As Americans begin to debate the merits of John McCain and Barack Obama, the Middle East is roiling. Just as the 1948 Israel war of independence triggered the collapse of the old order and the Six Day War of 1967 spurred profound shifts in both Israeli and Arab societies, the events of the past eight years have brought the region to a precipice.
To grapple with the quandaries of the Middle East, America will need a president of intellectual independence, strategic flexibility and considerable political imagination. He will have to be conscious of history without being shackled by it, alive to the emerging Arab narrative and prepared to shape it, while protecting American interests.
Although the Middle East is never short of problems, three in particular will dominate the next president’s foreign policy agenda: The war in Iraq, the inflamed Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the looming shadow of a nuclear Iran.
Iraq is engaged in an unstable transition. Over time, it could disintegrate, remain a weak state dominated by its neighbors and an arena for their competition, or become a strong country led by an increasingly self-confident military. The creation of a Sunni militia largely separate from Iraqi national security forces, a key part of the surge strategy, may yet foster division, rather than cohesion. Nor can anyone say how the intra-Shiite conflict will turn out. The next president will need to have both the nerve and resilience to advance U.S. interests amid such deep uncertainty.
Iran is a country that has often confounded American expectations. The image of a defiant President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad denying the Holocaust and insisting on a divine right to nuclear power justifiably worries the West. Although the conservative consolidation of power seems intact, voices of right-wing dissent declare that Ahmadinejad’s bombast is damaging Iran’s interests.
America is not the only country preparing for presidential elections; next summer Iranians will also go to the polls. Should Ahmadinejad be displaced, it will not be by a liberal reformer pledging a dialogue of civilizations, but by another conservative who might be open to a different relationship with the United States. Is America ready for a post-Ahmadinejad Iran ruled by reactionaries?
The Israel-Palestine conflict has entered similarly uncharted waters. A poisonous brew of Israeli political paralysis, internecine warfare between Palestinians, and U.S. inattention has created serious doubt that Israel and a Palestinian state could ever live securely side-by-side. The rise of Hamas, an explicitly Islamist party, whose militia was capable of routing its secular Fatah rival in just a few days, has decisively changed the rules of the game.
There is little in the extensive record of U.S. mediation to guide Washington’s mandatory re-engagement in the new dispensation. The next administration will have to blend innovation and resolution to traverse this altered landscape and return with a viable two-state solution.
Of the two men contesting the presidency, John McCain’s worldview, shaped by a war that ended nearly a half century ago, seems ill-suited for such turbulent times. As president, he would bring to the job a rigid conviction that America can win all wars, if it only has the will to fight on. Prone to see reality in black and white, McCain would find it particularly difficult to deal, for example, with Iranian conservatives who may denigrate America as the “Great Satan,” while seeking to accommodate American power.
Barack Obama would begin his prospective presidency with advantages not entirely of his own making. Coming on the heels of a president widely reviled in the region, his election would be welcomed throughout the region. To this highly perishable advantage, he brings a willingness to examine existing policies in new light and a tendency to discard tired shibboleths.
Obama’s plan to withdraw most U.S. military troops from Iraq is grounded in the larger geopolitical context and an understanding that pursuing the chimera of victory will exact a high cost in terms of America’s more pressing priorities.
Obama’s offer to undertake comprehensive negotiations with Iran may not yield a desired outcome, but we do know that the existing policy hurts America in Iraq and in the larger region. Looking westward, he sees Israel’s security - to which he has pledged unflagging U.S. support - as best served by a successful Palestinian state rather than by Israeli military power alone. This mind-set equips him to seize opportunities to channel forces in the region in ways that favor a long-term stability, a clear U.S. interest.
Of course, not all opportunities pan out and the risk of failure must not be discounted.
This is a decisive moment for the Middle East. The decisions and choices that will be made in the next few years will condition the region’s political culture and strategic alignments for decades to come. The United States cannot escape responsibility for the current crisis. Washington’s actions have hastened the region’s march to cliff’s edge. In this dangerous moment, American interests in the Middle East will require a departure from old paradigms.
If Obama wins the election, let’s hope that he follows through on his promise. If McCain is victorious, let’s hope that his celebrated maverick side subdues his attachment to an old and ineffectual foreign policy.
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