Top 10 Challenges Facing the US in the Middle East, 2008

10. Helping broker a deal in Lebanon between the March 14 Movement and the Shiites so that a new president can be elected and a national unity government can be formed.

Lebanon’s economy was badly damaged by the Israeli war on the poor little country in summer of 2006. Tourism is a big part of that economy, and is being hurt by the continued political instability. Given historically high oil prices, Iran will probably make $56 billion from petroleum sales this year. That gives it lots of carrots to hand out in Lebanon. If the Lebanese were better off, foreign oil money would not be as important to them. Likewise, the country’s poverty breeds social ills. Hizbullah militiamen might be harder to find if there was well-paying work for young men in the south. The dire poverty of Palestinians in camps such as Nahr al-Bared near Tripoli has made them open to predations by Mafia-like groups linked to al-Qaeda. Just a couple of weeks ago, Lebanese security broke up a plot to blow up churches in Zahle on the part of a small group of jihadis. An economically flourishing Lebanon would be less likely to be beset by these ills. The Levant is not that far away from the US or its major interests, and it is very unwise to allow the pathological situation in Lebanon to fester. A prosperous, healthy Lebanon is good for US security and is less likely to become the cat’s paw of regional powers hostile to US interests.

9. The US should exercise its good offices to encourage continued dialogue between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The capture of Baghdad by the Shiites and the ethnic cleansing of most Sunnis from it have set the stage for a big Sunni-Shiite battle for the capital as soon as the US troops get out of the way. It is absolutely essential to Gulf security, and to American energy security, that Saudi Arabia and Iran not be drawn into a proxy Sunni-Shiite war in Iraq. Keeping in close contact with each other and with Iraqis of the other sect is the best way for them to avoid a replay of the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s. Those in the Bush administration who dream of an Israeli-Saudi alliance against Iran are playing with fire, a fire that is likely to boomerang on the US. If the Persian Gulf goes up any further in flames, the resulting unprecedentedly high petroleum prices will likely finally produce a bad impact on the US economy. Instead, the US should be attempting to bring Iran in from the cold, now that the NIE has absolved it of nuclear-weapons ambitions.

8. Congress should expand funding for, and guarantee the future of, the Combatting Terrorism Center at West Point. Its researchers do among the very best jobs of analyzing the writings and activities of the Salafi Jihadis, and so of combatting them. Few government institutions are as effective. If the US government were serious about the threat of terrorism, I would not even have to make this plea. Of course, if Bush and Cheney had really cared about the threat of al-Qaeda, they would have gone after it and gotten Bin Laden and al-Zawahiri rather than rushing off on a fool’s errand in Iraq.

7. The US must repair its tattered relations with Turkey. Turkey has been a NATO ally for decades and Turkish troops fought alongside American ones in the Korean War. Turkey stood with the US in the Cold War and gave the US bases on its soil. As a secular country, it is an ally in the struggle against the Salafi Jihadis, for which even religious Turks have contempt. Turkey has among the more promising economies in the Middle East, among non-oil states, and is attracting billions in foreign investment. The US has for some strange reason stiffed Turkey several times in the past decade. The Clinton administration promised Turkey a billion dollars in restitution for the monies it lost during the Gulf War, and then Congress refused to appropriate the money. More recently, the US has unleashed a virulent and violent Kurdish nationalism by allying with Massoud Barzani in Iraq. Barzani in turn has given safe harbor to guerrillas of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), who have been going over the border and killing Turks, then retreating to Iraq. The Bush administration has tried to resolve this probably by helping the Turks bombard PKK positions inside Iraq, but that is not ideal. Instead, the US should put economic and other pressure on Barzani to expel the PKK from Iraq.

6. The US must keep the pressure on Pervez Musharraf to hold free and fair, early elections in Pakistan. The elections probably cannot be held on Jan. 8, as planned, because of the extensive turmoil and destruction of polling stations and ballots during the past few days. But they should not be postponed past March 1. Musharraf’s own legitimacy has collapsed, and he is in danger of becoming a Shah of Iran figure, hated by his own people and driven from office. Such a scenario could be very bad for the United States. That is why Joe Biden is right and John McCain is wrong when the latter warns against dumping Musharraf. Why cannot the American Right learn that backing the wrong horse is often worse than not having a horse in the first place?

5. The US and NATO have to stop doing search and destroy missions in Afghanistan. The Pushtun tribespeople are never going to put up with tens of thousands of foreign troops in their country, and, indeed, in their underwear drawers. Search and destroy missions just multiply feuds with local people. The NATO and US military missions in Afghanistan have to be redefined so that they are not simply putting down tribes for the central government. The best Afghan central governments have ruled by playing the tribes off against one another, not by trying to crush them. The solutions in Afghanistan are political and economic. More reconstruction needs to be done. Farmers need aid to be weaned off poppies. Forced eradication of poppy crops appears to be behind a lot of the “Taliban resurgence,” which actually often looks to me from a distance like angry farmers taking revenge for the destruction of their livelihoods.

4. The US must facilitate provincial elections in Iraq. They are arguably more important than any other step. They would solve a number of important problems.

The Sunni Arab provinces of Al-Anbar, Salahuddin, Ninevah and Diyala have unrepresentative governments (Diyalah, 60% Sunni, is ruled by the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, a hard line Shiite group!) The Sunni Arab parties declined to run in January, 2005, and there have been no subsequent provincial elections. Representative Sunni provincial governments could negotiate from a greater position of strength with the federal government of Shiite Dawa Party leader and prime minister Nuri al-Maliki. Some of the Awakening Councils members, who are self-appointed, might get elected and so gain greater legitimacy.

Without legitimate provincial governments in the Sunni Arab provinces, it is hard to see how the US can hope to withdraw troops and turn over security to locals, as Gen. Petraeus had planned to do in Mosul this year.

In the south, Basra needs new elections because its provincial government saw a major division this year, leading to an ISCI-led vote of no confidence in the governor, who is from the Islamic Virtue Party. But then the governor refused to step down! Ineffective governance in oil-rich Basra, which contains the country’s only major ports, is bad for the whole country. In some other southern provinces, such as Diwaniya, a more representative provincial government might make for more social peace.

What I am saying now is not new, and Ambassador Ryan Crocker and Gen. Petraeus have repeatedly called for such elections. I am saying, now is the time to make a big push for them. If the US starts drawing down troops this year, it will make it harder to hold elections, since the Iraqi security forces probably cannot keep the voters dafe. If the US leaves behind the current provincial governments, as with Diyala, Diwaniya and Basra in particular, it is probably leaving behind provincial civil wars.

3. The US Congress must allocate substantial funds, on the order of $1 billion or more, for Iraqi refugee relief in Syria and Jordan. UNO relief funds are running out. Iraqis’ own savings are running out. Children are not in school and are going hungry. People are being exploited, including young girls forced into prostitution. A majority of the 1.5 million Iraqis in Syria went there in 2007, and almost all of them have been forced out of Baghdad and other areas because of the political instability that the United States unleashed in their country. The surge is being touted as a victory in the US press, but it seems to have displaced 700,000 Iraqi civilians! The US is spending $15 billion a month on the Iraqi and Afghanistan Wars. It can afford $1 billion a year for refugee relief. This is our responsibility. How future generations of Iraqis view the United States will in part depend on whether we do this. I ask all Americans to write your congressional representatives and press them on this humanitarian issue.

2. The Bush administration should expend all of its remaining political capital in the region to have the Israelis return the Golan Heights to Syria. The Golan was captured in 1967. By the United Nations Charter, countries may not permanently grab the territory of their neighbors. The Syrians will have to agree to keep the Golan a demilitarized zone, with UNO blue helmets patrolling as a safeguard. In return, Syria would have to agree to cease backing Palestinian militants and would have to play a positive role in creating a Palestinian state. Damascus would also have to work to restore social peace in Lebanon. Such a deal might help to detach Syria from its alliance with Iran. That in turn would weaken Hizbullah. This deal would be good for Israeli security, and if it helped speed up the creation of a Palestinian state, might even keep Israel from falling into the Apartheid situation that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert recently said he fears.

1. The US must insist that the Israeli siege of Gaza must be lifted. A third of Palestinians killed by Israel this year were innocent civilians. The agricultural sector is being destroyed because farmers cannot export their goods owing to the Israeli blockade. Food, water, essential medicines are all being denied to civilian populations, including children. If Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is so worried about Israel being seen as an Apartheid state, he should release Gazans from their penitentiary and stop deploying collective punishment against civilians.