New York - With three simultaneous wars raging in the Middle
East, a more assertive Russia, a fruitless negotiation process between the
Palestinians and the Israelis, President-elect Donald Trump is likely to face
colossal foreign policy challenges.
Four Arab scholars offer policy recommendations on how best
to address a legacy of mistrust and decades of failed policies.
As you absorb the results of your hard-fought election
victory, your mind will now undoubtedly turn to what needs to be done as the
next US President. Needless to say, there is much on your plate that you will
need to tackle, both domestically and internationally.
One would hope that Palestine and the now nearly 50-year
Israeli denial of Palestinian freedom would be among those issues.
While your predecessors wasted years focusing on conflict
management through a fruitless negotiation process, today, we are no closer to
Palestinian freedom than when this farcical peace process started.
Palestine is now riddled with nearly 750,000 Israeli
settlers, four times more than when this process began in 1993. Today in
Israel, a right-wing, fascist government prevails that consists of ministers
who are illegal settlers, those who have called for the ethnic cleansing of
Palestinians and who have declared that Palestinians in Israel should have
their heads "chopped off" for challenging Israeli policy.
At the same time, Palestinians are saddled with a leadership
and government whose term expired several years ago. With these grim realities,
it may be easy to do as your predecessor
and bury your head in the sand, ignoring the Middle East.
Yet, what the Middle East needs now is to do something
different so as to end Israel's military rule over Palestine.
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Here is what can be done:
A) Abandon the idea that Palestinian freedom can only come
through bilateral negotiations. We should not be forced to negotiate our freedom,
nor should we be required to continue to serve as Israel's security
subcontractor. As someone who worked on the negotiations for years, I can
attest to the futility of demanding that a people under occupation negotiate
with their occupier and oppressor.
B) Support the growing Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS)
movement, rather than block global grassroots efforts to hold Israel
accountable. Impose sanctions on Israel for its continued denial of Palestinian
freedom, its siege on Gaza and its continued colonisation of Palestinian
Israel should not be allowed to continue to benefit from its
continued occupation. And, just as the world community has expressed concerns
over Palestinian leaders, so too should you start boycotting this right-wing government
that believes it is perfectly acceptable to pass discriminatory laws, call
Palestinians "snakes" and support ethnic cleansing.
C) Press for Palestinian elections for legitimate leaders.
Leaving aside Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's major shortcomings and
failures as a leader, he is also now illegitimate. Our democracy should not be
held hostage any longer. Palestinians need to elect a leadership that is
reflective of our young population and not remain saddled by this illegitimate
and octogenarian leadership.
By pressing for these issues you will go down in history as
US' first president to win such an unprecedented victory but also as one who
ended Israel's military rule by going against the standard operating protocol
If you do not, you will go down in history as just another
president who failed to deliver.
'US can still do a lot more, but in the direction of
International law and human rights'
Providing recommendations on the Middle East to US
policymakers or the president-elect is a bit of a delusional act if you
consider the different metrics some of us proceed from.
Despite an abundance of good minds, US policy over the past
five to six decades has been devastating for the people of the region, and
pretty good for Arab autocrats and economic elites alike, as well as for the
apartheid state of Israel.
The policy inputs are not likely to change soon and in this
election might not even budge, or worse yet, might deteriorate with a choice
between a neo-conservatives' poster child war-hawk candidate and - what can one
say any more about Trump, really - a candidate who often scares his allies more
than his enemies.
This was both a critical domestic election, as well as the
first time a new administration will be voted in during (a) the post-euphoric
Arab uprisings, (b) a more assertive and involved Russia, and (b) three
simultaneous Middle Eastern wars in which the US is heavily involved or leading
from behind (Syria, Yemen, Iraq).
US foreign policy is usually a balancing act based on
concerns and risks in both the domestic and international arenas. As critical
as the international and Middle East scenes might be for voters, this election
turns on domestic concerns and risks.
In the minds of most citizens and pundits the Syrian war is
about a limited debate of the US "doing less or more", presumably to
save lives and fight terrorism, though policymakers may have this as a
by-product concern not a point of departure for calculating risk across
As to the war on the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant
(ISIL, also known as ISIS) in Mosul and beyond, the concerns are subsiding as
perceptions of a degraded ISIL proliferate, while the actual risks are being
taken by non-US foot-soldiers - notwithstanding the anticipated backlash in the
region and beyond by ISIL and ISIL-inspired actors.
As to the Saudi-led war in Yemen, with direct US support,
well, for most voters, it almost does not exist, judging from mainstream media
coverage and government (non-)pronouncements.
President Obama is wrongfully accused of doing little. The
truth is, the US can still do a lot more, but in the direction of International
law and human rights. While this might sound naive, the time is actually
approaching when realpolitik concerns that make the US support of unsavory
actors and processes in the Middle East no longer comport with what is really
best even for non-"ordinary" Americans.
Before any serious change in US Middle East policy is on the
table, there is much to do here at home to reclaim democracy, by making US
policymakers responsive to their citizens' concerns at the domestic level in
the first place.
Bassam Haddad is author of Business Networks in Syria: The
Political Economy of Authoritarian Resilience
'Act immediately to end genocide and population transfers'
The 45th United States president inherits a fractured and
splintering Middle East, presenting extraordinary foreign policy challenges.
The world he inherits is defined by shifting boundaries, changing alliances, as
well as heightened global and regional tensions fuelling interrelated sectarian
and proxy conflicts across the Middle East.
It is also characterised by the gargantuan distrust of Arab
citizens who believe the US has not only abandoned them, but has actively
obstructed their quest for a better future whether in Syria, Iraq, Libya,
Yemen, Egypt or Palestine.
The de-escalation of the regional proxy war between Iran and
Saudi Arabia, and by extension the rest of the region, is central to addressing
the challenges of civil conflict and state failure across the Middle East.
Without it, negotiated settlements to end ongoing wars in
Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya will be difficult if not impossible. To do so, the
newly elected president must work to convince regional actors of the advantages
of moving away from the current zero-sum game wreaking havoc in the region,
towards a stable order that can engage with multiple and often conflicting
The success of the Iran deal is a case in point of the
advantages of such a policy shift for some countries. This is a tall yet fundamentally
critical order for global stability. In the short run, a revised US policy can
embrace key Gulf allies who feel sidelined by the US' apparent change in
regional priorities, working towards a more coherent approach to ongoing proxy
wars in Syria and Iraq.
To address the massive gap in citizen trust, the new US
president also needs to shift American policy towards the Middle East from a
predominantly security perspective focused on the fight against ISIL to one
that engages with larger socioeconomic triggers for instability.
Five areas through which a revamped US policy can begin to
rebuild this trust are: 1) to act immediately to end genocide and population
transfers and ensure accountability for those atrocities whether by state or
non-state actors by supporting international justice mechanisms; 2) leverage US
support to regional governments to ensure fundamental rights; 3) support
policies that uphold the rights of refugees and asylum seekers including
Palestinian refugees; 4) re-engage with the Israeli-Palestinian peace process
on the basis of international norms and conventions and 5) support policies
that both guard fundamental rights and protect from terrorism.
It is in the interests of the United States to have a stable
Middle East. Without addressing these fundamental imbalances, the fissures
developing across the region will extend far beyond the region and to the rest
of the world.
'US policy in the Middle East bears considerable
responsibility for getting us here'
Less than six months into his first term as president,
Barack Obama travelled to Cairo where he delivered a monumental address,
seeking "a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the
world, one based on mutual interest and mutual respect".
In his remarks, Obama also recognised the legacy of distrust
and enmity left by the colonial experience and the Cold War tendency to treat
Muslim countries as mere proxies in a global conflict. That sense of
self-awareness was unprecedented in an American leader, and caused many across
the Middle East and beyond to have high hopes for Obama’s presidency.
Instead, US foreign policy over the past eight years has
been little more than business as usual. Obama failed to uphold a key campaign
promise when he could not close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, and in fact
stepped up the use of drone attacks across several countries, resulting in
frequent civilian deaths.
His administration has also undermined popular calls for
freedom by continuing to back repressive dictatorships and illegal occupations,
and remained the chief arms dealer to a region that has suffered enough death
Despite this legacy, the US media's take on Obama depicts a
president who withdrew from the Middle East and hesitated to act when necessary.
According to these critics, the next president must be more decisive and
confrontational in dealing with this volatile region.
While there is little reason to hope that the next
administration will abandon US militarism and support for authoritarianism, it
nonetheless merits recalling that US policy towards the Middle East over the
past several decades bears considerable responsibility for getting us here.
There is no reason to assume that more of the same will
somehow eradicate the threat of terrorism, secure American interests, or
engender goodwill among the people of the region.
It is a tragically ironic that the US agreement with Iran,
Obama's chief foreign policy achievement and a reversal of a long-standing
policy, was roundly criticized by both presidential campaigns.
In fact, the success of the Iran deal in overcoming years of
mutual hostility and avoiding another destructive war should serve as a model
for the next administration to think beyond the cycle of mistrust and find
alternative modes of resolving deep-seated conflicts.
Otherwise, the coming four years will simply yield more
failed policies and entrenched grievances for which a future president will one
day atone in a flowery speech before a hopeful crowd.
Abdullah Al-Arian is author of Answering the Call: Popular
Islamic Activism in Sadat's Egypt. For
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