Middle East Continues to Dominate U.S. Foreign Policy, but Our Strategy in Region Remains Largely Unclear

by PSA Staff | April 27th, 2015 | |Subscribe

Lee Hamilton is director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University and current Advisory Board Co-Chair to the Partnership for a Secure America. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years. The article originally appeared in The Huffington Post.

Middle East Continues to Dominate U.S. Foreign Policy, but Our Strategy in Region Remains Largely Unclear

Like every U.S. president of the last half-century, I find it nearly impossible to avoid focusing most of my foreign policy attention on the continuingly chaotic and confusing region of the world that is the Middle East.

I have now spent five decades working on foreign policy in government, and I’m still struggling to make sense of the Middle East. It’s an extremely turbulent area, where tensions flare up regularly. Its economic growth has been tepid at best, and its overall governance is feeble. The region is currently flooded with refugees. And city after city is fraught with danger, destruction and devastation.

Today, it has become even more difficult to sort out the competing players, conflicting visions and challenges in the Middle East. And it’s almost impossible for the world’s leaders to agree on much of anything that might improve the region’s current instability, the culmination of decades of terrible governance, economic stagnation and brutal dictatorial crackdowns on individual rights and freedoms.

Trouble exists almost everywhere you turn. While dictators have been recently driven from power in Egypt, Iraq, Libya and Tunisia, what has ultimately followed in those countries has resulted in very little democracy and a whole lot of dysfunction.

Iraq, Syria and Yemen remain mired in civil wars. A dozen years after the start of the war in Iraq, which toppled the government of Saddam Hussein, the country is coming apart. (According to the United Nations, at least 2.7 million people have been displaced from Iraq since the beginning of 2014.) Meanwhile, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, has seized upon the chaos to capture large amounts of territory in both Iraq and Syria. Ten nations have intervened in Yemen alone.

Underlying these conflicts is the centuries-old split between the Sunni and Shiite sects of Islam. Iran, a Shiite stronghold, continues to spread its influence across the region, even as Sunni-led Saudi Arabia seeks to counter that country’s advances. Saudi Arabia is also part of a new Arab League effort to form a joint defense force to fight extremist threats, including ISIL, and to reduce their dependency on U.S. military intervention.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which for many years defined the Middle East, has faded in visibility, but principally because so many other high-profile conflicts have taken root in the region, including, among others, those between Sunni and Shiite, Islamists and Arab nationalists, Hamas and Israel, and Hamas and Fatah. There are deep divisions no matter where you look in Middle East and many different groups contending for power and influence.

This area has presented a massive foreign policy problem for the U.S. for decades, and navigating the chaos that engulfs the region has resulted in a confusing use of American power.

Recently, President Obama has faced enormous pressure to escalate the nation’s involvement in Iraq, where our democracy-building efforts have gone awry, and in Syria, where President Bashar al-Assad clings to power amidst a now four-year-old armed uprising that has claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of Syrians and displaced millions of others who have fled to Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. U.S. policymakers and political analysts continue to debate whether to weaken or strengthen Assad, whom many blame for the rise of ISIL in Syria.

Currently, the groups that have brought turmoil and violence to these nations and others in the region don’t appear to pose an existential threat to the U.S, and it’s debatable whether they represent even a short-term strategic threat, but they can certainly become one if left unchecked.

Now well into his second term, Obama has essentially followed a policy of restraint in the region. He has been unwilling to engage in a massive ground effort and yet he has authorized numerous other combat maneuvers, including deploying special forces and launching airstrikes against ISIL in Iraq and Syria. Still, it’s clear he prefers negotiations over these and other military measures. I would characterize his overall approach to the region’s challenges as modest, cautious, incremental and situational.

Obama’s critics say he doesn’t have a strategy for dealing with the Middle East, a claim that may have merit. But what kind of strategy should he have? His critics call for an aggressive U.S. military in the region, but they don’t spell out what specifically they want the military to do. Furthermore, they fail to recognize that our military, a fighting force that is without equal in the world, has yet to solve the region’s problems. Recent history points to instances in which U.S. military intervention has worsened a situation, resulted in civilian backlash and unearthed other challenges far too difficult for our military alone to solve.

As we repeatedly rely heavily on the military to address our problems in the Middle East, we continue to under-rely on strategies centering on education, effective governance, humanitarian relief, citizen empowerment and refugee assistance. Airstrikes, drone attacks and elite special forces are key tools in the fight against extremist groups that seek to tear apart the region. But part of our policy should be to emphasize the best of what we can offer to the people of the Middle East, such as life, freedom, tolerance, reform, economic prosperity and dignity for all peoples.

Right now, we are missing an opportunity to help with the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean. Using our extraordinary capabilities for that kind of purpose would hugely improve our image and reputation in the region.

We have a good story to tell. But we must first ask ourselves: What is our ultimate goal in the Middle East? What are we truly trying to achieve? To what extent can those goals be achieved by military power alone? How can we achieve effective governance? And, most importantly, what are we willing to spend in American lives and resources to achieve our objectives?

Our current policy seems to suggest a vital interest in every part of the region, but it stretches far beyond our ability to protect and advance those interests. This leads then to an even more fundamental question that we really need to ask: Can we even begin to solve the problems in the Middle East? I’ve come to the conclusion that we simply cannot solve these problems in the region. We can help, and should, but these countries essentially have to solve them by themselves.

The need is to reexamine what the clear, compelling U.S. vital interests are in the Arab World. These countries will have instability, violence and bad actors no matter what we do, and there’s no end in sight.

Obama and his recent predecessors have largely followed the same playbook in the Middle East: They’ve sought some middle ground where the U.S. can effect positive change. In doing so, they’ve found out just how dangerous, frustrating, time-consuming and resource-devouring this routinely upended region is.

The Iran Deal and Its Consequences

by PSA Staff | April 8th, 2015 | |Subscribe

George Shultz is a PSA Advisory Board member and former Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger is a former Secretary of State. The original article appeared in The Wall Street Journal.

The Iran Deal and Its Consequences

The announced framework for an agreement on Iran’s nuclear program has the potential to generate a seminal national debate. Advocates exult over the nuclear constraints it would impose on Iran. Critics question the verifiability of these constraints and their longer-term impact on regional and world stability. The historic significance of the agreement and indeed its sustainability depend on whether these emotions, valid by themselves, can be reconciled.

Debate regarding technical details of the deal has thus far inhibited the soul-searching necessary regarding its deeper implications. For 20 years, three presidents of both major parties proclaimed that an Iranian nuclear weapon was contrary to American and global interests—and that they were prepared to use force to prevent it. Yet negotiations that began 12 years ago as an international effort to prevent an Iranian capability to develop a nuclear arsenal are ending with an agreement that concedes this very capability, albeit short of its full capacity in the first 10 years.


The Fantasy of a Better Iran Deal

by PSA Staff | April 7th, 2015 | |Subscribe

Samuel R. Berger is a PSA Advisory Board member and was national security adviser to President Bill Clinton from 1997-2001; he is also currently chair of Albright Stonebridge Group. The original article appeared in Politico.

The Fantasy of a Better Iran Deal

Some are insisting on a “better deal” than the framework nuclear agreement reached with Iran on April 2. But the idea of a better deal is a chimera, an illusory option, and it should not lull us into thinking there is another agreement to be had if only we were to bear down harder. The present agreement, which depends on important pieces to be resolved by the end of June, can substantially reduce the ability of Iran to develop a nuclear weapon over the next ten years or more and also creates a dynamic that could be a game changer in the combustible Middle East.

Senator Mark Kirk has postponed a vote on the Iran sanctions bill he wrote with Senator Robert Menendez, possibly until June 30. This is a constructive step, avoiding an action that would undercut negotiations toward a final agreement. But we need to keep the sanctions issue in mind because it is inextricably intertwined with the same calls for a better deal emanating from people in Congress, Israel, and other critics. No one can argue that a better agreement wouldn’t be better—3,000 Iranian centrifuges is better than 5,000; a 20-year deal is better than 10. The tough question is: How do you get there? Putting aside what the Iranians might do in response to additional pressure—dig in deeper, speed up their program–and looking just at our side of the equation, the notion of a better deal is unachievable.


Hamilton: Congress feels left out on foreign policy

by PSA Staff | April 6th, 2015 | |Subscribe

Lee Hamilton is a PSA Advisory Board member, chairman of the Center on Congress at Indiana University, and served as congressman from Indiana’s 9th Congressional District from 1965-1999. The original article appeared in The Detroit News.

Hamilton: Congress feels left out on foreign policy

Congress has developed a fondness for open letters when it comes to Iran. First came the warning shot signed by 47 Republican senators that touched off a storm of criticism. Not to be outdone, the House checked in with its own bipartisan and more diplomatically stated letter to President Barack Obama, warning that its members must be satisfied with any agreement before they’ll vote to reduce sanctions.

What lies behind these moves? I think Congress feels left out of foreign policymaking.


Budget: President is the one who calls the shots

by PSA Staff | February 27th, 2015 | |Subscribe

 PSA Advisory Board Co-Chair Lee Hamilton directs the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years. The article originally appeared in The Times Herald.

Budget: President is the one who calls the shots

It may not be obvious from the news coverage, but a good bit of Congress’s 2015 agenda just landed on Capitol Hill with a thud. I mean this literally. The federal budget President Barack Obama submitted runs to 2,000 pages.

This is the most important government document produced each year, so its heft is more than physical. The budget is how we decide what share of this country’s economic resources we should devote to government — and how we should spend them. It’s where we set out our national priorities, sorting out how to allocate money among defense, the environment, education, medical research, food safety, public works … You get the idea. (more…)

Jamie Metzl: Is Kim Jong Un More Dangerous than His Dad?

by PSA Staff | November 12th, 2014 | |Subscribe

PSA Board Director and former Clinton administration National Security Council official Jamie Metzl weighs in on the changing calculus for the North Korean leadership. For further information about Kim Jong Un, check Dr. Metzl’s CNN commentary.

North Korea’s Changing Calculus

It is no coincidence in my opinion that American detainees Kenneth Bae and Matthew Miller were released by North Korea just as President Obama is arriving in Beijing for the APEC Summit. With North Korea-China relations more strained than they have been in years, the US moving towards a potential deal with Iran, the North Korean economy in shambles, and a resolution just being introduced to the UN General Assembly calling for North Korea’s leaders to be referred to the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity, Kim Jong Un and his cabal are being squeezed as never before. Absolute terror remains a very effective means for North Korea’s leaders to maintain control of their population, but it’s hard to see how the status quo can be maintained for too long. It may be that North Korea sees this too, and has come to realize both that the costs of its global pariah status is increasing and that an Iran-like deal (where they negotiate over a long time and ultimately give up enough of their nuclear program to make the world happier and secure aid but not enough to limit deterrence) could be to their advantage. Don’t expect a Burma-like about face any time soon, but a lot seems to happening in North Korea and Asia more generally (including the new Xi Jinping-Vladimir Putin alliance) that will pose new challenges to America and our allies, but could also create new opportunities.

Bordering on surreal — live images of war

by PSA Staff | July 23rd, 2014 | |Subscribe

Bordering on surreal — live images of war

Sonenshine is a distinguished fellow at George Washington University and former member of PSA’s Board of Directors. This article originally appeared in the The Hill Contributor’s Blog.

A civilian aircraft is shot down over the border between Russia and Ukraine, wreckage burning on the ground. Two hundred ninety-eight innocent souls lost. In another quadrant of your screen, outgoing rockets from Gaza meet incoming missiles from Israel along the border as Israeli ground troops seek to destroy tunnels connecting the areas. Cut to the U.S.-Mexico border, where thousands of people are streaming across to escape life in Latin America, facing uncertain conditions. Pause before watching scenes of insurgents marching toward Baghdad. They came over porous borders with Syria.

Everywhere you look, a boundary is in dispute at a time when we supposedly live in a virtual e-everything world with no borders. The question arises — what role do borders serve? (more…)

After Ukraine, Obama Keeps an Eye on the Baltics

by PSA Staff | June 11th, 2014 | |Subscribe

Tara Sonenshine is distinguished fellow at George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs and former under secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs. She is also a former member of PSA’s Board of Directors. This article originally appeared in Defense One.

After Ukraine, Obama Keeps an Eye on the Baltics

In the wake of the Ukraine election, all eyes are on Russia and President Vladimir Putin for signs of a full withdrawal of Russian troops along the Ukrainian border or an escalation of tensions in and around Kiev.

But there is another related hotspot to be watching:  the Baltics. While political analysts are busy imagining a new Ukraine with quasi-independent states or neutral, federated regions and political power-sharing arrangements, the Obama administration is rightly considering beefing up its military presence in Europe, perhaps going so far as granting a Baltic request for permanent NATO military bases. Having been somewhat blindsided by Ukraine, neither this administration nor European leaders want to take any chances.


I Spy, You Spy: Limiting Government Surveillance of Private Citizens

by PSA Staff | May 9th, 2014 | |Subscribe

Morton Halperin is a former member of PSA’s Board of Directors and is currently a senior adviser at the Open Society Institute. This article was originally published on Huffington Post Blog .

I Spy, You Spy: Limiting Government Surveillance of Private Citizens

During their visit last week, U.S. President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel did not succeed in resolving their disagreement about American spying on German officials and private citizens.

It appears that Germany still wants a “no spy” agreement with the United States, meaning that the two countries would cease and desist from spying on each other’s government officials and citizens.

But such an agreement was never a real possibility. No two nations have ever had a total ban on spying on each other. All governments seek to read the diplomatic traffic of all other governments, friend or foe. And all spy in some circumstances on residents of other countries as well as their own citizens.


Achieving Long-term Stability in Ukraine Is Key to Navigating Watershed Moment in East-West Relations

by PSA Staff | April 7th, 2014 | |Subscribe

Lee Hamilton is a member of PSA’s Advisory Board and the director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years. This article was originally published on Huffington Post.

Achieving Long-term Stability in Ukraine Is Key to Navigating Watershed Moment in East-West Relations

In recent days, there has been no shortage of opinions about Ukraine, the escalating crisis over that country’s future and the international community’s response to Russia’s bold takeover of Crimea.

The conversation thus far has largely centered on how the U.S. and its European allies can ease the standoff over Ukraine, convince Russia to scale back the tens of thousands of troops it has reportedly amassed near Ukraine’s border and prevent a prolonged crisis in this important part of the world.

Missing from much of the discussion, though, is a frank assessment of what exactly the U.S. and its European allies seek to accomplish outside the more immediate aim of keeping the Russians out of Ukraine. That is, what is our long-term objective with regard to this troubled nation and, if there is one, is it attainable?


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All blog posts are independently produced by their authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of PSA. Across the Aisle serves as a bipartisan forum for productive discussion of national security and foreign affairs topics.