No matter who wins the presidential election, there will be a whole slew of Middle East challenges for either Obama or Romney to face. Here are the top five challenges facing the President of the United States.
1. Political Islam
Presidents of both parties have spoken of democracy in the Middle East as an important goal of U.S. foreign policy. During the Bush years, the prospect of holding elections in Iraq and Gaza were met eagerly by the White House. However, for some reason the results were surprising to the administration: when a group of people who generally hold religion as very important in their lives and central to their identities vote, their votes are informed by religion. Who would’ve thought?
During the Arab Spring, oppressive leaders such as Hosni Mubarak, Muammar Gaddafi, Ben Ali, and Ali Abdullah Saleh fell, and elections followed suit. The big winners have been groups like Salafists and the Muslim Brotherhood — Islamist parties. While we should not be too optimistic about the prospects of democracy in all of these countries just yet, some news out of places like Tunisia and Egypt show that elected leaders are beginning to behave like democratic politicians by pandering to their constituencies.
Of course, these groups have made U.S. policymakers nervous in the past. But a functioning U.S. foreign policy will have to learn to be tolerant of these groups going forward. If the U.S. truly values the proliferation of democracy throughout the world, our foreign policy must be able to work with those officials who are popularly elected by their people.
2. Public Diplomacy
Public opinion in the Middle East toward the U.S. is important for U.S. interests both with regards to foreign policy and national security. First, terrorist networks such as Al Qaeda still exist in places like Pakistan and Yemen. Ill-informed U.S. foreign policy only adds fuel to the fire of these groups. Improving how the U.S. is viewed in the region is a proactive approach to the problem of terrorism. Second, for the foreseeable future, unfortunately, America will continue to run on fossil fuels. As long as the global price of oil is directly or indirectly controlled by many in the Middle East, we have an interest to have positive views of the U.S. predominate in the Middle East. Lastly, if democracy does take hold in the region, increasingly politicians will not be willing to work with the U.S. if doing so would be used against them in the next election. If the people do not like us, their leaders will not be able to afford to either.
While many policy choices of the past cannot be undone (read: the war in Iraq), continuing and emerging issues must be handled with care; such as the continued use of drone strikes and the existence of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay.
3. Pull out of Afghanistan
It seems that the candidates agree that U.S. forces should exit Afghanistan as early as 2014. That’s the easy part. The hard part is to do so responsibly and without creating more problems than we solved by going into Afghanistan over a decade ago.
For example, there have been recent reports noting that Afghan security forces are not yet ready for a U.S. withdrawal. Also, remember that the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan is often an artificial line in the mountains for which many have little concern. Osama bin Laden was found in Pakistan, and Al Qaeda elements undoubtedly remain there. With Pakistan heading into elections in the coming months, we must work closely with Pakistan to try and create as stable an Afghanistan and Pakistan as possible before our troops leave the region.
Lessons must be learned from our drawdown from Iraq and U.S. national security and the security of the Afghan people must take priority over political capital. A quick aside: our veterans must be given better care and attention upon returning home — it’s quite literally the least we can do.
Iran’s nuclear ambitions are no secret, and have led the U.S. to impose crushing sanctions on the country. President Ahmadinejad has been heavily criticized within Iran for allowing the economy to slip, causing him to limp to the end of his presidency in June 2013. While the next U.S. president will have a new Iranian president with whom to work, little will likely change as Ayatollah Khamenei holds the real power in Iran.
While there are important and provocative arguments supporting a nuclear Iran, such a position would be political suicide for an American president. Based on Iranian rhetoric on the matter, a nuclear Iran presents too great a feeling of insecurity for the U.S. and U.S. interests in the region, and the U.S. must stand by principles of nuclear non-proliferation. Of course, Israel’s Netanyahu has not made anything easier, either. A preemptive strike by Israel would be irresponsible and dangerous for the entire region.
In sum, the next president must do what is possible to promote dialogue between the two countries. The guiding principles of policy toward Iran should be peace and nuclear non-proliferation.
Syria appears to be the last major armed conflict of the Arab Spring — a conflict in which over 20,000 people have died. On the one hand it is hard to imagine a scenario in which the international community continues to tolerate President Assad as the leader of Syria. On the other, the stubborn Assad has no incentive to step down or flea. If he does, or is overthrown, there lingers the risk of a sectarian struggle in which the minority Alawi (which includes the Assad family) would be in grave danger.
While many across the world have called for some form of humanitarian intervention (perhaps similar to Libya), Russia has continued to block any authorization to act in the Security Council. While most Americans want the U.S. to do something in Syria to stop the violence, few Americans would stomach sending American troops into harm’s way for the cause. Last month Syria and Turkey exchanged shots across the border, possibly relating to the hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees in camps across the Turkish border. While unlikely, if Turkey were to invoke Article V of the NATO charter (used only once: in response to 9/11), the U.S. could get dragged into Syria regardless of the Security Council or U.S. public opinion.
Regardless of how the conflict ends, the real problems for the next president begin once the Assad regime falls. Syria is in possession of chemical and biological weapons, and if the government falls, those weapons could foreseeably fall into the wrong hands. A protracted, unstable Syria will put strain — in the form of refugees and border control — on countries like Lebanon and Iraq, countries that have enough problems of their own right now. Many of the issues discussed above, political Islam, regional stability, and weapons non-proliferation, all come to a head in how the next president must approach the evolving conflict in Syria.