Every four years, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy convenes a bipartisan group of statesmen, legislators, analysts, and experts to examine U.S. policy toward the Middle East. Through seminar discussions and travel, the Presidential Study Group, a who's who of the policy world, examines pressing issues and offers policy recommendations to whomever may occupy the White House after the November elections.
The Presidential Study Group, always a good read, this year offers recommendations on three topics: security, reform, and peace. The report deals with broad themes such as energy security, training the new Iraqi security forces, and "coordinating strategy on Iran's nuclear program with key European and Security Council powers." While events will likely show both the European Union and United Nations to be insincere in their efforts to restrain Iran's nuclear program, the emphasis on energy security was prescient given the subsequent rise in oil prices.
Political reform, the report says, is developing a strategy to win the ideological war against Islamist extremism. It rightly calls on President George W. Bush to better use his bully-pulpit in this regard. While State Department pronouncements are frequent, their impact is limited. With the globalization of the media, many Middle Easterners look directly to the White House. Noteworthy is that while democracy is mentioned at several points throughout the document, it does not constitute a main topic, highlighting the continuing gap between the foreign policy elite and the Bush administration.
At the center of the group's strategy for peace is support of Palestinian reformers and the encouragement of "orderly Israeli disengagement" from Gaza. Also, and again prescient given the subsequent Syrian-backed assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik al-Hariri, it dedicates several pages to achieving reform in Syria and encouraging an end to its occupation of Lebanon.
One of the report's most interesting features is the dissents that some group members offer. Former secretary of state Madeleine Albright argues that the primary responsibility to win the "battle of ideas" should remain within the State Department and not the National Security Council, and she blames past failures on inadequate funding. Francis Fukuyama takes issue with the idea that Hezbollah and Hamas should remain foci of U.S. counterterrorism efforts, arguing, "Unlike Al-Qaeda, Hizbullah and Hamas have been fairly careful not to pick a fight with us directly." (This ignores Hezbollah's 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, the most deadly terrorist attack against Americans prior to 9-11.)
Several Democratic advisors sought to downplay the notion of military action against Iran, arguing that hostile rhetoric might tie U.S. hands. Implicit in this suggestion is that Washington might be persuaded to allow Iran nuclear capability as part of a grand bargain. Former National Security Council official Flyntt Leverett urged greater engagement with Syria—a strategy with a long record of failure. Daniel Pipes dissented from a different perspective, taking issue with the idea that Israel's unilateral disengagement would make a two-state solution more likely and also casting doubt on the wisdom of U.S. support for Turkey's full European Union membership.