Openings for a New Middle East Policy
For the first time in nearly a decade, the United States has an opportunity this year to radically change U.S. policy in the Middle East in a way that could have an impact comparable to the U.S. opening to China 35 years ago. This change could affect U.S. relations with all countries in the region, especially Iran.It might appear delusional to express hope for transformation when the administration, Congress and the public are consumed with the failures of U.S. policy in Iraq. But as someone who first traveled to the Middle East in the late 1960s, and who has lived in and traveled to many of the major centers of the region, I see signs pointing to possibilities for a new regional policy that I have not observed in years.
The discussions I’ve been having with congressional staff, administration officials, and some leading policy analysts here in Washington suggest that many different forces recognize the imperative of putting critical issues back on the negotiating table that haven’t been seriously discussed for a decade. For instance, behind the scenes, and almost completely unnoticed, Zalmay Khalilzad, outgoing U.S. ambassador in Baghdad and future ambassador to the United Nations, has had talks with violent, anti-government insurgents in Iraq about conditions for a cease fire and their returning to the negotiating table.
Even at the height of the rhetorical jousting between the U.S. and Iran, Secretary of State Rice authorized direct contacts between U.S. and Iranian diplomats. Here at FCNL we see new energy from many different quarters for policy makers to engage in discussions about solutions to the Arab-Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Part of the opportunity for a new policy is a result of the dangers presented by the unraveling of Iraq, the threatened U.S. war with Iran, and the deteriorating Arab-Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The growing alarm in much of the U.S. foreign policy establishment at the collapse of policy in the Middle East, combined with the renewed willingness of Congress to accept its role as a partner in foreign policy issues and the addition of constructive public pressure, I feel, could now propel a change in U.S. policy in this administration and set a standard for the next.
Bipartisan Iraq Study Group
This growing alarm is what propelled Congress to establish a bipartisan task force, the Iraq Study Group (ISG), to look into U.S. policy in Iraq led by Ronald Reagan’s former chief of staff James Baker and former Indiana Representative Lee Hamilton.
When the ISG report appeared in December, The Guardian of London termed it “not merely a repudiation of the disastrous United States policy in Iraq” but “something larger and more strategically potent in the history of the early 21st century—an implicit repudiation of the entire divisive international and domestic political project” that the U.S. has been pursuing since the September 11 attacks. We here at FCNL believe that the ISG report offers a way back from the abyss.
The report begins by stating that “the situation in Iraq is grave and deteriorating.” This statement alone was an important step away from the unreality, denial, and spin that characterized so much of the prior discourse about the war.
The report also recommended a significantly scaled back role for U.S. military forces in Iraq. The U.S. should not, it said, make an open-ended commitment to keep large numbers of U.S. troops in Iraq and should redeploy most combat brigades out of Iraq by the end of March 2008.
The best remedy available, the report advised, was an “inside-outside” strategy of negotiations involving the warring factions in Iraq and all of Iraq’s neighbors. The inside strategy would require that the Sunni insurgents and the Shia militias fighting the U.S. and the Iraqi government be drawn into negotiations. The negotiations would work toward agreement on sharing Iraq’s oil wealth, amending the constitution to secure the position of minority Sunnis, holding local elections, and granting amnesty to those who took part in the fighting.
The outside strategy was the ISG’s boldest recommendation and its greatest departure from the policies that the U.S. has pursued in the years since the September 11 attacks. The U.S., the report urged, must open talks with all of Iraq’s neighbors, especially with Iran and Syria, whom the U.S. had labeled as sponsors of terror and refused to talk with unless they accepted U.S. demands in advance.
Skillful diplomacy, the report argued, could capitalize on Iranian and Syrian interests in avoiding the collapse of Iraq and in normalizing relations with the U.S. and the rest of the international community. At the very least, inclusive regional negotiations could prevent the war from spilling over beyond Iraq’s borders and could create an international framework to support the inside strategy aimed at Iraqi national reconciliation.
But the ISG’s outside strategy was not limited to regional and international diplomacy on Iraq. “Iraq cannot be addressed effectively in isolation from other major regional issues, interests, and unresolved conflicts,” the report said. “To put it simply, all key issues in the Middle East—the Arab-Israeli conflict, Iraq, Iran, the need for political and economic reforms, and extremism and terrorism—are inextricably linked.”
I lived in Jerusalem and then worked as head of the Friends School in Ramallah on the West Bank, and I can tell you that this “link” is a statement of fact that everyone in the Middle East acknowledges, but few in the U.S. administration or Congress have been willing to consider. Vigorous new U.S. efforts to achieve an Arab-Israeli-Palestinian peace are essential to reduce hostility to the U.S. in the region and to secure the trade-offs needed to stabilize Iraq.
Recruiting Tool Denied
An Israeli-Palestinian settlement would deprive Islamic extremists in the Arab world, Iran, and the wider Muslim world of a main recruiting tool against the U.S. and its regional allies. It would provide Syria with an irresistible incentive to help the U.S. in Iraq, to exercise a constructive influence in Lebanon and to end Syrian support for the violence of Hizbollah and Hamas.
In emphasizing the need to engage Iran on Iraq and to address other important issues concerning Iran, the ISG acknowledged Iran’s importance in the region and urged that the U.S. needed to open the door to negotiations that it has insistently kept shut.
The Iranians want full relations with the United States. In May 2003, the Iranian president told the U.S. his country was prepared to negotiate a means to verify that Iran was not pursuing nuclear weapons, to map out cooperation on Iraq, to oppose al-Qaida, to discourage violence by Hizbollah and Hamas, and to support a two-state solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In return, Iran was asking the U.S. to lift economic sanctions, end U.S. efforts at regime change, recognize Iran's legitimate security needs, and allow Iran access to peaceful nuclear, biological and chemical technology. The Bush administration rejected the Iranian initiative four years ago as insignificant or insincere. Iranian leaders essentially confirmed to Joe Volk, during his recent trip to Iran, that these principles could be the basis for negotiations.
Many Obstacles Remain
Neither the Bush administration nor Congress have rushed to adopt the Iraq Study Group report. In his January speech on Iraq the president rejected all of the ISG’s key recommendations (while praising the report and accepting some of its minor points). Some favorable comments were heard in Congress, but also much criticism.
Nevertheless, the Iraq Study Group recommendations have gained ground in recent weeks. In March, the House adopted legislation requiring the redeployment of U.S. combat troops out of Iraq no later than August 31, 2008. A committee report attached to the legislation urged the administration to pursue the ISG recommendations for regional diplomacy. The Senate attached similar conditions to its supplemental funding for the war.
If Congress could be persuaded to continue to insist that the Iraq Study Group report should be a cornerstone of future U.S. policy in the Middle East, this would amount to a major step forward in U.S. policy toward the region. The ISG’s diplomatic recommendations amount to a repudiation of U.S. unilateralism in foreign policy and near exclusive reliance on military force of recent years. The Baker-Hamilton approach instead prescribes multilateral problem solving, a willingness to talk to and accommodate the interests of all stakeholders, and the use of incentives as well as disincentives to reach agreement. It would be hard to imagine a more radical break with the U.S. foreign policy of the last six years.