Top 7 Middle East Foreign Policy Challenges in 2016

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

My own feeling is that the US engagement with the Middle East is likely to remain so intense only for another two decades or so. As fossil fuels are replaced with renewables, the outsized role that the oil Gulf plays in world affairs will decline. The region is otherwise relatively low in resources (though apparently its phosphate could become more valuable over time). The Suez Canal will remain a strategic consideration, and the US domestic connection to Israel, while it may weaken because of the latter’s turn to fascism, will not entirely attenuate. President Obama’s instinct that the economic and diplomatic future of the US is primarily in the Pacific rim is probably correct but 20 years premature.

But in 2016 the Middle East is likely to be the hot button issue in US foreign policy. While I recognize the enormous Iran breakthrough as a major feather in the administration’s cap, I’m a critic of many of the Obama administration’s other policies in the region. We are allied with allies of al-Qaeda in Syria, allied with the Saudis in bombing Yemen, allied with the hard line Shiites in Iraq, allied with the hard line Israeli squatters in the Palestinian West Bank, and in some arenas where a little diplomacy would be helpful, we haven’t done much. These policies are pernicious and self-contradictory, and this administration only has a year to change some of them.

1. The Syria civil war is a source of instability in the world and needs to be brought to a close. Although there are no good military options for the United States in Syria, that the civil war has increasingly taken on the character of a proxy war between Russia & Iran on the one side and Saudi Arabia-Turkey on the other presents opportunities for diplomacy. There appears to be a split in the US establishment, with the Pentagon and its intelligence agencies such as the DIA opposed to the Saudi-Turkey plans for Syria, but with the CIA under John O. Brennan essentially a sidekick to Saudi policy. President Obama has an unfortunate tendency to stand back from such struggles until the last minute. He needs to tell Brennan to stop arming the so-called “vetted” rebel groups with T.O.W. anti-tank and other powerful weaponry, since every evidence is that these munitions make their way to al-Qaeda and Daesh (ISIS, ISIL). As an honest broker, the US could work with Russia & Iran to seek a transition away from Bashar al-Assad and one-party Baath rule, toward elections in which Sunni Syrians would gain representation. The Russia-Iran plan of keeping the regime in place and rolling back the rebels is impractical and ahistorical; the regime has lost its legitimacy. But the Saudi-Turkey plan of turning multicultural Syria (maybe 14%-18% Shiite and 5% Christian and 10% leftist Kurds and 60% secular Sunnis) into a Taliban emirate is also impractical (and monstrous, since the other half of the population would end up ethnically cleansed). It is clear now that neither side is likely to win a complete victory and years more fighting are unlikely to turn rural Sunni religious people into Baathists or Alawite Shiites into Salafis. Only by a negotiated end to the civil war and national elections can Syria be restored to order. Previous such conflict zones have been able to transition, if not to order, to a much less parlous situation, and there is no reason Syria cannot. Obama needs to put enormous pressure on Riyadh/ Ankara and on Moscow/Iran to get them to the negotiating table. It isn’t his instinct to buck a close ally or to put his own prestige on the line, which is why his Israel-Palestine diplomacy never went anywhere, but Syria is an even bigger threat to global order and indeed, to our civil liberties because of the terrorism emanating from it.

2. Obama’s strategy in Iraq is finally showing some success, with the recapture by a retrained, US-backed Iraqi army of Ramadi this week. The Ramadi campaign enlisted Sunni fighters alongside the national army and excluded the hard line Shiite militias, a key political necessity if Sunni Ramadi is to brought back into Baghdad’s orbit. With the Daesh loss of Samarra, Tikrit, and the oil refining city of Beiji, and with the loss of Ramadi, it really only has some smaller cities like Falluja and Hit, plus the major metropolis of Mosul. It seems clear that Daesh will be rolled back militarily and territorially over the next year or two, even if it is likely to remain a potent terrorist organization.

But President Obama and the US foreign policy establishment must not content themselves with rebuilding the Iraqi army and giving air support to it on the battlefield. Iraq has fallen apart politically. In part this collapse is a result of Bush-era favoritism for the religious Shiites and Kurds. The US now has some leverage again in Iraq, and should use it while people there think Washington is needed to push for a new grand national bargain. The Iraqi constitution needs to be rewritten, by Iraqis, to avoid the perpetual hung parliament produced by recent elections (a Kurdish bloc, a Sunni bloc and two Shiite blocs, each with a fourth of seats, all of whom despise one another and refuse to form a coalition, guarantees gridlock.) Measures need to be implemented to encourage parties to seek voters from a wide range of ethnicities. Shiite-dominated Baghdad needs to have a South Africa-style reconciliation with Iraqi Sunnis. The petroleum wealth needs to become more transparent and be more obviously invested throughout the country (I was in Baghdad about 3 years ago and couldn’t see any evidence of new construction!) As with Syria, outside powers such as Iran and Saudi Arabia need to be convinced that Iraqi social peace is in their interest. If the US does not move swiftly to try to get a new social and political bargain in Iraq, then after Daesh is defeated it will just fall apart all over again and new global security threats will emanate from it, as is the case with a similarly unreformed Afghanistan.

3. President Obama, having taken on the Israel lobbies over his deal with Iran about constraining their nuclear enrichment activities, should go further. A civil war is brewing in the West Bank, and the possibility for large scale ethnic cleansing of 2.5 million stateless Palestinians is growing. Jerusalem is becoming a global flash point that could roil the entire Muslim world. Israel’s squatting policies in the West Bank and large scale theft of Palestinian land, while denying the Palestinians citizenship in a state, is unique among evil state policies in the world. (There are other places where an unwanted government is occupying people; but in all those cases it has extended citizenship to the occupied population. Israel is the only major occupier to keep its captives stateless and completely without the rights of citizens). Israel’s policy of attempting to gradually erase even the 22% of Palestine left in 1949 from history and completely replace it territorially and demographically with Israel is monstrous and impractical, and causes enormous headaches for the United States, not to mention promoting attacks on this country because we are implicated in this evil. President Obama should simply stop blocking UN Security Council resolutions condemning predatory Israeli policies in Palestinian territory, and allow the world body to sanction Israel in the same way that Iran was sanctioned (the difference being that Iran was never proven to have done anything wrong). Obama can simply instruct Samantha Powers not to veto resolutions passed on the Palestine issue by the overwhelming majority of the UNSC; Washington does not even have to sign on to the resolution or acknowledge the imperatives of the Geneva Conventions and other instruments of international law. It can just declare neutrality. It is a simple matter but would change everything, and it is wholly in Obama’s arena of authority.

4. The US should distance itself from the Saudi-led war in Yemen, which has involved indiscriminate bombing of civilians, and put pressure on Riyadh to come to a negotiated settlement with the Houthis and the loyalists of deposed president Ali Abdullah Saleh. If the Yemen war goes on, millions will be displaced, adding to the world refugee crisis, thousands could starve or thirst to death, and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula could end up ruling entire provinces (it is the most determined of the al-Qaeda affiliates to attack the United States and the West, and was implicated in the Charlie Hebdo massacre last January).

5. President Obama has admitted that he and his allies erred in intervening in Libya and then just more or less walking away. No attempt was made to bring the militias into a national army, and little support was given elected parliamentarians. Civil society was not strengthened. Now Daesh has a slender toehold in some coastal towns. What I can’t understand is why this reflection on the president’s part does not produce new Libya policy. As far as I can see, Washington has continued to distance itself from the outcomes in that country, some of which are very dangerous. Amazingly, the diplomatic track in Libya via the UN has been having some tentative success. But the US needs to do more. It is called policy-making.

6. The U.S. government should get serious about promoting public diplomacy in the Middle East and the Muslim world. Some large proportion of antagonistic attitudes toward the US are born of bad US policy, as in Palestine. But some of it is ignorance or conspiracy theories. Most Iraqis think that the US is actively helping Daesh in Ramadi and Mosul, which is daft but a common and deeply rooted conviction. Egyptians seem to think they narrowly avoided seeing the US partition their country. People don’t know very much about the real United States. Because of security concerns, US embassies have become fortresses and diplomats have much less opportunity to interact with local nationals. I don’t think that the US government itself is very good about getting its message out. But if Qatar can fund an excellent YouTube current affairs channel like AJ+ for Millennials, why is the US unable to do so? Why aren’t contracts let for public diplomacy to our academic National Resource Centers, where US expertise about foreign languages and cultures is concentrated, instead of cutting their already meager budgets? I’m not saying they should be enlisted in propaganda, just in level-headed presentation of the realities (AJ+ is not notably ideological). You would think this is already being done. It to my knowledge is not. I pointed out when I was running the Global Americana Institute that most key texts in US political thought can’t even be found in Arabic, and that is still largely the case. It is bizarre to me that few others even seem to care.

7. The administration needs to be substantially more pro-active in combating the wave of bigotry and racism washing over American politics. Hatred of Muslim, Latinos and African-Americans is boiling over into hate crimes, with severe potential foreign policy implications. President Obama has, I think, often held back because he does not want to be seen as a racial partisan or feed the flames of the birthers’ fevered conspiracy theorists. But the situation is now too perilous to let such considerations reign. We all saw what happened when Ike Eisenhower was hesitant to take on the McCarthyites directly. President Obama has to ask himself, what would the Rev. Martin Luther King say in these circumstances? And then say it. Despite his reputation as a great orator, I haven’t heard a good speech from Obama in a long time. He has Muslim relatives. He got the Latino vote. He is an African-American. It is time he stood up for them, and for all of us with a major address and a set of policies. Since the conservatives have passed all those laws protecting people’s religious rights, the Department of Justice should establish a task force to see that Muslims’ rights are not being interfered with by local government. And Federal law already prohibits discrimination against people on grounds of race; but after Ferguson we know that there are entire towns functioning as a Casino for the wealthy white population and taking 3% for the House from the African-Americans. Aside from denouncing it in a white paper, what has the DOJ really done about these race scams?

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Related video:

PBS NewsHour: “After Ramadi, bigger fights to come in Iraq against ISIS”

22 Responses

  1. Dear Professor Cole

    The region is otherwise relatively low in resources (though apparently its phosphate could become more valuable over time

    Phosphorous is a mineral essential as a fertiliser in the food chain. It runs off the land into the sea and is recovered through fish, and seabirds as Guano.

    It is a limited resource in concentrated form and if it runs out humanity has a problem. In 2007, at the current rate of consumption, the supply of phosphorus was estimated to run out in 345 years.[4] However, some scientists believed that a “peak phosphorus” will occur in 30 years and Dana Cordell from Institute for Sustainable Futures said that at “current rates, reserves will be depleted in the next 50 to 100 years. link to en.wikipedia.org

  2. I’m loving it so far, however a quick note about a typo in Point 1? I think you did what I always do at first, insert an opening parentheses and not follow it up with the closing parentheses.

    In this sentence: “But the Saudi-Turkey plan of turning multicultural Syria (maybe 14%-18% Shiite and 5% Christian and 10% leftist Kurds and 60% secular Sunnis) into a Taliban emirate is also impractical (and monstrous, since the other half of the population would end up ethnically cleansed. ”

    there needs to be closing parentheses, I was taught that it should go after “cleansed” and before the period.

  3. The ending of Point 1 is a truly brilliant summation of the actual historical situation created by milliions of independent human actors, thank you once again Juan.

    ” It is clear now that neither side is likely to win a complete victory and years more fighting are unlikely to turn rural Sunni religious people into Baathists or Alawite Shiites into Salafis. Only by a negotiated end to the civil war and national elections can Syria be restored to order. Previous such conflict zones have been able to transition, if not to order, to a much less parlous situation, and there is no reason Syria cannot. Obama needs to put enormous pressure on Riyadh/ Ankara and on Moscow/Iran to get them to the negotiating table. It isn’t his instinct to buck a close ally or to put his own prestige on the line, which is why his Israel-Palestine diplomacy never went anywhere, but Syria is an even bigger threat to global order and indeed, to our civil liberties because of the terrorism emanating from it.”

    Everyone interested in helping humanity survive the multiple crises we may have to face in coming decades, should be jumping on, and pumping up, Juan’s point that “Only by a negotiated end to the civil war and national elections can Syria be restored to order.”

  4. Only by a negotiated end to the civil war and national elections can Syria be restored to order.

    But isn’t that what Russia, Iran, the UN, and Assad himself all seek? Others seem to want to predetermine the result of such elections. Therein lies the rub. Why must Assad, or anyone else for that matter, be excluded from elections? Surely, it should be up to the Syrian electorate roundly to reject him if that is their wish. I suspect the answer is the US and others have a pretty shrewd notion free national elections would not produce the results they want for the area, and might, heaven forfend, even reaffirm Assad’s legitimacy, a prospect too ignominious to contemplate. Russia and Iran face territorially significant threats from Daesh (ISIS, ISIL) of a magnitude not known to the US or Europe. The US doesn’t lack oil nor, of course, do Russia or Iran. It may be comforting to define this as a proxy conflict over fuel but there are increasing numbers who see it more as the painful emergence of a multi-polar balance of power. If they could be right the ME is simply one board on which this phenomenon is playing out.

    • May seem fanciful but this is exactly how multi-polar balance of power would work in practice. Two out of three combine to keep the third on the table.

      Last week, lawmakers adopted China’s first-ever dedicated anti-terrorism law. The new law’s most interesting provision, as far as foreign observers are concerned, is an article authorizing the Chinese military to take part in counter-terrorism missions abroad. Will China now join the Syrian, Russian and Iranian-led anti-terror campaign in Syria?

      link to sputniknews.com

  5. What about partitioning Syria as a solution? I know some pundits are against but I have also read some reasoned arguments for it, in USA Today for one link to usatoday.com. While partitioning might not be the best outcome at least it would stop the fighting, reduce the refugee problem, and bring most if not all the parties to the table.

    • Partition would run into problems with defining the Kurdish area unless Obama were finally to wake up and tell Erdogan to deal with it. On the other hand, Ankara might welcome anything that it thinks might help them to reclaim the “lost” Turkish lands out to Mosul and Homs. But why would any sane person want that, given the condition of Turkey’s Southeast?

  6. For 14 years America has been undergoing a full, frothing at the mouth, case of war fever. Listening to most of the Republican candidates and Hillary it seems that the fever continues. I hope that the election will show that it is subsiding.

    After the fever as subsided, the like outcome will be apathy to the Middle East. We may take on an attitude of: those ungrateful Arabs! after all that we have done for them! we are leaving! Given the current war fever, this will be a good thing. Our current foreign policy in the Middle East is little more than deciding who to bomb.

    You say that it is common for many Arabs to believe in conspiracy theories about the US? Why not, they just have to listen to our neocons talk. While they may sound like crazies baying at the moon, they are in fact representative of a major faction of the US foreign policy establishment.

  7. Thank you for this timely and insightful post. Your comment quoted below is particularly insightful:

    “Although there are no good military options for the United States in Syria, that the civil war has increasingly taken on the character of a proxy war between Russia & Iran on the one side and Saudi Arabia-Turkey on the other presents opportunities for diplomacy. ”

    Pretending that we can change the middle east as we see fit through military operations has been particularly damaging for our interests. The Iraq war demonstrated this irreversibly (we have lost so much in this war and gained absolutely nothing), and the Libya intervention also showed that we are too quick in relying on military means. As you further note, we do not engage the people of the middle east. If we were to rely on our soft-power and truly engage in diplomacy (as was done during the Iran nuclear deal), we could further our interests tremendously.

    We gained so much from the Iran nuclear deal. The prospect of an outright war severely curtailed, if not completely shelved. Similar breakthroughs are possible, and hopefully will be realized in 2016. It is time to move on from militarily intervening at the slightest opportunity, and engage in diplomacy.

  8. Depending on how weakened ISIS is after months of onslaught, i believe the biggest challenge in the middle east in 2016 might well be the position of the Kurds. With a defacto independent state in both Syria and Iraq, the Kurds are now close to a full rebellion in Turkey. The US position is all over the place, they are terrorists in Turkey, and the most important allies in Syria and Iraq. Russia on the other hand will probably support Kurdish independence because of the serious implications it will have in NATO.

  9. Obama can simply instruct Samantha Powers not to veto resolutions passed on the Palestine issue by the overwhelming majority of the UNSC; Washington does not even have to sign on to the resolution or acknowledge the imperatives of the Geneva Conventions and other instruments of international law. It can just declare neutrality. It is a simple matter but would change everything, and it is wholly in Obama’s arena of authority.

    There is nothing simple in Washington where Israel and the Israel Lobby are involved and there is an absence of moral courage.

  10. We all saw what happened when Ike Eisenhower was hesitant to take on the McCarthyites directly. President Obama has to ask himself, what would the Rev. Martin Luther King say in these circumstances? And then say it.

    It is probably too late now. Obama appears to have a serious credibility problem.

  11. I would hope that we continue to have enlightened leadership. Despite your criticism, it should be clear that Obama has been the best President regarding the Middle East since at least Eisenhower. It is my hope that we are able to withdraw in 10 years, and not 20 as you predict. As far as improving our image, to withdraw and stop meddling in Middle Eastern domestic policies would be the best thing we could do for our image. Good PR is nice, but actions are what count. Regarding Syria, I think it is ironic that we probably have more leverage with Russia and Iran over Syria than with our supposed allies Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Our best bet may be to just cut them out. As for Iraq and Libya, I fear you make the common mistake of over estimating just how much the US can accomplish. Had we become more involved in Libya, would it have turned out better? Well, the evidence in Afghanistan, Iraq and many other places suggest the answer is a resounding NO. Likewise, we can encourage the Iraqi government, or the Afghani government, to do things like be more inclusive and reduce corruption and all those good government things, and it may make no difference at all. My favorite riddle is, How many psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb? The answer is one, but the light bulb has to want to change. We cannot force good government and good decisions on the Iraqis or anyone else. They have to learn and accept that it is a bad idea to exclude Sunnis, etc. As for Israel and Palestine, the problem goes way beyond the White House. Congress is totally captured by the pro-Israeli lobby. If any president in the near future were to do something like withhold funds because of Israeli building of new settlements in the West Bank, Congress would probably immediately pass a veto proof law overturning that action. And to not veto a UN resolution would probably cause any president’s party money and votes in the next election, off year or presidential election year. Every politician knows this, so any change in this area has to be slow and incremental. As for the xenophobia and racism sweeping the country, this is almost exclusively on the Republicans and conservatives and their media allies who have chosen to politicize this issue. Their total and unreasoning opposition to Obama has led to their embrace of racists and xenophobes and, like a tar baby, they cannot unentangle themselves once caught in that embrace. Because this section of the population has attained a prominent position among the base of the party, party leaders are hesitant to criticize Trump and any others who tout these attitudes and attendant policies. Consider that almost half of the Republicans believe that Obama was born in Kenya and is a Muslim. If the GOP survives as a viable party, this will almost certainly be the most shameful period in their history. This has always been a strain in Amer5ican society and politics and nothing Obama or the Democrats can do will change this unless and until the Republicans repudiate these issues and the leaders who stoke them. A white racist in Mississippi is not going to change his or her attitude because of what a Democrat says.

    • A correction I want to make. I wrote that Obama is probably the best US president on the Middle East since Eisenhower. I forgot Carter who managed the Peace Treaty. In his post presidential career Carter has also shown a good awareness of the reality of Palestinian oppression.

      • Obama is not the best anything and far from the best US president on the Middle East. No president has been “good” on the ME. They have all been captive to intelligence agency intrigues and the oil interests. I don’t see anything changing–whoever gets elected–because there is no one with good personal knowledge of the area and the strength of character needed to buck the system.

  12. ‘6 … the US government [isn’t] very good about getting its message out.’

    That’s because the message is: ‘We’re here to exploit your mineral resources and/or cheap labor and/or the geo-strategic location of your country’.

    The notion that Uncle Sam is on a well-meaning mission to spread democracy is a self-serving neocon myth. Why hasn’t the US insisted on elected governments in the Gulf petro-monarchies?

    (But I don’t mean to quibble. Thank you for your brilliant work, Professor Cole, and Happy New Year!)

  13. You seem baffled by Obama’s detachment but it really comes down to a total lack of political courage. I think he fears getting his head blown off like the Kennedys and MLK if he takes a stand on anything.

  14. Hellmut Lotz

    I agree with you that the United States could achieve more as an honest broker in Syria and the Middle East. I also agree with you that it would be wonderful if there could be a consensus government beyond Assad and the Baath Party.

    On the other hand, I find it difficult to formulate such a demand because I cannot recognize an alternative to Assad in Syria. The survey data seems to indicate that no other force enjoys similar levels of support, that the second most popular force are the Islamists, and that the so-called liberals only receive the support of one fifth of the Syrian population.

    Who would be the alternative to Assad? Not so much a person but a societal force appears to be missing.

    • I agree with you that the United States could achieve more as an honest broker in Syria and the Middle East.

      Except the United States’ record as an “honest broker” is not encouraging.

  15. Speaking of public diplomacy or its lack, I presume you are aware that several respectable commentators in the region regard the Arab Spring as a US?CIA production like the Maidan revolt?

  16. Wise policies indeed, professor Cole! As for #3 internal politics will not permit this, especially in an election year. AIPAC is like the NRA, beyond confrontation. I think the American people would be ready for some tough talk to our Israeli friends, but not our Congress (or our media). Just look at the attack in Tel Aviv. Our MSM treated it look like it happened in one of our 50 states. Israel can be considered our 51st.

    Obama would be afraid of putting the Democrats in jeopardy, even supposing his ME opinions are more balanced.

    Bravo for pointing out the contrast between King and Obama! King was so brilliant in pointing out our racist and militaristic policies, ans showing the connections between them. After all, Obama is just another politician when all is said and done. Not in Dr King’s league!

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