international analysis and commentary

Cutting the Gordian Knot in the Midde East: first tackle Iran

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Perhaps the greatest besetting sin of foreign policy analysts is to list problems and interests, rather than to weigh them. Such a conceptual failing strikes at the heart of the Obama administration’s frustrating inability to articulate its priorities in the Middle East. For despite all the tough talk of how realist the administration is, upon inspection it can be ideologically characterized as a fairly garden variety Wilsonian team. And Wilsonianism, while adept at noting the importance of everything, has a much harder time assigning priorities to a world it so comprehensively describes.

Instead, in Wilsonian fashion, administration representatives tend to list their policies toward Iraq, Iran and Middle East peace as though all were equally important. But to care about everything is in reality to care about nothing; not choosing becomes a choice. Once again, the administration’s problems in the region provide an excellent tool to look at the advantages of a genuinely realist worldview. First among these is the strength to think in terms of the national interest, a concept that forces one not to duck the critical argument surrounding which priorities are vital, and which are less important.

Rule 2a: Iraq: Don’t worry about things you can’t change
For a long time it has seemed clear that Iraq is on a trajectory that is unlikely to fundamentally change, whatever the exertions of the United States. It will neither entirely fall apart, as that fails to serve the wishes of the majority of the country, and certainly not the desires of its neighbors. But neither does there seem any chance that it will emerge anytime soon as the modern, prosperous, tolerant democracy promised so glibly by American neoconservatives. Rather Iraq seems destined to muddle along as a sort of Lebanon-lite, full of sectarian tension, unhappy, unstable, but never quite falling apart.

The recent results of the general election confirm this unchanging trend line. Contrary to the wishful thinking of the optimists, the vast majority of Iraqis continued to vote along sectarian lines. The good news is that Iyad Allawi, the most secular candidate and the one trying the hardest to win cross-sectarian support, defeated Prime Minister al-Maliki at the post, winning 91 seats to the incumbent’s 89. This semi-virtuous example of the electoral benefits of genuinely reaching out across sectarian lines would seem to be very good news indeed.

However, on closer inspection, sectarian parties of all stripes will remain the kingmakers of Iraqi politics, essential to put either Allawi or al-Maliki over the top. This is particularly true of Muqtada al-Sadr’s Shia religious front, which came in a strong third, winning 70 seats. It is more than a little ironic that the United State has spent $1 trillion over the course of the Iraq war and the reconstruction that followed, only to establish an electoral system that results in its sworn enemy holding the democratic balance of power. So score one for the pessimists as well.

Given its fixed and mixed trajectory, America has an ongoing but diminishing interest in the Iraqi drama. Iraq, simmering along unhappily, is not now a place that the United States should expend more effort than is necessary to get to the withdrawal date.

Rule 2b: Middle East peace: Foreign policy must be about politics as much as ideas
Most analysts tend to follow the path of least resistance, focusing on the details of a Middle East peace settlement to the exclusion of the politics necessary to make such a deal stick, because it is the politics and not the outline of the deal that is so devilishly difficult. The Palestinians have two political groupings – Fatah and Hamas – unable and unwilling to work together. Worse, they have diametrically opposed views about the peace process, with Fatah agreeing to negotiate with Israel for less than maximalist goals, while Hamas prefers the pipedream of getting all that it wants; as such it wants nothing to do with the reality of final status talks with the Netanyahu government. Given the hopelessly fractured current state of the Palestinian cause, it makes sense, from an American point of view, to not waste a lot of time on Mideast peace.

Even if this were to change it seems unlikely that the current Netanyahu government will wish to reach a deal anyhow. Given the nature of the Prime Minister’s coalition, where he is dependent on the Israeli far right for survival, no such agreement could be countenanced without a coalition realignment with Kadima in the Israeli political center, something that would severely limit the Prime Minister’s political room for maneuver.

In addition, during the course of his long political life, while Netanyahu seems open to a peace deal, he envisions so crippled a Palestinian state that no leader of the freedom movement could survive – either physically or politically – if he or she were to embrace a Palestinian entity without real sovereignty, which is all Netanyahu seems willing to offer. Bottom line, there is no local political will at present on either side to reach a deal. It’s best to get low-level talks resumed and… wait for things to change.

Rule 3: Iran: know when you have reached the strategically important
The administration has dithered between focusing on the peace process and the Iran crisis, instead sagely telling all and sundry how the two are interlinked, just as one would expect Wilsonians to do. And of course they are right. But beyond a certain point, this doesn’t actually tell us very much. Of course understanding interrelationships and linkages is a vital part of creating a successful foreign policy; but equally so is prioritizing between different events, countries and goals.

This is something the Obama administration seems to have a hard time grasping. His rather leisurely efforts up to now, going back on deadline after deadline in the face of Iranian intransigence, opting for sanctions that are unlikely to change anyone’s mind in Tehran about the nuclear program and doing so over endless months while the centrifuges spin, does not seem to imply that the President sees the coming crisis as all that important.

And that is hard to fathom. For there can be only two basic outcomes to the crisis; both radically alter the region: 1. a bombing – successful or not – would lead Iran to retaliate with strikes through its Hezbollah and Hamas allies on Israel. 2. a radicalization of the Arab world would put pro-Western regimes at real peril, prove a recruiting bonanza for al-Qaeda, make the American strategic footprint in both Afghanistan and Iraq almost untenable, and could well lead to an oil spike with Iran threatening the Straits of Hormuz, just as the world economy slowly gets back to its feet.

On the other had, Iran acquiring nukes would make a mockery of the nonproliferation control regime, and this could well lead to a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, with a very nervous Israel looking on, and America’s global prestige diminished as the ordering power without putting anything in its place. And in my view this is the better option.

Certainly, if even some of these consequences come to pass, this is where the President, above almost anything else he is doing, should be focusing. His inability to see that primary American national interests are at stake here, and to act accordingly, above all represents the Wilsonian intellectual failure to prioritize. For we are not essentially confronted by a laundry list of troubles in the Middle East today, but rather by two simmering but containable crises (Iraq and Middle East peace) and one game changing problem (Iran), directly impacting – whatever happens – America’s primary national interests.