The hearings of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Oct. 31 were an administration disaster. The spectacle of your State Department’s Syrian point man, US Ambassador Robert Ford, being severely criticized by both Republican and Democratic Senators was quite unnerving. Only on the issues of Iranian sanctions and the lack of a credible Syrian policy do these two political parties ever seem to come together. But come together, they do. Both the Chairman Senator Bob Menendez (Democrat of New Jersey) and ranking Minority Leader Senator Bob Corker (Republican of Tennessee) made exactly the same claim. They failed to understand the administration’s strategy on Syria and the broader region of the Middle East. Similarly, not one other committee member seemed to come to the defense of Mr. Ford’s brave (but ineffectual) explanations. In this era of US government shut-downs and intense partisan acrimony, no greater proof was needed as to the weakness of the administration’s position on these issues. I sincerely hope your trip to the Middle East next week will offer an alternative to the feeble strategy posed by Mr. Ford.
The endgame in Syria is not the problem. Everyone seems to agree (except the Saudis) that a democratic Syria is the appropriate answer, where all religious, ethnic and sectarian communities will be protected through constitutional law. The Bath Party must not become outlawed. On the contrary, the organs of the new state must consist of both the democratic opposition and parts of the present Syrian government. The transitional authority must be internationally recognized and tasked with writing a framework for the new democratic government. This is the goal. But it is not a strategy.
In order to get to the endgame, a structure for the entire region is needed. But the Obama administration has never set forth a vision of the Middle East that addresses the fundamental cause of the region’s expanding proxy war. Mr. Secretary, you must understand that the hegemonic character of the Islamic Republic of Iran is, first and foremost, the driver of Middle East instability. On this point, all your critics agree. Assad must go because Iranian expansionism must go. The specter of one dominant power in the Levant is an anathema to Sunnis as well as Israelis. Yet negotiations with Iran continue without any connection to the question of the future of the broader Middle East. Senator Ed Markey, Democrat of Massachusetts (who replaced you on the committee) pointed to this discrepancy in his remarks to Ambassador Ford. How can we be negotiating with Iran over nuclear power, while remaining quiet as to their regional power? And won’t a successful negotiation, leading to the lifting of sanctions, only work to enhance their regional domination?
The second cause of the regional instability is the character and the stalemate of the push-back. Because of the lack of US leadership within the region (I don’t mean unilateralism), American policy has been leased to the Gulf states. This has been a gross mistake. The flow of arms to the opposition has not gone to democratic forces. Instead, it has fallen into the hands of very reactionary elements. Certainly, a regional effort to hold-off Iran’s hegemonic design was necessary, but why must it have proceeded through al Qaeda and its affiliates? This is a prime example of the administration’s tendency to lead from behind. Now, the situation in Syria has spread the sectarian nightmare to Lebanon and Iraq. This has made the situation far more complicated. Any hope of a successful Geneva Two Conference will depend on serious compromise. This is not possible with radical Islamist extremists.
The regional stalemate will continue unless a major outside force enters the fray. This war of attrition will only aid the Sunni extremists. But it can’t go on for long. Sooner or later events in Syria, Lebanon or on the nuclear stage will work to draw in Israel. A big part of this scenario will depend on US policy for the region. Mr. Secretary, the decisions your president takes in the coming weeks will have an enormous impact on the Middle East. No nuclear deal with Iran can only lead to war. An Israeli-Hezbollah clash would also ensue. A bad nuclear deal with Iran can only lead to war. You’ve said yourself, Mr. Secretary, that a bad deal is worse than no deal. Yet a successful deal without a regional component leaves all your current allies in the lurch. Is that US strategy? Have the Saudis assessed the situation correctly?
Mr. Secretary, Ambassador Ford and the Russians both say the same thing. It is unrealistic for there to be a negotiated settlement in Syria until everyone there can envision a safe future. The same can be said for the entire region. Without a Middle East “roof of peace”, all roads lead to an expansion of the current proxy war. It had been a “truth” that once the conflict over Israel-Palestine was settled, regional peace would blossom. That “truth” was a myth created in Washington, but without much validity for Israel or her rejection-front enemies. The same myth is being played out today. In the current climate there are now two rejection fronts, one Islamic Shia and the other Islamic Sunni. It is impossible for there to be a successful conclusion on a “two-state” agreement without a multilateral security umbrella for the region. This will require cooperation with Russia and China on a broad range of issues.
In conclusion, Mr. Secretary, don’t get me wrong. This is not a partisan commentary. I am neither a knee-jerk Republican nor an automatic Democrat. In fact, I most certainly wish you and the president well. But what I don’t wish for is a bifurcated Middle East policy whereby the administration attempts to be all things to all players. This can’t work, and it won’t work. In order to get his many critics off the president’s back, a new policy toward the region must be enacted. This will necessitate vision. The old paradigm of unilateral military strength as tried by the previous administration failed. We are still picking up the pieces. It is time for substantial compromise on all sides. All hegemonic configurations must end, including the American one in the Gulf. For peace to reign across the region, a system of permanent balance must be constructed through the good offices of the UN Security Council. This balance must include: the end of terrorist proxies, mutual recognition of all states, the inadmissibility of offensive war and a nuclear-free-zone in the Middle East. All nations and peoples must feel safe, or no one will truly be safe.
Mr. Secretary, it appears that idealism has become the most realistic foreign policy choice. After all, this is the nature of the Middle East, where miracles have been known to happen.