Diplomacy Redux: Kerry's Opportunity, Obama's Test

Diplomacy Redux: Kerry's Opportunity, Obama's Test

A tour of the U.S. position in the Middle East.

Conclusion—Discrete Deal with Iran, Invest in Syria’s Outcome, Restore Regional Confidence, Enable Israeli-Palestinian Settlement

With congressional support, the president should seize the initiative and give his negotiators the requisite leverage to secure, as soon as practicable, a comprehensive but discrete nuclear-for-sanctions agreement with Iran. Isolating that issue will guard against policy paralysis in other areas deemed to be sensitive for Iran, and empower the Administration to go to work repairing its frayed standing in the Arab world.

The dismantlement of Syria’s chemical arsenal will be of little benefit if, thanks to US inaction, Hezbollah emerges strengthened and emboldened, Syria’s Kurds break away, and the Sunni majority embraces the only ‘help’ currently on offer—from radical Sunni religious extremists drawn to the sectarian fight from all over the region. What began as an idealistic ‘Arab spring’ moment is deteriorating into another potential Afghanistan, placing enormous new security and economic burdens on Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and, by extension, Israel. Rather than letting extremists maintain the initiative, the President should challenge his national-security team to devise a whole-of-government strategy worthy of the name for Syria, one that does not place US forces on Syrian territory or pilots in Syrian airspace.

These regional circumstances will inevitably affect Ambassador Indyk’s prospects of success as well. Israel’s leaders will be less likely to trust in a settlement with the Palestinians if the surrounding Arab countries are engulfed in crisis. Israeli citizens will find it harder to perceive a peace benefit if they remain in the crosshairs of not only nuclear threats but also ever more deadly mortars, rockets and missiles smuggled to local extremists by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.

With so much invested and so much at stake in the Middle East, it is never too late to step up efforts to advance American interests. The credibility of presidential red lines matters, but only by exercising leadership in taming the dangers clouding the region’s future will the US preserve its influence and reputation, which are foundations of American power.

Secretary Kerry’s big bet on Middle East diplomacy can pay big dividends if backed by a forceful presidential commitment, a coherent strategic vision, integrated lines of policy, and an active array of interagency tools of influence. The keys to success or failure now rest largely in President Obama’s hands.

Ambassador Bloomfield is a former US Special Envoy, Assistant Secretary of State for Political Military Affairs and Deputy Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs. He is Chairman of the Stimson Center.