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From CFR and Saban Center at Brookings - A Mideast Policy for the Obama Administration

December 2, 2008
Council on Foreign Relations

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RESTORING THE BALANCE: A MIDDLE EAST STRATEGY FOR THE NEXT PRESIDENT

A JOINT PROJECT OF THE SABAN CENTER AT BROOKINGS AND THE COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS

The Saban Center at Brookings and the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) today published Restoring the Balance: A Middle East Strategy for the Next President, a nonpartisan blueprint for the Obama administration's policy toward the most turbulent part of the world. The report offers an integrated approach to protecting and promoting U.S. interests in the region, refocusing attention away from the war in Iraq and the war on terror and toward the challenges of Arab-Israeli peacemaking and Iran's nuclear program.

The report is the culmination of an eighteen-month project that brought together the Middle East experts from Brookings and CFR. Working together in small teams, they traveled to the region, interviewed its leaders, and reviewed their ideas with a board of advisers comprised of former senior government officials and leaders in the public and private sectors, including Brent Scowcroft, Jami Miscik, Samuel R. Berger, and Joan Spero. The project was co-directed by Martin Indyk, Director of the Saban Center and Gary Samore, Director of Studies at CFR. The board of advisers was led by Brookings President Strobe Talbott and CFR President Richard N. Haass, who coauthored the report's strategic overview chapter with Indyk.

"Starting on his first day in the Oval Office, President Barack Obama will face a series of complex and interrelated challenges in the Middle East that will demand his immediate attention," Indyk said. "Given the urgency of these issues, we brought together our leading experts to provide President Obama and his advisers with an overarching strategy for dealing with this troubled region."

"From Iran's pursuit of nuclear capabilities to the faltering Arab-Israeli peace process, the challenges in the region may seem daunting," said Samore. "This report offers concrete recommendations that restore balance to U.S. strategy and elevates the role of diplomacy in dealing with these issues."

The policy papers that comprise Restoring the Balance include:

Toward a New U.S. Strategy in the Middle East: Richard N. Haass and Martin Indyk
"President Barack Obama will have to reprioritize and reorient U.S. policy toward the Middle East. For the past six years that policy has been dominated by Iraq. This need not, and should not, continue to be the case..." Instead, Haass and Indyk argue U.S. focus should be on curtailing Iran's nuclear program and "on promoting peace agreements between Israel and its Arab neighbors, in particular Syria, which is currently allied with Iran and its Hezbollah and Hamas proxies. The Syrian government is in a position to fulfill a peace agreement, and the differences between the parties appear to be bridgeable. Moreover, the potential for a strategic realignment would benefit the effort to weaken Iran's influence in the sensitive core of the region, reduce external support for both Hezbollah and Hamas, and improve prospects for stability in Lebanon."

The Evolution of Iraq Strategy: Stephen Biddle, Michael E. O'Hanlon, Kenneth M. Pollock
"Our suggested approach is ‘conditions-based' and somewhat gradual in the time horizon envisioned for reducing American forces in Iraq. But it also foresees the possibility that most (though not all) main American combat forces will come out of Iraq by 2011, and it further argues that the United States needs to continue to seek ways to gain leverage over Iraqi decisionmakers rather than assure them of an unconditional and open-ended U.S. commitment."

A New U.S. Policy toward Iran: Suzanne Maloney, Ray Takeyh
"The Obama administration may be tempted to take the easy way out by offering merely new rhetoric and modest refinements to the carrot-and-stick approach that has failed its five predecessors. This would be a mistake. Today, to deal effectively with a rising Iran, the United States must embark on a far deeper reevaluation of its strategy and launch a comprehensive diplomatic initiative to attempt to engage its most enduring Middle Eastern foe." The authors recommend "normalizing low-level diplomatic relations so that the U.S. government can gain familiarity with Iranian officials and achieve a better understanding of Iranian political dynamics. American officials are currently forbidden from direct contact with their Iranian counterparts, a stipulation that further degrades the already limited capacity of the U.S. government to interpret Iran."

Managing Nuclear Proliferation: Bruce Riedel, Gary Samore
"The Obama administration will likely have some breathing space to develop a new diplomatic approach to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability. Part of this new approach should involve direct and unconditional talks between the United States and Iran on a range of bilateral issues, as well as formal nuclear negotiations between Iran and the EU-3 plus 3 (France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, plus China, Russia, and the United States). To make these negotiations effective, the new administration should seek agreement among the EU-3 plus 3 to support stronger political and economic sanctions if Iran rejects an offer to resolve the nuclear issue and improve bilateral relations with the United States. Faced with more attractive inducements and the prospect of more serious sanctions, the Iranian regime might be persuaded to limit its nuclear activities below the threshold of a nuclear breakout capability."

Addressing the Arab-Israeli Conflict: Steven A. Cook, Shibley Telhami
"After seven years on the back burner of American foreign policy, Arab-Israeli peacemaking needs to become a priority for the new president...Washington should support conciliation between Fatah and Hamas as a way to diminish the Islamists' incentive to undermine negotiations, forcing Hamas to either accept a peace agreement that addresses Palestinian rights or lose the support of the Palestinian public. The aim should be less to ‘reform' Hamas than to put in place political arrangements that are conducive to successful negotiations and that limit Hamas's incentives to be a spoiler."

Economic and Political Development: Isobel Coleman, Tamara Cofman Wittes

"America's long-term interests are still best served by encouraging its authoritarian allies to move along a path of liberalizing political and economic reforms. The United States should use its economic and political leverage to help build a more stable and prosperous Middle East that gives a vast and rising young generation hope for the future and reason to resist the dark visions purveyed by regional radicals. Only through more open and transparent political and economic systems will the region be able to accommodate the demands of its unprecedented youth bulge; only through expanding participation in politics will Arab leaders be able to develop their political legitimacy with this new generation and build public support for key policies, including both painful economic reforms and strategic cooperation with the United States."

Counterterrorism and U.S. Policy: Daniel Byman, Steven Simon
"President Obama should make counterterrorism an integral part of his approach to the Middle East but not the only driver of his regional policy... Counterterrorism, therefore, should be seen as a significant policy concern but weighed among many interests." The authors argue the U.S. should "strengthen local capacities to counter violent extremism. Terrorism is best fought by governments in the region, but the United States can play a key role in bolstering their intelligence, police, financial, and other capabilities."

Full versions of select chapters, as well as executive summaries of each chapter, are available online at the project's websites:

www.brookings.edu/projects/saban-cfr.aspx
www.cfr.org/restoring_the_balance

For more information, to contact an expert, or to request a copy of the book, please contact Lisa Shields, Vice President for Communications and Marketing, Council on Foreign Relations, 1.212.434.9888, communications@cfr.org, or Gail Chalef, Director of Communications for Foreign Policy at Brookings, 1.202.797.4396, gchalef@brookings.edu.

The Brookings Institution is a nonprofit public policy organization based in Washington, DC. The Brookings mission is to conduct high-quality, independent research that provides innovative, practical recommendations that advance three broad goals: strengthens American democracy; fosters the economic and social welfare, security and opportunity of all Americans and secures a more open, safe, prosperous and cooperative international system.

The Council on Foreign Relations is an independent, nonpartisan membership organization, think tank, and publisher dedicated to being a resource for its members, government officials, business executives, journalists, educators and students, civic and religious leaders, and other interested citizens in order to help them better understand the world and the foreign policy choices facing the United States and other countries.

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