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The Golden State Approach to Managing the Middle East

Why, from Syria to the two-state solution, the Obama administration should channel a little California.

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If you haven’t seen it, check out Adam Nagourney’s recent and excellent piece in the New York Times about how two of California’s governors — Edmund G. Brown Sr., better known as Pat, and his son, now sitting Governor Jerry Brown — managed California’s problems. Life’s not perfect. But you’d have to conclude that the Browns were on balance pretty successful.

A phrase Jerry Brown reportedly favors, as told to the Times by the secretary of the state’s Health and Human Services Agency, neatly sums up both Browns’ analyses of, and prescriptions on how to deal with, California’s problems: “We don’t have problems to be solved; we have conditions to be managed.”

The phrase struck me. And the more I thought about it, the more it seemed relevant, no, actually crucial, not only in the context of California, but also to the mess that U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration confronts in today’s (and likely tomorrow’s) Middle East.

Ain’t it the truth though.

From dealing with transnational Islamist terrorists to an Arab Spring that has turned into the Great Arab Meltdown, to the never-ending search for a two-state solution, to the Iran nuclear deal that purports to offer a comprehensive solution, the Obama administration — and almost certainly the administration that follows — will confront problems to be managed, not definitively resolved. But unlike California, where ingenuity, innovation, and imagination might produce outcomes on any number of issues, including a water shortage or a long-lasting drought, that over time might give rise to actual solutions, in the Middle East it’s really hard to see those appearing even with the benefit of time. So, the Obama administration isn’t so much managing these Middle Eastern problems as it is kicking them down the road. And you know what? With all the imperfections and flaws in the current administration’s policies, (and there are many), there may not be a better alternative.

Let’s take a quick regional tour and look at the key issues the Obama administration is wrestling in the region, and you’ll see what I mean.

Terrorism

Nearly 14 years after the 9/11 attacks, and despite the Obama administration’s earlier claims that al Qaeda has been decimated and is a “shadow of its former self,” the United States confronts al Qaeda derivatives that still pose a real danger to America’s allies and to U.S. commercial aviation, as well as new challenges from the Islamic State. The United States has made some real gains to be sure. After all, in a decade and a half, there has been no successful second attack on the continental United States directed operationally by a foreign terrorist organization.

Still, the long war will continue for years to come. That’s because the sources of this terrorism stem from an implacable anti-Western and anti-American ideology combined with bad or no governance that creates opportunities and sanctuaries for well-funded and armed terrorist groups. Its ultimate cure — a stable, well-governed Middle East — will take the work of generations.

Look at events of the past several days: U.S. special forces kill a top Islamic State leader, and soon after an Islamic State offensive takes the city of Ramadi, Iraq. The latter is a move that not only demonstrates how ineffective the Iraqi security forces are, but also boosts the influence of Iranian-backed Shiite militias that are challenging America’s new man in Baghdad, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. Is there an alternative other than continuing to muddle through with enhanced counterterrorism, reliance on local allies, the use of special forces and air power, and pushing (however imperfect the results) for political reform in an environment where Iran and its allies have the upper hand and where the Shiite Abadi (however much he wants to reach out to Sunnis and Kurds) cannot afford to empower them too much? Would another surge with thousands more U.S. ground troops really make a difference in these circumstances? Haven’t we seen that movie before? We are where we are. It’s high time the dialogue moves beyond blaming Bush 43 for invading Iraq and then Obama for heading to the exits too quickly.

In Iraq, we need to think outcomes, not solutions. And none of the latter is available. We can’t and won’t fix this.

Arab Governance

Roman historian Tacitus wrote, “The fairest day after a bad emperor is the first.” And despite the fleeting hopes engendered by the removal of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh, and Libya’s Muammar al-Qaddafi, the promises of stability, prosperity, and better governance never came. Neither did the liberal transformation hoped for during the aftermath of their fall; such hopes were, in the end, illusions, given region’s realities. The so-called Arab Spring devolved into anarchy, civil war, murderous sectarian confrontation, and either no governance or bad governance in places like Libya, Yemen, Syria, and Iraq. The Arab kings survived. But without at least a plan for political and economic reform, their stability should not be taken for granted. Egypt is stable, but it faces enormous political and economic problems. Only tiny Tunisia, Morocco, and perhaps Iraqi Kurdistan seem functional and improved.

And the U.S. president, wanting to be on the right side of history, whatever that means now, is pretty powerless to do much about any of this. Indeed, far from seeking transformation, Obama will spend his last 20 months in office doing what he can to bring some order into this disorderly world. That won’t be easy, and it will not focus on hope and change. He has little chance but to support the remaining authoritarians — Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates — in a region where the United States has few friends and faces much instability.

Then there’s Syria, the poster child for much of what the Arab Spring has become. President Bashar al-Assad is increasingly weakened and may even fall. But even so, we are unlikely to see an end state there as anti-Assad Islamist groups, external regional powers, and the Islamic State compete for power and control. Still, the United States must do what it can to help shape a political transition, training responsible opposition elements, probing Russia and Iran to see whether there’s any change in the views of Assad’s two main external supporters, and helping to organize an international response, even though it’s unlikely Washington will contribute much of the billions of dollars and thousands of peacekeepers required to stabilize this mess.

It’s Syria. Think outcomes, not comprehensive solutions. We can’t and won’t fix this.

Two-state solution

It’s hard to imagine a conflict-ending solution — one that addresses Jerusalem, refugees, even borders — with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in charge. Obama said as much in his recent Al Arabiya interview. It would be nice to hope that the Israelis and Palestinians might try to define borders and security, perhaps leaving the tougher issues like Jerusalem until later. But this was never terribly popular among Palestinians, and it’s hard to imagine it will be of much interest to this Israeli government either.

The challenge for the Obama administration is to try to avoid an explosion of Israeli-Palestinian violence in the West Bank and Gaza, while also maintaining Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation, ensuring tax revenues and donor assistance go to the Palestinian Authority, and, if possible, getting Netanyahu and Abbas to engage in a process that will strengthen the Palestinian Authority economically and perhaps even see Israelis transfer additional West Bank territory to Palestinian control.

If the administration needs a peace process, then it should concoct a U.S.-controlled one, not surrender the initiative to the French, Russians, and Chinese in a U.N. Security Council resolution. If the U.S. president must dabble in the endgame, Obama should try articulating his administration’s parameters much along the lines that President Bill Clinton did in 2000. These would contain the elements of U.S. views on the core issues and rules of the road on what’s necessary to create a serious environment for negotiations. Secretary of State John Kerry can spend a full six months consulting with both sides and the diplomatic Quartet (the European Union, the United Nations, Russia, and the United States) if he must. But the Obama administration had its shot at Israeli-Palestinian peace in 2013 and 2014, and it failed. Trying to get Abbas and Netanyahu into an endgame negotiation now is a fool’s errand. Until you have an Israeli government and a Palestinian leader willing and able to make decisions on at least some of the big issues, there will be no agreement. Instead, in the next 20 months, the Obama administration ought to do everything it possibly can to hand over to the next U.S. president a situation that is somewhat stable and at least isn’t worse than the one it inherited.

It’s the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Think outcomes, not solutions.

Iran

But wait a minute, you say — what about the Iran nuclear deal?

That’s a comprehensive solution to a problem. At least that’s what the U.S. president and secretary of state have been saying about the current nuclear deal. Whatever else this deal is — a way to buy time, avoid war, slow the development of Iran’s nuclear program, or encourage moderate forces in the country who hope to change Iran from a pariah state to one that’s freer at home and integrated into the international community — it most certainly is not a definitive solution to the problem of Iran’s nuclear weapons aspirations.

How could we imagine a comprehensive accord? This week, Iran’s supreme leader ruled out inspections of Iranian military sites; and no country is going to allow foreign inspectors to go anywhere at any time. Iran knows how to make nukes, and it will be left with a pretty robust nuclear infrastructure and the option to pursue its weapons designs and its bad-boy aspirations in the region should it choose to do so. That’s at least as plausible — I’d say rather more plausible — than the alternative vision: an Iran that’s reformed, less repressive at home, and less determined to spread its influence in the region. Negotiations may well be the better course than war or an Iranian bomb. But making claims that this is a “forever” deal, as Kerry did, is an insult to our collective intelligence. At best this is another kind of interim accord.

It’s Iran — a country that’s also a cause and that believes it’s a great regional power. Think outcomes, not comprehensive solutions.

Too declinist or defeatist for you? Think I’ve turned the United States into a potted plant incapable of exercising real influence and leadership?

Maybe. But there’s nothing in the history of this administration’s policies in the region or in the nature of the leaders in this region, such as they are, that argues for a rosier view or that inspires confidence that any of these problems are ready for enduring solutions. Think outcomes — perhaps some, like protecting the homeland and freeing ourselves from dependence on Arab hydrocarbons, that we can manage successfully. But give up, at least for now, on the notion that we are going to solve things, transform things, or fix things in this broken, angry, and dysfunctional region. Lower your expectations. You’ll actually be a lot happier.

BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

Aaron David Miller, a distinguished fellow at the Wilson Center, served as a State Department Middle East analyst and negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations. He is the author of The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President. Twitter: @aarondmiller2

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