As noted, Netanyahu’s commitment to a two-state solution is ambiguous at best. Relations between the Israeli prime minister and Obama remain—to put it politely—strained. And the domestic constraints facing the Obama administration with a presidential election in 2016 are perhaps more stringent than ever. From the outset, many observers gave the Kerry initiative of 2013-2014 little chance for success; their pessimism was proven well founded. The possibility of any two-state solution is, at this point, an open question. It may be that the continued expansion of settler populations on the West Bank now means that the creation of a viable Palestinian state is beyond the practical reach of negotiation. We may well see a continuation of the status quo—an uneasy Israeli occupation of the West Bank marked by intermittent outbursts of violence—for years or decades to come. Palestinians could perhaps enjoy more formal recognition by individual states and certain international fora where the United States does not hold a veto. But recognition does not a functioning, independent state make.

In any case, the salience of the issue has declined. Events like the Israeli operation against Gaza in the summer of 2014 can prompt renewed sympathy for the Palestinian cause across the Arab world and elsewhere. Even then, Hamas could not count on support from Egypt and most Gulf Arab states, which perceived it as part of a broader radical Islamic threat. But other events in the region—notably the Arab Awakening and the rise of ISIL—have consumed the attention of policymakers inside and outside the region. Arab solidarity for the Palestinian cause has long been as rhetorical as it is real. Today, this is more true than ever.



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