Marc Lynch

Middle East policy change? Dissenting views

Before I get on my plane, one more set of dissenting views. I’ve been encouraged by the Obama administration’s early moves on Middle East policy — far more than I expected, given some of the appointments (and rumored appointments) to key positions. The choice of George Mitchell, the al-Arabiya interview and a lot of other ...

Before I get on my plane, one more set of dissenting views.

I've been encouraged by the Obama administration's early moves on Middle East policy -- far more than I expected, given some of the appointments (and rumored appointments) to key positions. The choice of George Mitchell, the al-Arabiya interview and a lot of other early signals have suggested that the administration really is serious about changing at least some U.S. policies. I disagree with some esteemed colleagues who think Obama shouldn't have sent Mitchell until he had some new policy proposals developed -- the symbolism of early engagement and the demonstration of listening was more important, I think. And finally, the grumbling from backers of the Bush administration's policies over the last few days (Fouad Ajami, Charles Krauthammer, et al) is another good sign that Obama is moving in the right direction.

But a good start doesn't mean that doesn't mean that the prospects for success are great. There's such hunger for change precisely because conditions are so grim. Nothing is going to be easy. And so I wanted to highlight two far more skeptical contributions from people whose views I respect. 

Before I get on my plane, one more set of dissenting views.

I’ve been encouraged by the Obama administration’s early moves on Middle East policy — far more than I expected, given some of the appointments (and rumored appointments) to key positions. The choice of George Mitchell, the al-Arabiya interview and a lot of other early signals have suggested that the administration really is serious about changing at least some U.S. policies. I disagree with some esteemed colleagues who think Obama shouldn’t have sent Mitchell until he had some new policy proposals developed — the symbolism of early engagement and the demonstration of listening was more important, I think. And finally, the grumbling from backers of the Bush administration’s policies over the last few days (Fouad Ajami, Charles Krauthammer, et al) is another good sign that Obama is moving in the right direction.

But a good start doesn’t mean that doesn’t mean that the prospects for success are great. There’s such hunger for change precisely because conditions are so grim. Nothing is going to be easy. And so I wanted to highlight two far more skeptical contributions from people whose views I respect. 

First, Aaron David Miller. When he spoke at a panel I chaired at GWU last fall, I was startled at the depth of his pessimism. So I wasn’t surprised at his interview at CFR.org the other day... but certainly sobered. His key points:

 right now, the prospects of any sort of conflict-ending agreement between Israelis and Palenstinians are slim to none. Gaza has so many moving parts–antismuggling, opening the crossing points, dealing with securing a longer-term arrangement between Israel and Hamas on the security side, the prisoner issue, which is now higher priority for the Israelis than ever before, and of course, the tricky issue of reconstructing Gaza and providing enough humanitarian relief. All of this is going to prove a very contentious issue for the new administration. These things are going to absorb most of Mitchell’s time and become the focal point of the Obama administration’s efforts.

He thinks it extremely unlikely that the U.S. position towards Hamas will change, and without that there will be little chance of changing the game. He concludes:

"Whether or not the Obama administration is able to make the difference in the end is not going to depend on who they appoint as their envoy. It’s going to depend on how much Barack Obama, in the end, really decides to make the Arab issue a top priority. Because if he doesn’t, it’ll take our friends and adversaries about five seconds to figure out that he’s really not serious. And if that happens, that could be the end."

Then, my friend Chris Toensing at MERIP (with Mouin Rabbani): 

Those who believe that the Obama administration brings good tidings for Middle East peace therefore have essentially only two arguments in their favor: that Obama is committed to improving US relations with the Muslim world and understands this cannot be done without resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and that the transformational impact of Israel’s Gaza war suggests he cannot put the conflict on the back burner — as many suspect he would have liked to do for at least the better part of his first term — in order to first deal with the global financial meltdown, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in which America is directly involved, and more direct threats to US interests emerging from Iran and Pakistan.

Yet there is no going back to 2001. If there is a significant difference between Obama’s approach, as telegraphed to date, and Bush’s, it is that much of what Obama said has been made obsolete by Israel’s Gaza campaign: Mahmoud Abbas, the 2002 Arab peace initiative and the peace process are in the past tense; Arab normalization with Israel is being reversed; and today Fatah needs Hamas in order to survive more than the Palestinian Islamists need the Ramallah PA to bring emergency supplies into the Gaza Strip. While Mitchell may be able to move forward by leaving Ramallah off his itinerary, he cannot succeed without at least the tacit cooperation of Hamas.

Indeed, Israel’s onslaught in the Gaza Strip solidified emerging trends in the Middle East that are unlikely to be reversed in the near future, least of all by business as usual. Among these trends is the eclipse of Saudi-Egyptian leadership of Arab diplomacy. Undermined by the refusal of either Israel or the US to engage with the Arab peace initiative, and severely damaged by Cairo and Riyadh’s support for Israel during the 2006 Lebanon war, that claim to leadership has been fatally discredited by Saudi and Egyptian sins of omission and commission during the Gaza conflict. Weaker and smaller rivals and adversaries such as Syria and Qatar now shamelessly flout the will of Cairo and Riyadh, with the consequence that regional actors like Turkey and Iran are playing an increasingly important role in setting the Arab agenda.

 I think that a lot of my friends are too quick to give up on an administration which is less than two weeks old — if not before it even came into office. It would be a lot simpler for a lot of people if Obama and his team really were Bush and his team. They aren’t. But they’re right that the core problems aren’t going to magically vanish. And as I wrote the other day, I’d be more enthusiastic about Mitchell’s trip if I saw Doha on the itinerary.

Finally, Rob over at the Arab Media Shack is trying to come up with a good list of Arab pundits as a "focus group" to determine the effectiveness of U.S. public diplomacy and policy. He starts with Mohammed Haykal, Fahmy Howeydi, Ibrahim Eissa, and Abd al Bari Atwan — if you have thoughts about who to add, go put them in his comment section. I would suggest some of the columnists for al-Hayat (Ghassan Cherbel, Abdullah Iskandir, Hazem Saghiye) and al-Sharq al-Awsat (Tareq al-Homayed, Abd al-Rahman al-Rashed) — who can’t be ignored just because they’re on the other side of the great Arab divide. There are a number of good columnists in Gulf, Jordanian and Lebanese papers who I always check out — but send your own thoughts over there. 

And now I’m off and off-line for the weekend.

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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