Marc Lynch

What now? Four suggestions for Obama

The editorial team here has asked its bloggers to weigh in on what should happen and what will likely happen once the inauguration festivities end and reality sets in. My immediate plans will likely include thawing out my hands and trying to hitch a ride out of the District, since I’m planning to head downtown ...

The editorial team here has asked its bloggers to weigh in on what should happen and what will likely happen once the inauguration festivities end and reality sets in. My immediate plans will likely include thawing out my hands and trying to hitch a ride out of the District, since I'm planning to head downtown at the crack of dawn for the swearing-in. But for the Obama administration, here are four suggestions for the first weeks in office:

Give the order to begin drawing down forces in Iraq.  The importance of an immediate, public and dramatic removal of sizable number of U.S. troops from Iraq can not be overstated -- for establishing the credibility of Obama's commitments, for helping ensure the passage of the SOFA in July's referendum, and for pushing forward Iraqi reforms and political accommodation. I explain why here. Talk to the Muslim world...and listen.  The idea of a speech in a Muslim capital in the first 100 days is a good one. But don't wait. The enormous excitement about Obama's election throughout the Muslim world has been palpably eroded by Gaza. He should try to recapture that sense of hope and possibility by engaging from the outset with a world desperate for a change from the Bush administration. He should lay out a vision of America's relations with the Islamic world, as he is so uniquely qualified to do.  But engagement doesn't just mean talking -- it means listening,  learning, and treating others with respect rather than simply as objects to be manipulated. That should include a forceful defense of liberal freedoms in Arab countries, including our allies. Obama's administration should seek out ways to reach out, early and often, to a wider range of Arabs and Muslims than usually get heard...and to take them seriously.  Engage on Gaza right away. One of the most glaring aspects of the Gaza crisis was the near-invisibility of the United States. Many people in the region saw this as the logical conclusion of eight years of disastrous American disengagement.  It isn't going to be easy for Obama to pick up the pieces. In the short term he should make clear that he expects the cease-fire to stick, and take the lead in offering significant reconstruction aid to the people of Gaza.  More broadly, he needs to demonstrate that the U.S. is re-engaging with the Arab-Israeli conflict on new terms.  Not grand but empty promises -- Bush promised the Palestinians a state by now, remember.  And not Clinton-era peace processing --  it's hard to imagine a situation less "ripe" for resolution, the current Palestinian leadership is in no position to deliver anything, and the Gaza war will leave deep scars. Instead, focus on the realities on the ground as they are, not as we would like them to be, and put U.S. diplomatic and material support into building more solid foundations for a renewed peace engagement.    See the whole, not the parts. Reports suggest that Obama and Clinton will appoint a collection of special envoys to deal with Iran, Arab-Israeli affairs, and other issues. But that model runs a real risk of losing a sense of the inter-connectedness of the issues.  For example, dealing with Iraq in its regional context requires serious engagement with Iran, Syria, Jordan, Turkey and the Gulf. But if the special envoy on Iran isn't talking to the special envoy on Arab-Israeli relations (with the Syria file), and neither is talking to the Iraq team, then important opportunities will be missed and policy could end up working at cross-purposes.  Obama should sit down with all the special envoys and make clear their role in his overarching regional vision.  And then the National Security Adviser and the Secretary of State should work closely together to makes sure that the envoys are working off the same playbook with regular, close communication and coordination.   And now, off to search for the long underwear!

The editorial team here has asked its bloggers to weigh in on what should happen and what will likely happen once the inauguration festivities end and reality sets in. My immediate plans will likely include thawing out my hands and trying to hitch a ride out of the District, since I’m planning to head downtown at the crack of dawn for the swearing-in. But for the Obama administration, here are four suggestions for the first weeks in office:

  • Give the order to begin drawing down forces in Iraq.  The importance of an immediate, public and dramatic removal of sizable number of U.S. troops from Iraq can not be overstated — for establishing the credibility of Obama’s commitments, for helping ensure the passage of the SOFA in July’s referendum, and for pushing forward Iraqi reforms and political accommodation. I explain why here.
  • Talk to the Muslim world…and listen.  The idea of a speech in a Muslim capital in the first 100 days is a good one. But don’t wait. The enormous excitement about Obama’s election throughout the Muslim world has been palpably eroded by Gaza. He should try to recapture that sense of hope and possibility by engaging from the outset with a world desperate for a change from the Bush administration. He should lay out a vision of America’s relations with the Islamic world, as he is so uniquely qualified to do.  But engagement doesn’t just mean talking — it means listening,  learning, and treating others with respect rather than simply as objects to be manipulated. That should include a forceful defense of liberal freedoms in Arab countries, including our allies. Obama’s administration should seek out ways to reach out, early and often, to a wider range of Arabs and Muslims than usually get heard…and to take them seriously. 
  • Engage on Gaza right away. One of the most glaring aspects of the Gaza crisis was the near-invisibility of the United States. Many people in the region saw this as the logical conclusion of eight years of disastrous American disengagement.  It isn’t going to be easy for Obama to pick up the pieces. In the short term he should make clear that he expects the cease-fire to stick, and take the lead in offering significant reconstruction aid to the people of Gaza.  More broadly, he needs to demonstrate that the U.S. is re-engaging with the Arab-Israeli conflict on new terms.  Not grand but empty promises — Bush promised the Palestinians a state by now, remember.  And not Clinton-era peace processing —  it’s hard to imagine a situation less "ripe" for resolution, the current Palestinian leadership is in no position to deliver anything, and the Gaza war will leave deep scars. Instead, focus on the realities on the ground as they are, not as we would like them to be, and put U.S. diplomatic and material support into building more solid foundations for a renewed peace engagement.   
  • See the whole, not the parts. Reports suggest that Obama and Clinton will appoint a collection of special envoys to deal with Iran, Arab-Israeli affairs, and other issues. But that model runs a real risk of losing a sense of the inter-connectedness of the issues.  For example, dealing with Iraq in its regional context requires serious engagement with Iran, Syria, Jordan, Turkey and the Gulf. But if the special envoy on Iran isn’t talking to the special envoy on Arab-Israeli relations (with the Syria file), and neither is talking to the Iraq team, then important opportunities will be missed and policy could end up working at cross-purposes.  Obama should sit down with all the special envoys and make clear their role in his overarching regional vision.  And then the National Security Adviser and the Secretary of State should work closely together to makes sure that the envoys are working off the same playbook with regular, close communication and coordination.  

And now, off to search for the long underwear!

Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, where he is the director of the Institute for Middle East Studies and of the Project on Middle East Political Science. He is also a non-resident senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He is the author of The Arab Uprising (March 2012, PublicAffairs).

He publishes frequently on the politics of the Middle East, with a particular focus on the Arab media and information technology, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, and Islamist movements. Twitter: @abuaardvark

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