US president’s State of the Union comment that Middle East conflicts “dated back millennia” met with online ridicule.
With three simultaneous wars raging in the Middle East, a more assertive Russia, a fruitless negotiation process between the Palestinians and the Israelis, President-elect Donald Trump is likely to face colossal foreign policy challenges.
Four Arab scholars offer policy recommendations on how best to address a legacy of mistrust and decades of failed policies.
| Diana Buttu, human rights lawyer and former legal adviser to the Palestinian negotiating team
‘End Israel’s military rule’
As you absorb the results of your hard-fought election victory, your mind will now undoubtedly turn to what needs to be done as the next US President. Needless to say, there is much on your plate that you will need to tackle, both domestically and internationally.
As someone who worked on the negotiations for years, I can attest to the futility of demanding that a people under occupation negotiate with their occupier and oppressor.
One would hope that Palestine and the now nearly 50-year Israeli denial of Palestinian freedom would be among those issues.
While your predecessors wasted years focusing on conflict management through a fruitless negotiation process, today, we are no closer to Palestinian freedom than when this farcical peace process started.
Palestine is now riddled with nearly 750,000 Israeli settlers, four times more than when this process began in 1993. Today in Israel, a right-wing, fascist government prevails that consists of ministers who are illegal settlers, those who have called for the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians and who have declared that Palestinians in Israel should have their heads “chopped off” for challenging Israeli policy.
At the same time, Palestinians are saddled with a leadership and government whose term expired several years ago. With these grim realities, it may be easy to do as your predecessor and bury your head in the sand, ignoring the Middle East.
Yet, what the Middle East needs now is to do something different so as to end Israel’s military rule over Palestine.
Here is what can be done:
A) Abandon the idea that Palestinian freedom can only come through bilateral negotiations. We should not be forced to negotiate our freedom, nor should we be required to continue to serve as Israel’s security subcontractor. As someone who worked on the negotiations for years, I can attest to the futility of demanding that a people under occupation negotiate with their occupier and oppressor.
B) Support the growing Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement, rather than block global grassroots efforts to hold Israel accountable. Impose sanctions on Israel for its continued denial of Palestinian freedom, its siege on Gaza and its continued colonisation of Palestinian land.
Israel should not be allowed to continue to benefit from its continued occupation. And, just as the world community has expressed concerns over Palestinian leaders, so too should you start boycotting this right-wing government that believes it is perfectly acceptable to pass discriminatory laws, call Palestinians “snakes” and support ethnic cleansing.
C) Press for Palestinian elections for legitimate leaders. Leaving aside Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s major shortcomings and failures as a leader, he is also now illegitimate. Our democracy should not be held hostage any longer. Palestinians need to elect a leadership that is reflective of our young population and not remain saddled by this illegitimate and octogenarian leadership.
By pressing for these issues you will go down in history as US’ first president to win such an unprecedented victory but also as one who ended Israel’s military rule by going against the standard operating protocol on Palestine.
If you do not, you will go down in history as just another president who failed to deliver.
|Bassam Haddad, director of the Middle East Programme at George Mason and co-editor of Jadaliyya|
‘US can still do a lot more, but in the direction of International law and human rights’
Providing recommendations on the Middle East to US policymakers or the president-elect is a bit of a delusional act if you consider the different metrics some of us proceed from.
Despite an abundance of good minds, US policy over the past five to six decades has been devastating for the people of the region, and pretty good for Arab autocrats and economic elites alike, as well as for the apartheid state of Israel.
US policy over the past five to six decades has been devastating for the people of the region, and pretty good for Arab autocrats and economic elites alike, as well as for the apartheid state of Israel.
The policy inputs are not likely to change soon and in this election might not even budge, or worse yet, might deteriorate with a choice between a neo-conservatives’ poster child war-hawk candidate and – what can one say any more about Trump, really – a candidate who often scares his allies more than his enemies.
This was both a critical domestic election, as well as the first time a new administration will be voted in during (a) the post-euphoric Arab uprisings, (b) a more assertive and involved Russia, and (b) three simultaneous Middle Eastern wars in which the US is heavily involved or leading from behind (Syria, Yemen, Iraq).
US foreign policy is usually a balancing act based on concerns and risks in both the domestic and international arenas. As critical as the international and Middle East scenes might be for voters, this election turns on domestic concerns and risks.
In the minds of most citizens and pundits the Syrian war is about a limited debate of the US “doing less or more”, presumably to save lives and fight terrorism, though policymakers may have this as a by-product concern not a point of departure for calculating risk across options.
As to the war on the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) in Mosul and beyond, the concerns are subsiding as perceptions of a degraded ISIL proliferate, while the actual risks are being taken by non-US foot-soldiers – notwithstanding the anticipated backlash in the region and beyond by ISIL and ISIL-inspired actors.
As to the Saudi-led war in Yemen, with direct US support, well, for most voters, it almost does not exist, judging from mainstream media coverage and government (non-)pronouncements.
President Obama is wrongfully accused of doing little. The truth is, the US can still do a lot more, but in the direction of International law and human rights. While this might sound naive, the time is actually approaching when realpolitik concerns that make the US support of unsavory actors and processes in the Middle East no longer comport with what is really best even for non-“ordinary” Americans.
Before any serious change in US Middle East policy is on the table, there is much to do here at home to reclaim democracy, by making US policymakers responsive to their citizens’ concerns at the domestic level in the first place.
Bassam Haddad is author of Business Networks in Syria: The Political Economy of Authoritarian Resilience
|Maha Yahya, director and senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut|
‘Act immediately to end genocide and population transfers’
The 45th United States president inherits a fractured and splintering Middle East, presenting extraordinary foreign policy challenges. The world he inherits is defined by shifting boundaries, changing alliances, as well as heightened global and regional tensions fuelling interrelated sectarian and proxy conflicts across the Middle East.
A revised US policy can embrace key Gulf allies who feel side-lined by the US’ apparent change in regional priorities.
It is also characterised by the gargantuan distrust of Arab citizens who believe the US has not only abandoned them, but has actively obstructed their quest for a better future whether in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Egypt or Palestine.
The de-escalation of the regional proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and by extension the rest of the region, is central to addressing the challenges of civil conflict and state failure across the Middle East.
Without it, negotiated settlements to end ongoing wars in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya will be difficult if not impossible. To do so, the newly elected president must work to convince regional actors of the advantages of moving away from the current zero-sum game wreaking havoc in the region, towards a stable order that can engage with multiple and often conflicting interests.
The success of the Iran deal is a case in point of the advantages of such a policy shift for some countries. This is a tall yet fundamentally critical order for global stability. In the short run, a revised US policy can embrace key Gulf allies who feel sidelined by the US’ apparent change in regional priorities, working towards a more coherent approach to ongoing proxy wars in Syria and Iraq.
To address the massive gap in citizen trust, the new US president also needs to shift American policy towards the Middle East from a predominantly security perspective focused on the fight against ISIL to one that engages with larger socioeconomic triggers for instability.
Five areas through which a revamped US policy can begin to rebuild this trust are: 1) to act immediately to end genocide and population transfers and ensure accountability for those atrocities whether by state or non-state actors by supporting international justice mechanisms; 2) leverage US support to regional governments to ensure fundamental rights; 3) support policies that uphold the rights of refugees and asylum seekers including Palestinian refugees; 4) re-engage with the Israeli-Palestinian peace process on the basis of international norms and conventions and 5) support policies that both guard fundamental rights and protect from terrorism.
It is in the interests of the United States to have a stable Middle East. Without addressing these fundamental imbalances, the fissures developing across the region will extend far beyond the region and to the rest of the world.
|Abdullah Al-Arian, assistant professor of history at Georgetown University, School of Foreign Service in Qatar|
‘US policy in the Middle East bears considerable responsibility for getting us here’
Less than six months into his first term as president, Barack Obama travelled to Cairo where he delivered a monumental address, seeking “a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world, one based on mutual interest and mutual respect”.
In his remarks, Obama also recognised the legacy of distrust and enmity left by the colonial experience and the Cold War tendency to treat Muslim countries as mere proxies in a global conflict. That sense of self-awareness was unprecedented in an American leader, and caused many across the Middle East and beyond to have high hopes for Obama’s presidency.
The coming four years will simply yield more failed policies and entrenched grievances for which a future president will one day atone in a flowery speech before a hopeful crowd.
Instead, US foreign policy over the past eight years has been little more than business as usual. Obama failed to uphold a key campaign promise when he could not close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, and in fact stepped up the use of drone attacks across several countries, resulting in frequent civilian deaths.
His administration has also undermined popular calls for freedom by continuing to back repressive dictatorships and illegal occupations, and remained the chief arms dealer to a region that has suffered enough death and destruction.
Despite this legacy, the US media’s take on Obama depicts a president who withdrew from the Middle East and hesitated to act when necessary. According to these critics, the next president must be more decisive and confrontational in dealing with this volatile region.
While there is little reason to hope that the next administration will abandon US militarism and support for authoritarianism, it nonetheless merits recalling that US policy towards the Middle East over the past several decades bears considerable responsibility for getting us here.
There is no reason to assume that more of the same will somehow eradicate the threat of terrorism, secure American interests, or engender goodwill among the people of the region.
It is a tragically ironic that the US agreement with Iran, Obama’s chief foreign policy achievement and a reversal of a long-standing policy, was roundly criticized by both presidential campaigns.
In fact, the success of the Iran deal in overcoming years of mutual hostility and avoiding another destructive war should serve as a model for the next administration to think beyond the cycle of mistrust and find alternative modes of resolving deep-seated conflicts.
Otherwise, the coming four years will simply yield more failed policies and entrenched grievances for which a future president will one day atone in a flowery speech before a hopeful crowd.
Abdullah Al-Arian is author of Answering the Call: Popular Islamic Activism in Sadat’s Egypt.