The New Administration's First 100 Days
September 29th, 2008
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The following exchange with Center director Hillel Fradkin appeared on MESH.
The First One Hundred Days
At this very moment, the foreign policy teams of Presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama are planning their Middle East strategy. At this stage, it isn’t presumptuous to do so—to the contrary, it would be negligent not to. Papers are being refined, on Iraq, Iran, terrorism, Israel-Palestinians, Israel-Syria, energy, and more.
With that in mind, MESH devotes this week to a roundtable of its members on the theme “The First 100 Days.” MESH members have been asked these questions: What priorities should the next administration set for immediate attention in the Middle East? What should it put (or leave) on the back burner? Is there anything a new president should do or say right out of the gate? And if a president asked you to peer into your crystal ball and predict the next Middle East crisis likely to sideswipe him, what would your prediction be?
MESH members’ answers will appear in installments throughout the week. We begin with responses from Daniel Byman, Mark T. Clark, and Hillel Fradkin.
Daniel Byman: The change in administration will offer no relief on the challenges of Iran’s nuclear program, counter-insurgency and state-building in Iraq, and the need to revive Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and keep the Syria-Israel talks moving. Several possible threats also loom and may force themselves upon a new administration’s agenda. In addition, the new administration should undertake several new initiatives to address issues neglected by the Bush administration.
One area of neglect is the challenge of Iraq’s refugees. The over two million Iraqi refugees could destabilize several neighboring states and play a role in sustaining or increasing conflict in Iraq itself. Given the mismanagement of the occupation, the United States also has a moral responsibility to assist those devastated by the civil strife. Vastly increasing the number of refugees the United States itself accepts is one step, but so too is aiding allies like Jordan that are bearing much of the weight of the refugee problem.
A vital area—and perhaps the most important medium-term issue—is the need for a new and comprehensive Pakistan policy. Pakistan is the nerve center for Al Qaeda and the insurgency in Afghanistan. In addition, with a new but weak democratic government in place, Pakistan’s relationship with the United States has fundamentally changed. In addition, the Bush administration often neglected policy toward Pakistan (as opposed to counterterrorism operations related to Pakistan) despite its obvious importance to U.S. national security. A new administration should initiate a comprehensive review of Pakistan policy and ensure that it is implemented across the bureaucracies.
It is easy to say that a new crisis is likely to emerge from the Middle East, but those who offer specific predictions about the region usually look back at their prognostications with embarrassment. However, a number of new crises could easily arise from the Middle East region and be the first high-profile foreign policy test of a new administration. They include:
- A major terrorist attack on a U.S. facility overseas or even the U.S. homeland based out of tribal parts of Pakistan. The Bush administration reportedly has authorized U.S. forces to strike directly into Pakistan without Islamabad’s permission, but a major terrorist attack would put considerable pressure on the U.S.-Pakistan relationship and the new government there.
- A sustained Israeli operation in Gaza. Should rocket attacks from Gaza resume to the point where they threaten Israeli cities outside the Sderot area, or should a rocket strike in that area kill a large number of Israelis, political pressure to respond militarily will be immense. Because Israeli leaders want to avoid a repeat of the Lebanon War in 2006 and worry that Hamas is using its control over Gaza to build up a Hezbollah-like military, they will face pressure to reoccupy parts of Gaza—a move that many U.S. allies around the world, and all U.S. Arab allies, would loudly criticize.
- The Awakening Councils rebel. Iraq has made progress in part because the United States has successfully partnered with a wide range of local Sunni tribal and militia groups—many of which oppose the Shi’a-dominated government of Nuri al-Maliki. As the Maliki government tries to consolidate power, it is seeking to disarm these groups. This effort may succeed, but it is also possible that some militias will not go gently and Baghdad will not be able to coerce them or, in so doing, fuels the sectarian fires that appear to be diminishing. The United States may find itself caught between its warring partners.
Mark T. Clark: Biggest issue. The Iranian nuclear program will remain the single most important item on the new president’s agenda. The window of opportunity to halt the Iranian quest for a nuclear bomb is closing rapidly. Within that window, the possibility that Israel may preempt the nascent Iranian program increases daily. Robert O. Freedman has shown the growing disparity between the U.S. and Israeli perspectives on the need to strike key nodes of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, and I can find no reason to disagree with him. Chuck Freilich may be correct that Iran may still be dissuadable diplomatically, but the time necessary for diplomacy to work may be rapidly drawing to a close. Depending on what the next president says at inauguration, the Israelis may feel compelled to act, with or without U.S. help.
Biggest problem. The single biggest problem for the United States will be its strategic inflexibility in the Middle East. Although U.S. “surge” forces in Iraq will be reduced soon, the need to spend time and attention on Afghanistan will continue to constrain U.S. military power. While a mini-surge in Afghanistan may help slow down neo-Taliban advances, it cannot solve some of the more intractable problems of governance in that country, which I discussed here. We may need to remain in Afghanistan for some time to come.
Biggest unknown variable. The biggest unknown variable will be the actions—or inaction—of Hezbollah in Lebanon against Israel. Also, I cannot discount an Iranian-supported alliance between Hezbollah and Hamas starting a two-front war to deter—or counter—a planned or executed Israeli strike on the Iranian nuclear program.
Biggest back burner issue. The “Israeli-Palestinian” dispute should remain on the backburner, at least until the Palestinians form a more coherent and peaceable government.
Biggest geopolitical surprise. Russia’s traditional interest in the Middle East may be on the rise. After invading parts of Georgia, Russia may be more confident about its relative power, despite international opposition. Although only Syria supported the Russian action, Russia’s willingness to sell missile and air defense programs to Iran and its opposition to stronger sanctions may indicate a willingness to increase its footprint in the Middle East while circumscribing U.S. options. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Russia and Iran announce some kind of entente cordiale, all in the name of “peace” and as a means to gain more leverage over other states in the region.
First speech. The next president should address the Iranian nuclear program and the need for greater U.S. strategic flexibility in the region. What he says, and how he says it, will set the tone for the next four years.
Hillel Fradkin: Under almost any plausible scenario, the new administration’s first 100 days will be dominated by issues of the Greater Middle East. The two most obvious and somewhat related ones are the war in Iraq and the challenge, threat and question of Iran. But the issue of the war in Afghanistan and relations with Pakistan is coming more and more to the fore. This points to one striking and relatively new general feature of our engagement in the Middle East: the center of gravity of our concerns has shifted markedly eastward. The main thing which tends to push our concerns in the opposite direction is the aggressive efforts of Iran through proxies in Syria, Lebanon and Palestine. As this has happened in a somewhat ad hoc way, it is unclear whether American strategy has been rethought to take this shift fully into account. This might be one of the first steps that a new administration might have to take.
As for Iraq, our primary concern will be the continued improvement in the security situation and progress on the political front—including the question of local and regional elections and their impact on the developing Iraqi political dynamic. This is not only important for our efforts in Iraq but in the way we are perceived in the region generally as a future actor. Prior to the recent success—and partially as a result of American domestic politics—our resolve to stay engaged had come into question, encouraging foes and discouraging allies. This was destined to add to the difficulties of any new administration. This dynamic has now been partially interrupted by the decision that was taken to remain committed to Iraq and the success which that has produced. But it will be important for either a McCain or Obama administration to affirm this recent success and declare American resolve to build upon it. This will be especially true of an Obama administration, which will otherwise buy itself several months of trouble as nations in the region test the limits of his and our resolve. Obama’s recent statements seem to indicate a growing appreciation of this fact.
As urgent as our Iraqi concerns will be, our concerns with Iran may well be even more urgent. This is because the main existing approaches—the diplomatic initiative launched in 2003 and led by the EU 3 and the sanctions initiative at the UN—are now clearly at a dead end. At the same time—and despite the misleading NIE of November 2007—Iran has continued the vigorous pursuit of nuclear-weapon and related capacities such as advanced missile technology.
The new administration will have to address two questions: Should it entertain very much more forceful measures—including military action—to prevent Iran from achieving a nuclear weapon? If not, and if it is therefore necessary to accept the eventuality of an Iranian nuclear capacity, what will be the consequences for American interests in the region and how must it restructure its policies to address them? Given the dramatic change in the strategic situation that a nuclear Iran would effect, a reconsideration of our strategy and tactics will have to be especially wide-ranging. It may be advisable and even necessary for a new administration to announce a wholesale review of our policy towards Iran.
There are two particularly troubling possible developments which might present the new administration with its first “crises” in the region. The first would be a major initiative by Iran to stir up trouble through proxies—either on the Iraqi front or with regard to Lebanon and Israel. The other would concern Pakistan and could entail either a serious deterioration in Pakistani-U.S. relations or Pakistani civil disorder or both. It is likely in any event that the question of Pakistan will demand immediate attention.
The issue least likely to demand such attention is the Israeli-Palestinian question. This is at least partially a reflection of the shift in the center of gravity from the Persian Gulf eastward, as noted above.
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