Shadow Government

A Regional Approach to Iran

There exists an unmistakable view in the Middle East and beyond that the United States, exhausted from war and consumed by domestic political and economic troubles, is inexorably retreating from the region. American paralysis in Syria, confusion in Egypt, and stumbles elsewhere have fed allies' suspicions that the United States can no longer be relied upon.

The nuclear negotiations with Iran have exacerbated this unease, offering the spectacle of the United States not only sitting across the negotiating table from Iranian officials but offering concessions. Ironically, however, the United States has chosen diplomacy precisely because the alternatives -- military conflict or acquiescence to a nuclear-armed Iran -- would be destabilizing to its allies' neighborhood.

But handled poorly, the negotiations could also prove destabilizing. The objective, after all, of the talks is not merely to reach an agreement, but to advance the interests of the United States and its allies, especially in regional stability and nonproliferation. If, however, America's allies (or Iran, for that matter) perceive that a deal is the prelude to an American withdrawal, or if Iran is left with too great a nuclear capacity, the result may be greater conflict, particularly along sectarian lines, and a regional race to match Iran's capabilities.

The clearest way to avoid this is to insist on a tough deal with Iran and to be willing to walk away from the table altogether if necessary. However, any negotiation requires giving as well as taking, and even a tough agreement may discomfit America's allies. To mitigate this, Barack Obama's administration should complement the two tracks of its Iran policy -- diplomacy and pressure -- with a third: a "regional" track aimed at assuring allies and warning Iran that the United States remains committed to the Middle East and determined to address any destabilizing Iranian activities in the region and other threats to U.S. interests comprehensively.

As part of this regional policy pillar, the United States should intensify its consultation with allies in the region, including Gulf Cooperation Council states, Jordan, Israel, and others on Iran and regional issues. This should involve not simply back-briefing partners after each round of talks, but huddling with them beforehand to ensure that their concerns are addressed and their interests represented.

The Obama administration's efforts to date have proved heavy on process but light on results outside the military sphere. Indeed, on critical regional issues, the United States and its allies have often worked at cross-purposes. Remedying this will require a steady effort to rebuild trust and communication and to find common policy ground on which the United States and its allies can cooperate.

Obama's trip to Riyadh in March is a welcome step in this regard but cannot be a one-off, nor should it necessarily be the president's only stop in the Persian Gulf. Visits will need to be preceded and followed by ongoing dialogue aimed at ensuring that U.S. and allied approaches to key regional issues are complementary. The reported recent gathering in Washington of regional intelligence chiefs to discuss Syria is precisely the sort of coordination that is needed.

It might be tempting to dismiss allies' concerns regarding Iran's regional activities and other issues as mere hand-wringing or even to hope that with energy independence drawing slowly nearer the United States will no longer need to heed them. This would be misguided -- allies in the region can bring capabilities, insights, and funding to the table in ways that can reinforce America's own efforts. Allowing these alliances to wither may mean less effort in the short run, but would prove costly in the long run.

Consultation, however, will not be sufficient to demonstrate that U.S. commitment to the region and to addressing threats to shared interests will not end when a nuclear deal is signed. It will also require more determined action to advance the interests that the United States and its partners there share. This should take the form not only of an enduring military presence -- something that the upcoming Quadrennial Defense Review will provide an opportunity to reinforce -- but also more decisive steps to address the conflicts and problems roiling the region.

The theater in which a more proactive policy is most urgently required -- and would go the furthest to reassure allies and deter Iran -- is Syria. In assessing the new options he has ordered be drawn up for U.S. policy there, Obama should consider the impact that his decision will have on broader U.S. interests in the region.

Too often policymakers resort to straw-man arguments to justify inaction, most egregiously positing "boots on the ground" as the alternative to the United States' current ineffective policy on Syria. The United States need not act alone and certainly should not reflexively resort to military action. But the hard experiences of a decade of war and three years of turmoil in the Arab world should counsel smart, economical, and effective multilateral action, not serve as excuses for inaction.

Any nuclear agreement with Iran will be hard to achieve and will involve difficult choices. But taking steps to reinforce the U.S. commitment to the Middle East and address Iran's destabilizing regional activities will make an agreement both easier to come by -- by serving notice to Iran that the United States is negotiating from a position of strength and confidence and is prepared to act to defend its interests -- and easier to sell to allies, by reassuring them that the United States does not intend to cut and run. If on the other hand the United States neglects the bigger regional picture and focuses solely on deal-making with Tehran, the result may be a tactical victory, but a strategic defeat.

Photo: FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images

Shadow Government

Responding to Russian Aggression in Ukraine and Restoring U.S. Credibility

Russia is violating Ukrainian sovereignty and international law by sending troops to seize communications, transportation, and governmental hubs on the Crimean peninsula. As of this writing, those forces are reportedly digging in, and the Russian senate passed a resolution authorizing even broader use of force against Ukraine. Soldiers violating borders to seize territory in Europe is a grave matter, reminiscent of a darker past that Europe has tried to escape.

What has Barack Obama's administration done to respond? The first statement by the U.S. president failed to deter the Russians. His key sentence was "The United States will stand with the international community in affirming that there will be costs for any military intervention in Ukraine." Russian forces blew past that warning like tanks at an unguarded checkpoint. A later 90-minute phone call between Obama and Russian Vladimir Putin yielded no better results.

The most urgent matter is to re-establish the American credibility so regrettably squandered over the past several years -- in Afghanistan by simultaneously announcing a surge and a retreat, in Iran with unenforced and ever-moving red lines, and in Syria with incomprehensible vacillation that left Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in a stronger position after American threats. Credibility is the coin of the realm in international politics. Allies and adversaries need to know again that America will defend its interests. When the president speaks of "consequences" and "costs" associated with violations of international law and failure to comply with arms control and nonproliferation agreements, the country cannot afford to have other nations doubt his resolve.

A first step toward repairing America's damaged credibility would be a strategic plan to deal with the Ukraine crisis along three broad lines of action. These include both immediate measures to address the current crisis and longer-term steps for the United States and its allies to regain the strategic initiative.

First, recognizing that this is ultimately Ukraine's fight, not America's, the United States must help form a diplomatic coalition in support of democratic leaders in Kiev. The coalition should commit to democracy and territorial integrity for Ukraine. It should demand removal of Russian forces introduced over the last several days, a return to bases for Russian personnel, and an end to threatening exercises and intimidation. Most of all, the United States should rally economic support for Ukraine from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund. Secretary of State John Kerry's announced visit to Kiev on Tuesday, March 4, is also a good start.

Second, the president's warning that there will be costs associated with military intervention must be made real. This does not mean the introduction of U.S. forces into Ukraine, but a series of steps to show the resolve of an American-led international order. Simply put, we must deter further Russian aggression. Rather than simply threatening to withdraw U.S. participation in planning for the Sochi G-8 meeting, that meeting should be moved outside Russia. Putin should be warned that if Russian aggression persists, the other members will expel Russia and restore the G-7 to its original membership of industrialized democracies -- not autocratic kleptocracies. Planning should begin to impose travel restrictions and asset freezes targeting those who ordered the aggression in Ukraine. Obama should visit Kiev soon as a visible show of support for the new government. The Magnitsky Act provisions should be implemented against senior-level Russian leaders on a carefully targeted basis. A French deal to deliver two Mistral-class helicopter assault ships in November 2014 and 2015 should be scrapped, most of all because those vessels would be ideal for supporting the Russian aggression now under way.

Third, at the strategic level the administration must finally recognize that the "reset" with Russia is a failure and prepare for a different relationship with Moscow. This does not mean another Cold War (and any nostalgic efforts to romanticize that horrific conflict, as a couple of Republican legislators recently did, should be emphatically rejected). But the United States should acknowledge that Putin and his model of authoritarian capitalism have declared themselves opposed to American interests and values.

Instead the United States should end the archaic restrictions on the export of natural gas (which currently requires an onerous web of regulatory approvals) and the ban on the export of American oil. The United States is now the world's largest natural gas producer. Facilitating American natural gas exports will provide Europeans with an alternative energy source and erode Russia's leverage over them. The president's promised "flexibility" on missile defense after his re-election is best forgotten, and the administration must hold Moscow accountable for its apparent violations of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. If Kiev agrees, the West should move forward with E.U. economic -- but not NATO military -- agreements. Finally, the president's announced decision to reduce the U.S. Army to a pre-World War II troop strength should be reversed.

Obama now faces one of the most severe national security tests of his administration. The results of his exam will be studied in Tehran, Pyongyang, Damascus, and Beijing -- as well as in London, Paris, Berlin, and Tokyo. Too many times he has given reason to doubt his resolve to defend vigorously American and allied interests. He can begin to repair that damage and restore American credibility with a steadfast response to Russian aggression in Ukraine. All Americans should support him on that point. A watching world waits to see whether America will lead from the front.

Photo: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images