Last week IR theorist and foreign policy commentator Stephen Walt published his "to do list" for Obama's second term. He essentially deals with five topics: the rivalry with China, the Arab Spring, the demise of the two-state solution for the Middle East, dealing with Iran's nuclear bid, and demilitarizing American foreign policy. As this blog deals with the Middle East and not East Asia, I won't deal with the first topic. But I'll consider the next three and stipulate that I'm in agreement on his final item.
The Arab Spring cannot really be dealt with in a comprehensive strategic sense with a single one-fits-all policy. The Arab Spring is really about the modernization and democratization of the Middle East--a region that has been poorly prepared for democracy by religion, culture, and history. It took Europe generations to democratize from the early 19th century to the late 20th century. World War II was caused by the initial failure of the process in Central Europe. The United States can at best deal with the manifestation of the Spring in the various countries piecemeal. Policy makers must weigh the loss of particular interests such as a military base (Bahrain) or a useful political ally (King Abdullah II, Mahmoud Abbas, various Gulf leaders) against the overall damage from being perceived by locals in the region as being on the wrong side of history. In the past the most useful ways of dealing with clashing interests were arms sales to friendly regimes and the peace process, which at the moment appears to be dead or at least barren.
The Obama administration in its second term will probably spend the majority of its time dealing with Iran and the civil war in Syria, which is the most immediate manifestation of the Arab Spring. I think that the present policy should be continued as it is a cautious one in a situation that demands caution. The Assad regime has mortgaged the long-term future of its power by dealing with peaceful protest through escalating violence and thereby escalating the challenge. A loss of power by the ruling Alawite regime has two potential major bonuses for Washington: it deprives Tehran of its major state ally in the region and it creates the potential for the temporary revival of the peace process through a deal with Israel over the Golan Heights. But it also has the potential to bring to power an Islamist regime hostile to American interests and uninterested in peace or even stability with Israel. So Washington is advised to tread carefully.
In regard to Iran I advocate a continuation of the present policy but with a mute button on the promises that Tehran will never get a bomb. Through sanctions Washington and the West can considerably raise the price of nuclearization, but if the regime is prepared to pay the price, as Beijing was in the early 1960s and Pakistan was in the 1970s and 1980s, there is little that we can do to stop it short of going to war. Jerusalem's policy of aggressively settling the West Bank was not helpful to Obama's policy of recruiting European allies including Russia to enact economic sanctions against Tehran. But for Netanyahu and the Likud settlement trumps security. Obama should continue to apply the stick while being ready to make a grand bargain with Tehran.
The first term of the Obama administration as well as the foreign policy debate between the two candidates demonstrated one of the major barriers in the face of implementing the two-state solution. Israel has penetrated the American political system both inside the beltway and outside that no president can adequately pressure Israel to end its settlement policy let alone retreat from the West Bank. Walt hinted that a one-state solution might be an alternative. But the one-state solution would require even a greater degree of pressure than the two-state solution. This is like proposing that the proverbial farmer whose daughter has been impregnated, but who lacks a shotgun or refuses to use it, should propose to her boyfriend that he not only marry his daughter but support his other daughter as his mistress as well.
The best long term solution is for the United States to treat Israel like Taiwan: maintain trade relations and continue to sell some weapons but reduce the intensity and level of interaction with the regime. America has established a quasi empire in the Middle East in an attempt to reconcile American cultural and political ties to Jerusalem with our economic dependency on Arab oil. The best solution is to reduce both by developing alternative energy sources, finding alternative sources of oil outside the region such as in Africa and Latin America, and distance ourselves from Israel. But this will take political courage to implement and Obama is in short supply of that at the moment.