Dean Acheson once described foreign policy as “one damn thing after another” and recent events in the Middle East certainly lend credence to that thought. Syria, Egypt, Iran and Iraq all pose serious threats to regional peace and security. The decades-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict, if not resolved, can lead to another crisis. The United States has been closely involved in all these countries and has expended much blood and treasure in Iraq and Afghanistan. There is now weariness in America over our involvement in the Middle East, especially militarily. President Obama addressed these issues in his UN General Assembly speech on September 24 and made clear that while overextension in the region is to be avoided, the United States cannot turn away from the Middle East given our national security interests and our humanitarian values.
The recent confluence of events in Syria, Egypt, Iran, and in the Israeli-Palestinian context present complex challenges to US policy interests and policy formulation, but also unique opportunities. The convoluted scenario leading to the US-Russian agreement to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile is an opportunity not only to try to rid the Syrian regime of its WMD capabilities, but also to build US-Russian cooperation into a political solution to the Syrian civil war. There is no military solution to the Syrian crisis, only a political solution that produces a cease-fire between the regime and the opposition and a political transition leading to a post-Asad era. The international community, including Russia and Iran, has no interest in an unstable Syria.
The election of President Hassan Rouhani of Iran is another opportunity that should be exploited to determine if his conciliatory words toward constructive engagement with the international community and especially the United States can be turned into actual deeds by the Iranian regime led by the Ayatollah Khameni. President Obama stated his clear but guarded intent to engage with Iran and Rouhani reiterated a similar intent for “constructive engagement” with the international community, especially the United States. The nuclear issue, terrorism, Iran’s role in Syria and support of Hezbollah, its influence in Afghanistan and now in Iraq, its potential threat to Arab Gulf security, and its policy toward Israel are all compelling national security interests for the United States and our allies.
Akin to the need for US engagement with Russia on Syria, the United States should explore the Iranian offer to engage in a dialogue – not for the sake of talk alone, but to determine if there is real common ground upon which agreements may be reached. To do so, everything will have to be put on the table. Rouhani has prioritised the nuclear issue as the first agenda item to be discussed to try to reach an agreement under an accelerated time frame. This is an ambitious but welcome development. Nevertheless, any US-Iran dialogue will have to address all the major issues as well as the mutual interests of both sides in order to achieve sustainable results.
To the Obama administration’s credit, it has reinitiated direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations to try to achieve a permanent two-state solution. In this central issue, the United States is engaging in intensive diplomacy that goes beyond conflict management to conflict resolution. That should be the paradigm it follows toward the Syrian crisis and Iran. The United States can react to “one damn thing after another” in the Middle East or it can make the difficult but much more strategic effort to help resolve the underlying issues catalysing conflicts throughout the region. It is a question of political will and commitment to promote and safeguard our national security interests and humanitarian values. In this respect, this is not a formula for overextension in the Middle East, but for the deliberate conduct of coherent and reinforcing diplomacy to achieve progress on issues that affect regional and global peace and security.
In so doing, we must accept the possibility of failure. An important question is whether or not a political consensus can be achieved in Washington between the Republicans and Democrats to pursue such a policy on a bipartisan basis. The stakes are high and one can only hope, perhaps idealistically, for a return to the days when partisan politics stopped at the water’s edge. While Acheson decried “events” forcing foreign policy decision-making, under the Truman administration he and his colleagues (George Marshall, George Kennan, Will Clayton and others) guided US foreign policy formulation to its apex with great initiatives that shaped the international landscape, such as the Marshall Plan, the containment policy vis-a-vis the Soviet Union and the creation of the United Nations. Can we emulate today, admittedly in different historical circumstances, that bridge from conflict management to conflict resolution?
Edward Djerejian is the founding director of Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy and a former US ambassador to Syria and Israel. Djerejian served in the US Foreign Service under eight presidents, from John F. Kennedy to Bill Clinton. Prior to his nomination by Clinton as US ambassador to Israel, Djerejian was assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs in both the George H.W. Bush and Clinton administrations.
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