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The Middle East, one of the world’s most volatile and conflict-ridden regions, continues to pose some of the most dangerous threats to U.S. security. Regrettably, the Obama Administration has failed to formulate effective policies for addressing the challenges posed by the rising power of Iran, the turbulence of the “Arab Spring,” and the chronic Israeli–Palestinian conflict.
Iran’s hostile regime has been one of the chief beneficiaries of the political turmoil that has convulsed the Middle East during the “Arab Spring,” which distracted the United States and other countries from the ongoing standoff over Iran’s nuclear program. The dramatic events diverted international attention from Tehran’s stubborn defiance of repeated U.N. Security Council resolutions on the nuclear issue. There is a distinct danger that Tehran will conclude that growing regional instability is tilting the balance of power in its favor and will give it greater latitude to press ahead with its nuclear weapons program. This could result in a preventive strike by Israel against Iran’s nuclear infrastructure and, if Iran actually attains a nuclear weapon, greater instability and the possibility of a nuclear war in the volatile Middle East.
The “Arab Spring”
The so-called Arab Spring, which began in Tunisia in December 2010, turned into a long hot summer and an angry autumn in much of the Arab Middle East. While pro-Western rulers were toppled in Tunisia and Egypt, entrenched dictatorships have fought back hard in Libya and Syria. Although the initial pro-democracy impetus of the popular demonstrations was encouraging, Islamist extremists and other radical forces are positioned to exploit the ensuing political turmoil, power vacuums, and economic disruptions.
The Administration’s hesitant and inconsistent responses to the unfolding populist uprisings have made the situation worse. The Administration quickly abandoned longtime ally President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt while equivocating for five months before calling for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down, despite the fact that Assad’s regime has a much worse human rights record, remains a leading state sponsor of terrorism, and is Iran’s chief ally in the region.
Rather than develop a long-term strategy to advance American interests and freedom in the Middle East, the Obama Administration has focused on the short-term symptoms of dysfunctional dictatorships. It plunged into an ill-considered war in Libya to enforce United Nations Security Council resolutions aimed at easing a humanitarian crisis, but the Syrian crisis, which involved a regime that posed a much greater threat to U.S. interests, received little attention, in part because Syria received greater backing from Russia in the U.N. Security Council. The United States should go to war only to defend vital national interests, not at the whim of the U.N. Security Council.
The Obama Administration’s policy toward Syria, like its policy toward Iran, has been flawed by wishful thinking about the prospects for diplomatically persuading a hostile dictatorship to stop repressing its own people and supporting terrorism. The Administration was slow to condemn the Assad regime for its crimes against Syrians, was slow to ramp up sanctions on the regime, and dragged its feet before finally concluding that Assad had lost legitimacy as a leader. It should have been clear that the Assad regime was illegitimate from the beginning.
At the same time, the Administration launched a war in Libya, where no vital U.S. national interests were threatened, without a clear military plan or exit strategy. The Administration’s short-sighted effort to score a quick and easy military victory over Colonel Muammar Qadhafi’s regime failed to end the threat to civilians in “days not weeks,” as President Obama promised. Instead, Qadhafi fought on for seven months in a brutal civil war that killed an estimated 50,000 Libyans before he was captured and killed in late October 2011. Meanwhile, the Administration turned the military mission over to NATO and “led from behind,” confusing allies and adversaries about the U.S. commitment to a decisive victory. It also involved the U.S. in an open-ended military intervention in support of groups that were not adequately vetted and thus may not turn out to be friendly toward the United States. The public emergence of Islamist military commanders within Libya’s new regime and its declaration that Islamic law would be the basis for a new constitution have raised disturbing questions about the nature of Libya’s new rulers.
The Israeli–Palestinian Conflict
The chief barriers to peace are Palestinian terrorist attacks, not Israeli settlements. Many Israeli settlements are located in areas that eventually could be folded into Israel in exchange for equal amounts of Israeli territory transferred to Palestinian control, if and when borders are agreed upon in a final settlement. Yet when the Administration sought to revive the comatose peace process, which has been on American-supplied life support since the collapse of the 2000 Camp David summit, it made a settlement freeze the centerpiece of its strategy. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government agreed to a temporary freeze of West Bank settlements but balked at halting housing construction in east Jerusalem, which is claimed by both Israelis and Palestinians. It was unwise for the Administration to push for a settlement freeze in Jerusalem that no Israeli government could agree to in the absence of rapid movement for a permanent peace settlement that would include ironclad provisions to ensure Israel’s security against terrorist attacks.
The Administration’s primary focus on the settlements guaranteed friction with Israel’s center-right government and hardened the Palestinian negotiating position, because Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas could not be seen as less opposed to settlements than is the United States. Despite the fact that Palestinians had negotiated for many years without gaining such a settlement freeze, Abbas has made it a condition for resuming talks. As long as this emphasis on halting construction in Jerusalem continues, there is likely to be little progress on negotiations because the Palestinians will sit back and let Washington extract concessions from Israel without feeling any need to reciprocate with concessions of their own. To make matters worse, Abbas chose to push for the United Nations to endorse unilateral Palestinian statehood rather than relying on negotiations with Israel, which is the only genuine path to peace.
Adopt an agenda to bring freedom to Iran. The U.S. has wasted much time and effort, both in trying to engage Tehran on the nuclear issue and on secret talks to broker a regional solution in Afghanistan. Iran’s diplomatic strategy uses this engagement to buy time to advance its own regional agenda, press ahead with its nuclear program, and undermine the prospect of new sanctions. The Iranian regime is dangerous when left unchecked. Pushing back is the only way to counter the regime’s quest for regional dominance and weaken its hold on the Iranian people. The Administration should start by aggressively implementing existing sanctions, particularly against foreign oil companies involved in Iran’s oil and gas industry, which it held back from imposing to avoid friction with our allies and China. The Foundation for the Defense of Democracies has identified over 20 foreign companies involved in Iranian energy projects that should be penalized. A bipartisan congressional coalition has drafted the Iran Threat Reduction Act, which would require a more robust enforcement of energy sanctions against Iran and add new sanctions against foreign companies that buy oil or natural gas from entities controlled by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. Washington should also press its allies to escalate their sanctions against Tehran and join international condemnation of Iran’s human rights abuses. In the long run, a free Iran is the best hope for peace and security in the volatile Middle East. Washington must make it clear that the United States stands with the Iranian people, not with the repressive regime of the ayatollahs.
To deter Tehran from continuing its nuclear weapons efforts and exporting terrorism, the United States must maintain a credible military option. But the Obama Administration has downplayed the possible use of military force, as part of its failed engagement policy. Even after Iranian Revolutionary Guards were caught red-handed in a foiled plot to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador in a Washington, D.C., restaurant, the Administration reacted complacently, promising to consult its allies and impose unspecified sanctions. This flaccid response to a terrorist plot that would have been an act of war will do little to deter Iranian aggression. The United States cannot go back to the failed pre-9/11 policy of treating international terrorism as a simple crime. It must hold Iran’s rogue regime accountable for its hostile policies and consider taking military action against suitable, feasible and acceptable Iranian targets. Continuing to ignore Iran’s state support for terrorism will only embolden Tehran to risk further terrorist acts and maintain its efforts to obtain a nuclear bomb, one of the world’s most terrifying weapons.