Shadow Government

How Might Candidate Clinton Talk About the Mideast Chaos?

The rising tide of war in the Middle East is giving way to a rising tide of chaos. It is also making me think that my balanced appraisal of the Obama administration's Middle East strategy may have been too optimistic. I credited Barack Obama's "lead from behind" strategy with avoiding what Obama supporters like to call "another Iraq." What they usually mean by that is, as I put it: avoiding "a controversial decision for war that yields a bloody conflict that crowds out other national security priorities by committing the lion's share of our defense, diplomacy, and development tools to a venture with uncertain prospects."

However, Obama's strategy has yielded "other Iraqs," as defined thus: bloody sectarian conflicts that, unless resolved successfully, put in jeopardy American national interests, threaten wider regional conflicts, and hasten a global perception of American decline. Syria has long since passed that threshold. Egypt seems teetering on the edge. Iraq is inching back in that direction too. If Egypt and/or Iraq follow Syria over the abyss, can Jordan or Lebanon be far behind?

Is it fair to credit/blame these developments as the fruits of Obama's regional strategy? In political terms, perhaps not (yet) to the degree that George W. Bush's administration bears responsibility for Iraq. It is easier to trace a direct line of responsibility from acts of commission (invading Iraq) than it is from acts of omission (failing to intervene decisively as Syria, Egypt, or Iraq devolves).

The extent of Obama's culpability depends on whether alternative policy choices could have yielded better results. In that regard, I was intrigued by Thomas Pierret's detailed account (over on FP's Middle East Channel) of the effects of differential levels of external support on the Syrian insurgency. Pierret's bottom line is more bullish on Syria than I would be. Here is his rosy assessment:

In any case, recent military developments show that Syrian insurgents have become increasingly dependent on state supporters for their logistics. Gone are the days when rebels could storm lightly defended regime positions with assault rifles and a few RPGs. The retreat of loyalist forces on heavily fortified bases last winter has required a major quantitative and qualitative increase in the opposition's armament. This is something only foreign governments, not jihadi utopians, can offer. Given Saudi Arabia's apparent determination to lead the way in that respect, this situation will probably continue to favor mainstream insurgents over their radical brothers in arms in the foreseeable future.

But his analysis of the past contains a powerful, if implicit, critique of Obama's hands-off approach to Syria:

The radicalization of the Syrian insurgency has often been interpreted as a quasi-natural phenomenon, the inevitable outcome of a brutal sectarian conflict that has made Salafi-jihadi ideology increasingly appealing to Syrian Sunnis. This view is debatable, however, since the rise of radical Salafi groups throughout 2012 was in fact paralleled with the watering down of their rhetoric....The one main reason for the success of hard-line Salafists throughout 2012 was a matter of superior material resources. As illustrated in numerous press reports at that time, such resources made them inherently more appealing but also more disciplined compared with groups that sometimes had to finance themselves through looting and other criminal activities.

In other words, at the crucial early stage of the crisis, when Obama was resisting pressure to provide material support to moderate factions, the jihadi terrorist groups used this window of opportunity to skew the rebel movement in their direction. Of course, Pierret goes on to argue that moderate factions can regain the initiative -- and perhaps are already in the process of doing so -- because the underlying ideological distribution within Syria favors them.

If Pierret's prospective judgment is correct, Obama may yet dodge the Syrian bullet. But if only his retrospective judgment is correct, it is Obama's critics, not his defenders, who are right.

The historical debate matters in many ways, but one that has been comparatively less remarked upon is that if Pierret's retrospective analysis is right, it provides the outlines for Hillary Clinton's brief on foreign policy in 2016.

Clinton will have many things going for her in a 2016 presidential run, but it looks increasingly like the Obama foreign-policy legacy could be a net negative. Of course, many things could change between now and then, but if current trajectories hold, it may be hard to argue that the United States is in a better global position in 2016 than it was in 2008. Yes, the easing of the global recession will be a major positive factor, and the world is a better place without Osama bin Laden. But on most other foreign-policy lines, a fair-minded assessment could well be negative for Obama's legacy.

Clinton is tightly linked to that Obama foreign-policy legacy, so she'll look for ways to take credit for any good while blaming all of the bad on others within the Obama administration. In this regard, look for candidate Clinton to remind voters that she famously argued for a more muscular approach to Syria earlier in the crisis. Such an approach might have better positioned the moderates to resist the influence of the terrorist fringe. It might also have meant the toppling of Bashar al-Assad's regime before the sectarian civil war reached the horrific levels it now has reached. Of course, the case of Iraq shows that even a rapid regime change with substantial U.S. military force and influence on the ground is no guarantee of success. But Clinton will benefit politically if she can argue with some credibility that Obama's most dramatic foreign-policy failures are associated with times when Obama overruled his secretary of state.

It is harder to see what will be her line on Egypt. The Obama administration's Egypt policy has utterly collapsed, and perhaps Clinton has an explanation of her role in the crafting of that policy that puts her in a better light, but if so, it has yet to get much traction.

Of course, responsibility for repairing U.S. policy rests with the sitting administration, but the one who would like to shoulder that responsibility next -- especially one so closely tied to Obama's foreign-policy legacy -- has got some explaining to do.

Photo: KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images

Shadow Government

To Get an Israeli-Palestinian Agreement, U.S. Needs to Re-engage in the Mideast

Having coaxed Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table after an unprecedented drought of talks, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry can claim at least a measure of vindication for his seemingly single-minded focus on the peace process. But now that negotiations have commenced, that same single-mindedness could prove the talks' undoing and the unraveling of Kerry's achievement.

In approaching the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Kerry was wise to put aside the settlements-first approach that bedeviled the Obama administration's first term. The process that Kerry has put together appears instead to pick up, structurally speaking at least, where the 2007-2008 "Annapolis process" between then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas left off. 

That process comprised not only high-level talks on the so-called "core issues" of borders, refugees, and Jerusalem, but also a number of other pillars: economic cooperation and institution-building, Palestinian security reform, regional security cooperation, and Arab-Israeli rapprochement. Kerry has quietly pursued similar tracks, announcing a multibillion-dollar initiative to bolster the Palestinian economy, naming Gen. John Allen as an envoy for regional security issues, and securing the endorsement of the Arab League for his proposals, all in recent weeks.

However, the challenges now facing the parties are much steeper than those at the time of Annapolis. 

The first and foremost of these challenges is the turmoil gripping the surrounding region. The Arab League's endorsement is just the first and easiest contribution regional states will be asked to make. To ensure its security can be maintained despite the loss of West Bank territories, Israel will need to reach cooperative arrangements -- not just the sometimes frosty peace that exists today -- with Egypt and Jordan. For a Palestinian state to succeed, it will need intimate commercial and economic links -- not just the hand-to-mouth aid received today -- with neighbors.

But today the neighborhood is more a source of distraction than support for the Israelis and Palestinians. Israeli leaders worry about chaos in Syria and Egypt, as well as the burden imposed on Lebanon and Jordan by the Syrian civil war. They worry even more about Iran and its nuclear ambitions and regional adventurism. For his part, Abbas must worry about the regional resurgence of political Islam, of which his rival, Hamas, is the local manifestation. Allies that were once staunchly supportive, such as Turkey and Qatar, have recently been more supportive of Abbas's Islamist rivals, while other former stalwarts like Egypt and Jordan are consumed with internal issues.

Another major challenge facing Israel and the Palestinians is the position of the United States in the region. The United States has long been looked toward as not only an honest broker in the peace process, but a guarantor of whatever arrangements that process produced and of Israel's security as it gives up hard-won territory. It is no accident that major episodes in the peace process have coincided with major U.S. security commitments to the region.

Now, both U.S. roles are in question. Washington's position as an honest broker is a function not of its neutrality or equidistance from the two parties, but of its closeness to both. Despite being perceived as pro-Israel, the United States has also been the most consistent and pragmatic advocate of a Palestinian state and contributor of aid and expertise to the Palestinian Authority. Under President Barack Obama, the United States and Israel have drifted apart, and the U.S.-Palestinian relationship has also soured as Abbas has expressed bitterness over shifts in American strategy and pursued gambits at the United Nations disapproved of by Washington.

The United States' role as guarantor can also no longer be easily assumed. The widespread perception in the Middle East is that the United States is experiencing "Mideast fatigue" in the wake of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and would prefer to disengage. This has manifested itself not only in the uncertainty that marks U.S. policy in places like Egypt and Syria, but in deteriorating alliances across the region. This inevitably will reduce the value and credibility of U.S. security assurances to both the Israelis and the Palestinians, for which there is no alternative outside power to turn.

The final challenge the parties face is themselves. The Annapolis conference took place following years of violence -- the Second Intifada in the first part of the decade, followed by the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah. In contrast, the past five years have largely been peaceful, providing no great incentive to depart from the status quo. 

Both parties also face internal challenges: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu must balance compromise with the Palestinians against the views of coalition partners and members of his own party who are skeptical that territorial concessions will bring peace or security. Abbas must deal not only with Islamists who continue to preach war against Israel, but also his own apparent reluctance to sign on the dotted line. After his predecessor, Yasir Arafat, rejected an Israeli offer in 2000 at Camp David and he rejected an even more far-reaching offer in 2008, it is reasonable to question whether Abbas has the strength or confidence to compromise.

It is these challenges on which the United States must now focus. This is one of the paradoxes of the peace process: If the United States wants a peace agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians, it must focus on everything but the so-called "core issues" that will be at the heart of the negotiations. It has been frequently but incorrectly claimed that the solutions to those issues are well-known; the broad outlines may be clear, but the devil is truly in the details, which are anything but. Nevertheless, those details must be worked out by the parties who know them well and can in any event draw upon the myriad plans and ideas already put forward. 

For its part, Washington should run interference for the two parties -- thwarting the efforts of spoilers to derail the process, lining up support from regional and international partners whose priorities are elsewhere, bolstering Netanyahu and Abbas to the extent possible, and, in so doing, providing space to the Israelis and Palestinians to negotiate. This implies an altogether different approach to the Middle East than that which has characterized the first five years of Obama's tenure -- one that stresses deep engagement not simply in the Israeli-Palestinian talks themselves, but in the conflicts, politics, and alliances of the region from which Washington has of late appeared keen to disengage.

Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images