from Campaign 2008

’Tremendous Expectations’ for President Obama in Middle East

Scott Lasensky, a Middle East expert, says the new U.S. administration should listen carefully to voices from the Middle East and that President Barack Obama’s first speeches will be scrutinized for signals on his approach.

December 5, 2008

Interview
To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

Scott Lasensky, a Middle East expert and co-author of the book Negotiating Arab-Israeli Peace: American Leadership in the Middle East, says the new U.S. administration should listen carefully to voices from the Middle East and that President-elect Barack Obama’s first speeches will be watched carefully for signals on what his approach will be. Lasensky says "it will be important to articulate priorities as early as possible."

Let’s imagine it’s a few weeks after the inauguration, and the National Security Council team is meeting, and discussions turn to the Middle East. What are the expectations, and what should be the priorities of the new Obama administration?

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There’s no doubt but that in the Middle East there are tremendous expectations about the new President, Vice President [Joseph] Biden, and Secretary of State [Hillary] Clinton. I think messages and signals and symbols early on are going to matter. There’s a long American tradition of trying to fix problems in the Middle East and not contribute to them. So one of the challenges for the new administration is to reach back in the past of American diplomacy, and to find those elements in which we were a force for greater stability and progress in the region, and to remind ourselves of some of those lessons. And we’ll have to learn a few new tricks, because the strategic context is different now from the 1990s or during the Cold War. Prior to any action plan is coming up with a clear idea of the situation on the ground. Right now, the situation in the region is dismal. There’s no doubt that the Middle East is conflicted, unstable, and transnational threats are challenging Middle East order. American influence has been badly diminished and tarnished in recent years. Our friends seem to be besieged by our adversaries. Iran has extended its influence while America’s influence seems to be diminishing. Thus, the setting on day one is a challenging one, and I think that’s something that the new administration will have to look at in a very frank way.

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First and foremost, the first priority of the new administration has to be to listen, to let key players, whether they are our allies or our adversaries, or somewhere in between, know that we, as a great power, have the ability to listen. I know that may sound trite, or naïve, but after eight years of what is perceived in the Middle East and elsewhere around the world as a long period of American dictates,  it’s important that we can show that we listen. In addition to listening it’s important that the administration send out its own signals because people are going to want to know who’s in charge. And it will be important to articulate priorities as early as possible. President-elect Obama and important members of his national security team have made it clear in recent months that they see many issues in the Middle East as interconnected, and they want to have an approach that deals with them on an interconnected basis.

Give an example of this "interconnection."

Look at the prospective Israeli-Syrian peace negotiations. What are the connections to the Iran question? How could a revived Israel-Syrian negotiation benefit American withdrawal from Iraq or create regional diplomacy to stabilize Iraq?

Syrian-Israeli negotiations are currently going on through Turkish intermediaries. The Bush administration has kept hands off of these negotiations. Do you think the new administration should, early on, indicate its willingness to join in as a mediator if called upon?

I think there’s no question that the administration, like every administration up until the current one, is not going to stand in the way when the Israelis and the Arabs want to sit down and negotiate. Beyond that, I think it’s important in the first month of the new administration to think through what those revived negotiations would mean for the whole host of other American priorities, particularly Iraq. As we seek to change our military posture in Iraq, we’re going to inevitably be drawn into diplomacy and to negotiations and deal-making and trade-offs, not just with Iraqi factions but with Iraq’s neighbors.

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Of course Iraq has now signed, and the Iraqi government has ratified, the Status of Forces Agreement, which calls on the withdrawal of  U.S. troops by the end of 2011. This gets into the question of Iran, which is of course Iraq’s significant neighbor, and has close relations with Syria. Are you thinking that a successful Israeli-Syrian negotiation might have an impact on Iran?

The question of Iraq, and the question of Iran’s nuclear program, and the general U.S.-Iranian dynamic are issues that bind the question of Iraq and Iran together. Obama has pledged to try to explore whether engagement can be used with Iran. There are a set of subsidiary issues that could affect that larger relationship, and one of those could be revived Israeli-Syrian negotiations, or a move to stabilize Israeli-Palestinian relations, where Iran has been probing for influence. And there’s the question of Afghanistan. All of those issues relate to Iran because the Iranian regime has its hand in all those places. There are things that the president-elect probably will explore early on that could have great political and great historical importance and yet on the substantive level carry relatively little risk.

These are questions like, under what conditions do we sit down with Iranian officials. The Bush administration already has broached setting up an American diplomatic presence in Iran, an "interests section," despite the lack of formal diplomatic relations. That is a relatively low-hanging fruit for the incoming administration. That could be developed in a way where perhaps it is simultaneous with an Iranian diplomatic presence in Washington. That could send a very powerful message. Now, there’s no guarantee these steps will affect the larger, strategic  problems. Dialogue is essential and dialogue with enemies is something that so many American presidents, whether Democrats or Republicans, have accepted. Dialogue might not work, but it’s a necessary element to the our foreign policy.

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On the interest section in Iran, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the other day that the Bush administration was too late in its term to do anything on this and had left it to the new administration. I assume they have had talks about this already, and it’ll be up to the Obama administration whether it wants to go ahead with it.

I would say two things. First, the very fact that it has been discussed publicly sends a positive signal to the Iranians. Our positive signal hopefully can be reciprocated with a positive signal on the Iranian front. I think it makes it easier for the Obama administration to pick up on that idea and to try to move forward, early on. It makes it easier that the idea had already been broached. An interests section is important symbolically, but it also gets at the larger question of what our strategy is going to be: is it to be instruments of power and coercion and containment, or are we going to have a mix of diplomatic and coercive tools?

On the Israeli-Palestinian questions, these are of course in a kind of hiatus here. There won’t be a new Israeli prime minister until the February elections, and this gives time for a review of the whole subject. Do you think the new administration should change the American policy of not dealing with Hamas, for instance?

In any transition everything gets thrown on the table and reevaluated. The question of whether the United States should have a direct dialogue or some type of engagement with Hamas is really not the heart of the matter. The heart of the matter now, in Palestinian-Israeli talks, is for both sides to get their houses in order. There are elections on the Israeli side, and there might be some election on the Palestinian side. The Palestinians have their own internal need for national unity which, if accomplished, only benefits the United States and other supporters of the peace process. The Palestinian-Israeli track, though it may not be right early on for some dramatic steps, does require attention, and it does require an on the ground envoy, not someone who is necessarily developing the "Grand Bargain," the end game round of negotiations, but someone who’s dealing with some of the day-to-day questions of security and economics. I think it would be a smart move to appoint one member of the team to be there often or based on a semi-permanent basis to deal with these issues. Whether or not the incoming Obama administration appoints a Middle East envoy to deal with the high-level diplomacy depends on what kind of political process we think is possible. Some of the best envoys we’ve had in recent memory in the Middle East  have often been secretaries of States themselves,  James Baker and Henry Kissinger, for instance.  It is better to have a policy without an envoy than an envoy without a policy.

There seems to be a general consensus among Middle East experts that there has to be early movement to make clear what the United States wants to do and its willingness to listen and to promote dialogues. If the Iranians don’t accept offers to negotiate differences, and they continue to go ahead with their nuclear enrichment program, that’s going to cause problems, won’t it?

That would under any circumstance. I think the fact [is] that the United States is in a pretty good bargaining position now. There’s unanimity across the board among other outside actors: the UN, the EU, even some parties in the region, and the United States on some of the most important questions regarding Iran like the nuclear one. Second, the falling oil prices are pinching the Iranian economy. The Iranians have their own presidential elections coming up in June. I think the United States is in a pretty good bargaining position, particularly because we want to put all the issues on the table.  Should the relationship head toward confrontation with Iran, we go into it from a position of strength, having explored diplomatic avenues.

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