In the first months of his presidency, Barack Obama laid out his vision for the Middle East. "If countries like Iran are willing to unclench their fist, they will find an extended hand from us," he told the Arabic satellite channel Al-Arabiya in his first television interview as president. Six months later, in Cairo, he proposed "a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world, one based on mutual interest and mutual respect…[and] principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings."
Unfortunately, Obama has not backed his lofty vision with coherent strategy. Since the Arab Spring protests caught not only regional autocrats but also Washington by surprise, U.S. policy has been reactive rather than pro-active. Far from shaping events, the White House struggles to keep up with events that increasingly spin out of control.
If the president wants to make his vision reality, there are five directives he should immediately issue. Some conservatives will find these controversial, and others will cause progressive complaint. Each means an end to business as usual, but decades of policy failure should be reason enough to consider them.
1) Remove carriers from the Persian Gulf. Whether Obama likes it or not, Iran will dominate foreign policy in his second term. His nomination of former senate colleagues John Kerry and Chuck Hagel to be, respectively, secretary of state and defense, suggest he aims for renewed diplomatic engagement. If success came from simply sitting at the table, however, the nuclear impasse would have long ago been solved. As important as a willingness to talk is the care with which the circumstances are set to succeed. Unless Iranian leaders believe that a diplomatic resolution is their last best option – and insincerity would be met by force – they have no incentive to do anything but stall.
If Obama wishes to convince the Iranians that his patience is not infinite, he should remove the two U.S. aircraft carriers which normally ply the Persian Gulf and redeploy them in the northern Indian Ocean. At first glance, this might seem to affirm Iranian threats about the Persian Gulf being a no-go area for the U.S. navy, but Iran's generals know better: The Persian Gulf is both narrow and shallow. Aircraft carriers have limited maneuverability in such tight corridors, can have trouble acquiring the wind speed to launch planes, and are vulnerable to swarming Iranian speedboats. Keep the U.S. destroyers and cruisers in the contested waters, but removing the carriers would enable the United States to strike at Iran, while keeping our most valuable platforms secure. Only such a move will convince Tehran that the time for defiance has ended.
2) Don't Confuse Iran and the Islamic Republic. The two are not synonymous: Iran is the inheritor of a rich culture and a great civilization; the Islamic Republic is an increasingly repressive regime that subjugates the Iranian people. That Obama each year issues a greeting for the Iranian New Year is smart; that in 2009, he did so to "the people…of the Islamic Republic of Iran" was disheartening (although he has not repeated that mistake in subsequent years). Still, as Obama courts Iran, many Iranians fear being sold out as part of a grand bargain with their regime. Remember that the Islamic Republic represents not the pinnacle of Iranian political evolution, but rather an anomaly. It is in the U.S. interest to see the Iranian people, who are far more moderate than their government, succeed. After all, it is not simply Iranian nuclear weapons that pose a threat to the United States, but rather the ideology of those who would wield them. Just because the White House wants to deal with the Iranian leadership does not mean that it should ever turn its back on independent Iranian trade unions, students, journalists, and civil society movements not corrupted by Iranian government ties.
3) Don't Consider Egypt too Big to Fail. It was no surprise that the Muslim Brotherhood did so well in Egypt's initial elections: During more than 80 years in opposition, they could promise the world. While some Egyptians were surely attracted to the Brotherhood's religious position, many ordinary Egyptians cast their votes for them because they said they would eliminate corruption, jumpstart the economy, right wrongs, and put a chicken in every pot. For such Egyptians, President Mohamed Morsy must be a disappointment: Security has plummeted, the economy is abysmal, the currency shaky, and the gaps between haves and have-nots growing wider.
Instead of undertaking real reform, the Brotherhood has subjugated women and minorities, sought rapprochement with Hamas, and threatened the Camp David Accords with Israel. As frequent protests in Tahrir Square attest, Egyptians are growing increasingly disenchanted with Morsy. Rather than bail the Brotherhood out for their questionable choices, the White House should underscore that the basis for democracy is accountability. Providing debt forgiveness and foreign aid (beyond that mandated by the Camp David Accords) simply allows Morsy to avoid responsibility for his actions. U.S. taxpayer support is not an entitlement. If the Brotherhood fails, Egyptians might learn that religious rhetoric is no panacea.
4) Cut Off Aid to the Palestinian Authority. The late Israeli statesman Abba Eban once quipped that the Palestinians never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity. To that we can add Yankee catcher Yogi Berra's quip, it's déjà vu all over again. The Palestinians have received more aid per capita than any other people. If Singapore can thrive, so too can Gaza. Yet, as the two decade anniversary of the Oslo Accord nears, Palestinians have little to show for it. The problem is not Israel, but rather endemic corruption and a leadership that has promoted terror more than development; and incitement over education.
The best gift the United States could give the Palestinians is not hundreds of millions of dollars more, but the knowledge that Western patience with endless subsidies absent serious reform has ended. Such a lesson has never been more important than now: As not only Hamas but also Fatah turn their backs on the agreements Arafat made to form the Palestinian Authority, they risk demonstrating that they consider agreements ephemeral, not permanent. Such a conclusion would ruin any chance at lasting peace, not only between Israel and Palestine, but also between Israel and other Arab states for no state can expect to trust treaties that are worth little more than the paper upon which they were once written.
5) Define Terrorism. In 1988, Western police and security officers used more than 100 different definitions of terrorism. A quarter century later, more than 250 different definitions are in use. For the West today, the definition of terrorism mirrors U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's 1973 quip about pornography, "I shall not today attempt further to define [it]…but I know it when I see it…" That's not good enough, however, when so many U.S. allies take an à la carte approach to terrorism, condemning it only so long as they disagree with is cause. Turkish officials, for example, demand the West treat the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) as terrorists, even as they embrace Hamas.
If any country wants American aid against terrorists, it should first accept a common definition, perhaps something as simple as "terrorism is the deliberate targeting of civilians for political gain." Any country that's not willing to sign on to that is not serious about countering terror and should not expect any American counterterror support. In the war against terrorists, it's got to be all for one and one for all, regardless of whether the victim is Jewish, Christian, Muslim, or Hindu.