Friday,21 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1308, (18 -24 August 2016)
Friday,21 September, 2018
Issue 1308, (18 -24 August 2016)

Ahram Weekly

The next US president’s Middle East agenda

The arrival of a new US president in January is not simply an event Arab countries should watch. It is one to prepare for, writes Abdel-Moneim Said

Al-Ahram Weekly

Regardless of how the race between Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton and Republican candidate Donald Trump plays out, the forthcoming 8 November elections will usher in a new US president. The announcement of the election results will set into motion the procedures for the handover of power from incumbent President Barack Obama. It is a long and detailed process that involves turning over files to members of the next president’s team and familiarising them with various issues so as to enable them to get to work the moment Obama’s successor takes the oath of office on 20 January 2017. Generally, a new president comes to power with a team in place and with ideas and programmes for most foreign and domestic concerns. But that, in itself, is not sufficient. One of the most important functions of research centres and think tanks in the US is to formulate what they believe should be the new president’s mission with respect to their particular of expertise, whether on matters of war and peace or on environmental issues, among others. 

No one can dispute that the Middle East will remain one of the chef subjects of concern for next occupant of the Oval Office. Already, since the middle of last year, various research centres began to produce a spate of reports on how to handle the most dangerous region in the world due to the terrorism, refugees, instability and anarchy that are generated from its chronic conflicts. I have previously discussed in this column some of the efforts of the Middle East Strategy Task Force (MEST). Formed by The Atlantic Council last year in order to propose remedies for this region’s many ailments, MEST has published several reports on matters related to security, the economy, governance and other crucial issues. The final report, pulling all those issues together, is still in the offing. Meanwhile, Ilan Goldenberg, director of the Middle East Security Programme of the Centre for a New American Security (CNAS), produced a special paper intended to advise the next president on this region. The report is called: “Reset, Negotiate, Institutionalise: A Phased Middle East Strategy for the Next President.”

Apart from the three stages discussed in the report, what is particularly interesting is the advice it gives the president for his/her first 100 days in office. The first step is to announce a Middle East trip focused primarily on America’s closest regional partners: Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt. The early trip, though ultimately symbolic, would convey the message that the US “will remain engaged in the Middle East and is not intending a pivot to Persia (Iran).” 

Step two is to task a high-level inter-agency committee (drawn from the Pentagon, intelligence agencies, State Department and National Security Council) with a strategy review for filling the “security vacuums” in the Middle East with an eye to ensuring that the US’s partners assume the greater share of responsibility. While the paper recommends that the initial focus of this effort should be on Iraq and Syria, the aim should be to develop a model that could be extended to Libya and Yemen. 

The third step the president should take in her/his first 100 days is have the military and intelligence establishments develop “a series of options for pushing back on Iran’s destabilising behaviour in the Middle East”. The report proposes that these efforts start with proposals on how to work with Israel and members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in various forums to achieve this end. The options should include measures that “raise the costs” of Iranian meddling, send a clear signal to Iran that the US has the will and capacity to respond, and send messages of reassurance to its partners. In addition, the confrontation with Iran would top the agenda of the proposed presidential visit to the region. 

Step four is to identify possible arms or aid deals that do not require too much red tape or technical difficulties to secure their approval — what the report refers to as “early deliverables” — that could announce on his/her first trip to the region. The aim is to send tangible messages regarding US credibility and its commitments to this region. 

The fifth step is for the president to emphasise, from the outset, the US’s commitment to implementing the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and keeping channels open with Iran. In this framework, the president should encourage the secretary of state to engage in regular communications with his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, while apprising the US’s partners of the results of this dialogue. 

The five steps do not depart significantly from the Obama administration’s approach, which was to attempt to partner with Arab states while keeping the lines of communication open with Iran. However, without delving into the details of the rest of the report and the various stages, it is clear that the author seeks to define a course that will lead policy in the Middle East to a point midway between the over-engagement and scorched earth approach of the Bush administration and the disengagement with the region that Obama tried to engineer. 

Perhaps we will revisit Goldenberg’s paper and similar reports at a later stage. However, what concerns us here are the author’s recommendations regarding the next president’s first 100 days in office, as this serves as an indication of what we in the Arab world can expect and, more importantly, prepare for. In this case, the Arab countries that the report suggests should constitute the main stops on the proposed presidential visit should start preparing for that visit. But, at the same time, they should have alternatives ready, just in case the next president decides to listen to different advice — advice that suggests, for example, that Washington should distance itself as far as possible from the Middle East. 

The writer is chairman of the board, CEO, and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.

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