Obama's Next Move in the Middle East

The fighting in Gaza over the past week tees up some difficult choices for the Obama administration. But not the choices you might think. The pundit-verse wants to argue—as it always does—about who is at fault, whose civilians are more innocent, whose targeting is more wicked. This is tapped-out domestic politics, and it is tiresome. More to the point, it does not help; it encourages a short-term, tunnel-vision response that will wind up back in the same place—which is to say more deaths, more escalation, another Cast Lead, and loss of credibility and ability to make tough decisions stick.

Yes, the administration must push hard, and help Egypt push Hamas hard, for a cease-fire. And no, no administration would choose this moment, in the middle of the Israeli election campaign and with Hamas rocket fire escalating in recent weeks, to “get tough” on Israel.

Those are the easy choices, like them or not. The hard choices involve settling on a unified theory of what our core interests in the Middle East are and which policies and strategies will effectively pursue those interests as well as our core values.

Do we prioritize progress toward regional stability based on democracy, both for its own merits and because we believe that in the long run, democracies will best provide stability, cooperate with us on energy and geopolitical issues, counter extremism, and live peacefully with Israel?

In that case, we had better give preference to two tough challenges: First, finding and leading a response to the crisis in Syria, which threatens Lebanon and Jordan as well as the idea that the West truly supports Arab self-government. Second, working with the elected Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt—both helping it lead successful cease-fire talks in Gaza and pressing it to reopen itself to the liberals who left the constitution-drafting committee this weekend. An extended crisis in Gaza distracts from Syria and weakens the voices of moderation in Cairo. If democratic stability is our priority, we have to push hard to prevent escalation in Gaza—and then turn, quickly, to Syria, and do what we can to bring Egypt, Turkey, the Gulf States, and even Iran together to end the violence in Gaza and institute a successor government with a hope of stability and legitimacy.

Or, do we see as the more pressing problem Iran’s quest for a nuclear weapon, which if not prevented renders progress on democracy or regional peace impossible or meaningless? As Roger Cohen wrote in The New York Times last week, “It’s Iran, stupid. … War with Iran would be devastating, to a Middle East in transition, to U.S. interests from Afghanistan to Egypt, and to the global economy. The time available for averting conflict is limited.” 

In that case, we had better let nothing get in the way of clear signals to Tehran. Senior administration staff's time should be taken to develop—and quietly sell to key voices outside it—a negotiating offer that secures our key interests by putting any Iranian nuclear activity back under full international scrutiny and ending any that could lead to production of weapons-grade fuel. Such a deal will also have to include some things Iran wants—ratcheting down sanctions, renewing Iran’s access to global commerce—giving Iran cover to say “yes,” or clarifying to the world that Iran had a good “yes” and chose to say “no.” Under this scenario, Israel, Egypt, and Hamas can be left more or less on their own to work things out—and Tehran can take notice that, what Israel did to Hamas rockets, it could do to Hezbollah rockets. And—this is a significant and—Tehran will need to understand clearly what it can expect in Syria. Humanitarian concerns will explicitly be put aside, on the grounds that the potential Iranian bomb poses a bigger humanitarian threat.

Some may protest that the security of our Israeli allies must be our chief concern. Ok, then, which of the two approaches above will best manage Israel’s security problems, not just this week, but for decades to come?

Others say, either with hardened realism or progressive outrage, that it’s all about oil. In that case, which poses the greater threat to the reliability of the flow of oil: an aggressive, nuclear-armed Iran in the Persian Gulf or violent, increasingly extreme power shifts in countries across the region, eventually extending to Gulf states as well?

The next question is, what about direct negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians? Shouldn’t the administration’s first priority be restarting the Middle East peace process?

The hard truth here is no. Not because, as Mitt Romney famously said when he thought the cameras were off, we should “kick the ball down the field.” But because in the midst of Israel’s election campaign, the Palestinian authority’s campaign for U.N. recognition, and the collapse of legitimacy in both halves of Palestine, the challenge is in helping governments on all sides emerge with the public trust that makes negotiation and compromise possible.

That challenge is considerable. As Daniel Byman pointed out this weekend in Foreign Affairs, and has been pointed out before, it will require giving Israelis great assurances on security; paying more attention to the needs of the Palestinian Authority; and a willingness to offer Hamas genuine political engagement, if Hamas chooses to step away from resistance. It will be easier to do that on the Israeli side if Iran is dealt with, and it will be easier to do it on the Palestinian side if the U.S. is working in partnership with the Arab world.

The American people could be forgiven for not having thought about there being any connections at all among these issues. Too much reporting and policymaking treats Iran, Syria, and Egypt as if they were on three separate continents. (And somehow Israel has the misfortune to be on all three.)

So we are back to our choice, which is not a choice, because the hell of governing, rather than writing op-eds, is that real life resists this kind of schematic prioritization. You wind up choosing by not choosing, prioritizing by not prioritizing, trying desperately to have it both ways or at least to convince your allies that they can have it both ways.

What’s happening in Gaza and Israel is a tragedy. It needs to stop. But it will instead become a bigger tragedy if the administration and progressives allow outrage over the immediate to cloud the hard long-term choices that must be made, and soon.  Above all, it needs not to derail thinking, planning, and the hard work of diplomacy on strands of the Middle East knot that can be untied, now.

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