President Barack Obama has got his second term. He has a lot of work to do on the economic file and it won’t be easy, given the political polarization of the United States and its Congress. Obama can, however, make a difference in foreign policy — specifically in the Middle East, a region that is seeing rapid political change.
Iran’s nuclear ambitions may make the Middle East peace process seem a distant priority for the U.S. (much to the delight of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu), but Obama needs to chart a new path for the peace process — now, not later.
How should the United States deal with Iran?
In a word, diplomatically. The U.S. should gradually adjust itself to an Iran that is nuclear-capable — but not nuclear-armed. Iran will not cross any “red lines” in the next four years — it isn’t going to try to fabricate or test a nuclear weapon or start enriching uranium to 90 per cent — because it knows this is the one irrevocable step that might trigger a U.S. attack.
Absent such a move by Iran, neither Israel nor the United States will conduct a preventive strike. Israel doesn’t have the capability to conduct a strategically meaningful attack, and most of the American national security establishment thinks an attack would be foolish. We can’t rule out the possibility of war, of course — but we can hope that cooler heads will prevail, given the consequences.
How should the United States approach the Arab Revolution?
With patience. Tunisia, Egypt and Libya have overthrown their dictators and are now going through the gruesome process of reforming. Citizens of other Arab countries have seen this and want in as well. A forceful, unilateral western approach isn’t going to work here.
The Arab world is in the midst of vast and unpredictable upheaval, which is likely to produce governments that are more receptive to popular opinion than their predecessors. They may not be perfect democracies, but dictators will fear the power of public opinion a lot more than their predecessors did. But this process will take time — years, not months.
As we’ve already seen in Libya and Syria, these events raise frustrating national security questions for the United States. Are these events an opportunity to diminish Iran’s influence, strike a blow for democracy and further marginalize anti-American forces? Or is the collapse of the old order undermining traditional U.S. allegiances and allowing anti-American sentiment (and Islamic extremism) a greater voice in the region’s politics? What if Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and the Kurds get drawn into the whirlpool?
Obama doesn’t have a lot of leverage over these events, and not many appealing policy options except to analyze all the countries in the region, look at the trends and begin to build relationships with likely leaders — even if it leaves a sour taste in his mouth.
What should the United States do for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process?
Benjamin Netanyahu will most likely take office again following the January 2013 elections. Obama may have to face up to the fact that there isn’t going to be a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians, and begin to think seriously about what an alternative U.S. policy should look like. Maybe it’s a three-state solution, comprising Israel, West Bank and Gaza, or something similar.
In fact, Obama has learned already that pursuing the two-state solution is very hard and may no longer be realistic. The Israeli right has no interest in it, the Palestinians are too weak and divided to put meaningful pressure on them, and the United States is too compromised to be an effective mediator. The two-state solution has become a fig leaf for politicians to hide behind, while realities on the ground make it less and less likely by the day.
Obama needs to think about this now. If he doesn’t, he’ll be stuck answering some awkward questions. What outcome should a liberal democracy like the United States favor if “two states for two peoples” is impossible? Does it abandon its commitment to “one person, one vote” and endorse permanent apartheid? Does it abandon its deep commitment to a Jewish state and support a one-state democracy for all the inhabitants of Israel/Palestine? Or does it quietly encourage ethnic cleansing? Unless the United States gets ahead of this debate, these questions will be addressed without its input — and it won’t like the answers much.
How can Canada learn from this?
Canada is in an advantageous position regarding the Middle East and the U.S.: it has different interests and it can learn from our southern neighbour’s mistakes. If Canada wants to put itself in a strong diplomatic position in the region, it should look at each country individually and meticulously examine the trends: who is in a power position, who is fading? In Jordan, for example, King Abdullah is unpopular — but the army remains loyal to him and the Muslim Brotherhood is not strong enough to challenge him. While the Jordanian government won’t fall in the next little while, now is time to start a dialogue with the Brotherhood, perhaps with the king’s half-brother Hamzah, who is very popular in Jordan.
Canada has an opening here to build relationships with the movements likely either to form governments or act as opposition blocs in these nations. Where a non-elected regime is isolated and weak, Canada should cut official ties and start looking for someone else to talk to. If we fail in this, we’ll end up in a corner with the United States and other western allies.