After decades of authoritarian rule, it is unrealistic to expect Egyptians, Libyans and other Arabs to transform their societies overnight into Western-style democracies. Much hard work, over many years, is required to build institutions and adopt procedures that can fulfill the people’s democratic aspirations. They will need external encouragement and assistance. The next president should restore previous funding levels for America’s democracy-promotion and good-governance programs, as well as support quasi-governmental organizations like the National Endowment for Democracy. We can also do a better job of coordinating such efforts with the Europeans, who devote significant resources to these same goals.
Consistent with our values and traditions, we should encourage and incentivize the private sector to play a stronger role in promoting self-reliance, entrepreneurship and religious freedom. For example, we can leverage the tax code to provide incentives to companies, colleges and universities, nonprofit groups, and others to encourage socially responsible investing (akin to the Sullivan principles in South Africa) that promote democracy and individual rights.
Social media is a realm where the United States has been particularly inept. Every U.S. embassy in the Middle East needs to have a dedicated team on social media; they should be coordinated by the State Department, but have the flexibility to respond to local conditions. These rapid response units should state the facts about U.S. policy, aggressively rebut lies and half-truths, and stay connected to the generation that will one day inherit power in these countries. Specifically, they should highlight the grisly toll in Muslim and Arab lives taken by Islamic State and other terror groups, and have the ability to directly confront the hateful propaganda and murderous imagery perpetrated by extremists.
Syria is a great example of policy adrift, of credibility squandered, of roads not taken. There has been a serious disconnect between our declaratory policy and our actions; our commitments have not matched our rhetoric. The Obama administration called upon Assad to cease the violence, yet failed to mobilize adequate pressure on Damascus. Many of the options the U.S. had during the Damascus Spring were eliminated after the growth of ISIS and the intervention of Russia, Iran and its proxy, Hezbollah; an estimated three hundred thousand Syrians have died so far in the conflict. (One unanticipated consequence of U.S. policy has Russia reasserting itself as a major actor in the Middle East, a role it has not played since Sadat kicked it out of Egypt in 1973.) It is no longer a question of what the U.S. wants (“Assad must go”). Rather, the issue is: how best can the U.S. promote its core goals within existing constraints?
Today Syria is a conflation of four distinct, but interrelated, challenges: (1) the brutal regime headed by Bashar al-Assad, and supported by Moscow and Tehran; (2) ISIS, which has seized and held territory, terrorized the local population and seduced tens of thousands of Sunni Muslims to its side; (3) a humanitarian crisis (with an estimated eleven million refugees or internally displaced persons) that has overwhelmed Syria’s neighbors and is now disrupting Europe; and (4) a diplomatic challenge for the United States in managing its relations with friends and allies in the region, especially the “front-line” states of Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey.
A policy of pragmatic primacy would seek to save Syrian lives, defeat ISIS and remove Assad, in that order. ISIS poses the greater danger to the Syrian people, to neighboring states and to Europe; according to Director of National Intelligence, General James Clapper, ISIS is today “the preeminent global terrorist threat.” It cannot be deterred; it must be defeated. This means committing more U.S. forces to the fight in a supporting role (perhaps as few as two U.S. brigades), but only if we can leverage our Arab friends and partners to send their soldiers to fight as well. Specifically, the objective is not for the U.S. to defeat ISIS, but for the U.S. to help the Sunni states defeat ISIS.
This approach means leaving Assad in power, perhaps for some time to come. This is not an ideal outcome, but the hard truth is that the United States cannot will the ends (Assad’s removal) if it is unwilling to provide the means (deployment of forces sufficient to remove him). It is unrealistic for any administration to commit U.S. forces in the numbers needed to defeat ISIS and topple the Assad regime. This is the culmination of policy choices made, or discarded, years ago, and of the new realities that Iranian and especially Russian arms and advisors have made on the ground.
Until ISIS is defeated, Syrians will remain at risk, even if they are housed in refugee camps inside Syria. The next president should instead persuade Turkey to establish refugee camps along its common border with Syria. The EU and the United States should help underwrite these costs. This would provide greater safety and security for civilians, would be easier to administer and supply than camps inside Syria, would be more firmly rooted in law, and would be better able to halt unplanned migrant flows into Europe.
Finally, Jordan is home to 1.3 million Syrian refugees, or one out of every five people living in the country. (The equivalent would be sixty-five million refugees in the United States.) The Hashemite Kingdom has been a longtime friend and ally of the United States, and is helping in the fight against ISIS. Last year the Obama administration increased assistance to Amman to $1 billion; this account needs to be carefully reviewed and updated to ensure that these funds continue to help stabilize Jordan.
The crisis in Syria has had one salutary effect: it has refuted the conventional wisdom that a settlement of the Palestinian question is the key to unlocking peace across the greater Middle East. Even so, the Obama administration badly misplayed its hand with respect to the peace process. It failed to appreciate the political constraints under which Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Palestinian Authority’s president, Mahmoud Abbas, operated, and it erred by publicly criticizing Netanyahu for the subsequent policy failure.
Even without the turmoil on Israel’s borders, current trends do not favor an Israeli-Palestinian peace anytime soon. The Palestinian Authority is paralyzed, caught in a transition from an exhausted older leadership to a younger generation that has not yet assumed power. Hamas shows no signs of relinquishing its stranglehold in the Gaza Strip. While the pace of Israeli settlements continues to slow in the West Bank, it has hardly ended; the same is true with the settler community’s political influence. Efforts in Europe and the United States to boycott, divest and sanction Israel have not yet matured, but remain worrisome, as do similar efforts in the United Nations to endow international legitimacy on the Palestinian Authority.
Israel can withstand all of these pressures, but for how long? Next year will mark the fiftieth anniversary of Israel’s occupying the West Bank. Although there is a debate over when Jews will no longer be a majority in the land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River, there is little argument that this inflection point is fast approaching. What, then, is the future of Israel as a democratic and Jewish society?
These questions Israelis must ask, and answer, for themselves. And the United States should encourage them to do so. But the past provides a guide to the further role the United States should play. The lesson of the Oslo peace process was that the two parties are capable of hammering out agreements among themselves; the United States needs to encourage them to do so. The lesson of Camp David is that Israel has the courage to take risks for peace, but only if it has confidence that the United States is a firm ally. Here is where the next administration has much work to do—restoring greater trust and confidence between Washington and Jerusalem. This means continuing the exemplary military cooperation and intelligence-sharing of the Obama administration, but it also means not criticizing Israeli leaders in public, better appreciating some of the domestic constraints on Israeli leaders, making distinctions between settlement blocs and acknowledging that some settlements on the West Bank contiguous to the 1967 border will become part of Israel in any final agreement.
Promoting peace between Israel and its neighbors has been a long-standing U.S. foreign policy goal in the Middle East, along with ensuring the free flow of oil to global markets and preventing any single power from dominating the region. The present leadership in Iran places all three American objectives at risk. It continues to oppose the Middle East peace process, and has periodically unleashed its proxies, Hamas and Hezbollah, to strike at Israel. It has threatened its neighbors in the Persian Gulf, claiming islands that belong to the UAE, intervened in Syria, interfered in Iraq’s domestic affairs, armed the Houthis in Yemen and warned that it will close the Strait of Hormuz. Iran has consistently attempted to revise the region by force, rather than accommodate itself to the status quo.