May 18, 2011

Obama Needs a Firm New Mideast Policy

Bob MaginnisBy Bob Maginnis


President Obama will deliver a speech on Thursday announcing his new Middle East policy. It must avoid certain topics and set a clear course on four critical issues.

History-changing Middle East events have unfolded in rapid succession during the last few months. Uprisings have toppled dictators in Tunisia and Egypt, ignited an ongoing civil war in Libya, and sparked harsh government crackdowns in Syria, Bahrain and Yemen. The Palestinian Authority’s Fatah organization and its terror partner Hamas have embraced a reconciliation agreement that could lead to statehood, which might seed a new Mideast war. And two weeks ago, the world’s most wanted terrorist, al-Qaeda mastermind Osama bin Laden, was shot dead by American commandos in a raid at a Pakistani compound.

These events are piled atop the winding-down war in Iraq and ongoing fighting in Afghanistan. At the same time, the atomic weapon-seeking Iran fuels regional tension, using its Revolutionary Guards and terrorist proxy Hezbollah.

No wonder President Obama has decided to revise his Mideast policy, which for two years myopically focused on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at the expense of other boiling issues. Let's hope after two tough years, the President appreciates the region’s complexities and the need for a comprehensive, clear-headed new Mideast policy.

In June 2009, Obama traveled to Cairo, Egypt, to pitch his current Mideast policy, which was interpreted by many in the West at the time as pandering to the Muslim world. This time Obama will introduce his new policy in Washington, and the President should avoid the references to Allah, Islamic theology, and how well Muslims are doing in America that he made in his Cairo speech.

Rather, this speech should focus like a laser on American policies and how they collide or complement our Mideast partners’ views on at least four security issues: the ongoing war against transnational terrorists, the Arab uprisings, Israeli-Palestinian peace, and Iran.

First, President Obama will likely mention the death of bin Laden, linking that killing to his “necessary” war in Afghanistan. But he should then explain that the terrorist’s death won’t stop transnational threats by illustrating the ongoing terrorist problem with a fresh example.

Last Friday, Taliban fighters attacked a police training center in Charsadda, Pakistan, taking 80 lives. The attackers claimed to be taking revenge for America’s killing bin Laden, but as the President should say, revenge is an excuse for an operation that was likely already planned. The terrorists’ real motive is seizing state power, a danger for all peace-loving nations.

America’s policy, Obama should explain, is to partner with all cooperative countries in the long war against Islamic extremists.

Second, the President should praise the populist movements sweeping across the Arab world and commit his support to those leading to more representative governments. However, he should warn insurgents against encouraging radical Islamist elements such as the Muslim Brotherhood, and he should clarify his inconsistent policy regarding Libya and Syria.

Obama should also warn the Egyptians about treading on dangerous ground by normalizing relations with the terrorist group Hamas and the Islamic Republic of Iran. Then he should praise them for promising to hold elections this September, but encourage Egyptians to elect only representatives who will promote stability.

Obama must understand that Amr Moussa, probably Egypt’s next president, is a threat to stability. Moussa told the Wall Street Journal that Egypt obtained nothing from peace with Israel, and then he “described a political landscape in which the Muslim Brotherhood … is dominant. It is inevitable, he said, that parliamentary elections in September will usher in a legislature led by a bloc of Islamists, with the Brotherhood at the forefront.”

Juxtapose that comment with a report in London’s Financial Times that quotes Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohammed Badie. He said that once the Brotherhood is the largest bloc in Egypt’s parliament, it will propose “an end to normalization [with Israel], which has given our enemy stability, an end to [Egyptian] efforts to secure from infiltrators the borders of the Zionists, the abolition of all [joint] economic interests, such as the Qualified Industrial Zones Agreement and the [end to the] export of Egyptian gas to Israel.”

Obama should also outline his policy regarding the crises in Libya and Syria. He will likely repeat an earlier statement reported by Reuters: The U.S. “supports protesters’ democratic aspirations, but will take military action only in concert with allies.”

Last week, James Steinberg, deputy secretary of state, testified, “We would not stand by as [Libya’s Muammar] Gaddafi brutalized his own people.” That’s why the U.S. led a coalition against Gaddafi, Steinberg said. The President should then explain why America attacked Libya but watched from the sidelines as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad killed 800 and wounded thousands of protesting citizens.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave the administration’s only explanation for the policy inconsistency. “Nobody believed Gaddafi would do that [reform],” Clinton said. She then said, “People do believe there is a possible path forward with Syria.” Thus, Obama’s policy is based on his perception that Assad can kill hundreds because we believe he will reform, and we will kill Gaddafi’s troops via air strikes because we don’t believe he will reform.

Third, last year Obama pushed Israel and the Palestinian Authority into direct peace talks that went nowhere. Last month, Clinton promised new talks, but then pressure increased for action after the announcement of a reconciliation deal between the mainstream Palestinian Fatah faction and its rival, the Islamist Hamas movement.

The Fatah-Hamas agreement is a front to earn international recognition as a state without first making peace with Israel. The agreement allows the Palestinian Authority to claim to be the legitimate representative of all Palestinians, because it now rules both the West Bank and Gaza Strip. That forces Obama to launch new peace talks or face the real prospect of the Palestinians earning the United Nations' blessing for a Palestinian state in September without recognizing Israel.

The confluence of the Fatah-Hamas agreement, the growing radicalization of Egypt, and Obama’s new Mideast policy prompted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to request an opportunity to address the U.S. Congress. He speaks on Capitol Hill next week.

Netanyahu is expected to call on the U.S. to cut off aid to the Palestinian Authority because of its association with Hamas, a State Department-identified terrorist organization. That association makes it illegal for the U.S. government to continue its association with the Palestinian Authority, and this should torpedo new U.S.-sponsored peace talks.

Obama may call for new peace talks anyway, but the Israelis understand that with Hamas at the table, real peace is not possible. However, the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation may earn international recognition for Palestinian statehood, which might then spark a new intifada, the latest in an ongoing string of Palestinian uprisings.

Finally, Obama needs to outline a new Iran policy. Tehran continues to enrich uranium in spite of three rounds of international sanctions. Its leaders spew deadly threats against the U.S., Israel and others. It violently oppresses its people, sponsors terrorists and interferes in the internal security of neighbors including Iraq and Afghanistan to target American armed services members.

Clearly Obama’s Iran policy of talk and sanctions has failed. Tehran is growing stronger every day, which has spurred a Mideast arms race and regional consternation. What does Obama intend to do to stop the mad mullahs?

President Obama’s speech must present an unambiguous Mideast policy that addresses the aforementioned issues in order to encourage friends such as Israel, put enemies such as Iran on notice, and secure American interests in the region.

Related Links

U.S. Steps Up Pressure On Syria With Sanctions - NPR
Obama administration in full court press ahead of Middle East speech - Foreign Policy
Iran says Bushehr nuclear power plant becomes operational - Xinhua
Mideast Cautious Before Obama Outreach - Voice of America
White House denies draft of Obama speech was leaked - Jerusalem Post