As US Presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump move into the final days of their campaigns, there is only one certainty: after eight years, the Barack Obama era will soon come to an end.
The president to be inaugurated on January 20 will face a very challenging foreign policy landscape worldwide, especially in the Middle East. Continuing the Obama Administration’s policy of diminishing America’s footprint in the region or going further into outright isolationism can only make this worse. Like it or not, the US is a world superpower – inaction, a non-response or indecision in the face of threats that impact its allies or international stability abroad are also seen as policies, and scrutinised closely by malevolent actors, leading to serious consequences.
We are all familiar with today’s Middle East hotspots: Syria’s bloody civil war has been raging for over five years; ISIS is in the process of being rolled back from its zenith of territorial conquest of 2014, with Mosul the latest battleground; Saudi-led coalition forces continue to fight Houthi rebels in Yemen; and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict still smoulders, to name a few.
While superficially these flashpoints may seem unrelated, upon closer examination, one can identify some underlying thematic components that span across multiple conflicts.
One underlying theme is Iran’s revisionist bid for regional hegemony. Iran has been pursuing an expansionist agenda since long before its informal acceptance last year of the P5+1’s Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), that traded a temporary and partial freeze on Iran’s nuclear program for comprehensive sanctions relief. Far from moderating its actions as a result of the deal, Iran – emboldened and empowered by the infusion of oil revenue and lifting of sanctions – has only increased its belligerency.
Iran’s proxy militia Hezbollah has been a decisive factor on the side of the Assad regime across Syrian civil war battlegrounds, while it also has aimed an estimated 150,000 rockets and missiles from southern Lebanon into Israel. Iran continues to provide money and weapons – including missiles – to Palestinian terror groups such as Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad to fuel its wars against Israel and sabotage peace hopes. In the Arabian Peninsula, it backs the Houthi rebels in the strategically vital state of Yemen. Further, as many analysts have noted, the recent failed Houthi missile attacks on US warships are evidence that Iran remains determined to test US resolve in the region.
In light of these disturbing developments, the next US administration – unencumbered by the need to protect a deal it did not create – must not passively wait for Iran to blatantly violate the terms of the JCPOA or simply wait out its sunset clauses. It must actively prepare plans now for how to deal with the Iranian threat as it exists today and not the way it was incorrectly foreseen by the framers of the JCPOA.
Admittedly if there is one commodity in the Middle East more plentiful than oil, it is bad options, but the question that the new US administration must constantly ask itself is whether its policies are making the current situation better or worse over the longer term.
Looking beyond Iran, there’s Russia. After its decision to increase its military involvement in Syria – brutally and emphatically out of Moscow’s narrow self-interest and not altruism as repeated bad faith in negotiations over ceasefires has shown – there is little doubt that whatever power vacuum the US created in the Middle East over the last eight years is being filled. It will now be the responsibility of the new president to decide how to address the dangerous Russian challenge to the status quo.
Regarding the Sunni Islamist threat – including ISIS, al-Qaeda, the Muslim Brotherhood inspired groups like Hamas and all their permutations and offshoots – the incoming US administration will need to hone its ability to defeat extremism and radicalisation and separate the Islamist element from the Muslim communities in which it hides. For this, it will need to partner with mainstream Muslim populations, but it also must both comprehend and communicate publicly the reality that Islamism is a genuine totalitarian ideological threat – not a response to poverty and injustice as some blindly insist. It must be addressed as such, not wished away.
Finally, on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, the next US President needs to understand that the root cause of the failure of every US and international effort to achieve peace is Palestinian rejectionism of peaceful coexistence with Israel, from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas down. The Obama strategy of berating and threatening Israel on relatively peripheral issues such as minor building within existing settlements that everyone expects Israel to retain, while uttering muted if any criticism of serial Palestinian obstructionism and incitement, has not only failed to pay dividends, it has been counter-productive.
The Palestinian leadership, understandably, feels vindicated, and less likely to make the difficult compromises necessary for peace, or, indeed, any compromise at all. They need to be made to understand that the only way for them to achieve a state, or to advance their prospects in any way, is to negotiate directly and in good faith with Israel, and that further refusal to do so will not be rewarded.
The Obama Administration’s strategies in the Middle East were no doubt a reaction to what was seen as the overreach of the Bush Administration, and intended to create a more peaceful environment. Sadly, however, the situation in every crisis point has only worsened. The new US administration must, therefore, forge a new path focused on re-establishing respect for the US in the region, by both engaging positively with allies, and by making it clear to opponents that destructive behaviour will be met with serious consequences. Only in this way can the superpower’s essential role as a force for stability and progress be restored.