Monday, October 24, 2016

Awaiting Next U.S. President: A Splintered Middle East in ‘Free Fall’ - nytimes

JERUSALEM — After a presidential campaign dominated by reality-show-style insults and put-downs, the winner of next month’s American election will wake up the following morning to find a far more daunting reality waiting: a Middle East awash in conflict and disarray, desperate for American leadership.

The 45th president will inherit problems associated with the region that are vastly more challenging than any in a generation as the old order has given way to a kaleidoscopic mix of alliances, rivalries and overlapping crises. In the past, presidents have viewed the region through the prism of the Cold War, terrorism or Israel, but those paradigms have shifted dramatically.

Today there is no single overarching issue but multiple ones. Syria, Iraq and Yemen are caught up in war. Turkey and Jordan are inundated by refugees. Russia has reasserted itself as a major player in the region. Libya is searching for stability after the fall of its longtime dictator. The Kurds are on the march. Egypt is fighting off a terrorist threat at home. And Saudi Arabia and Iran are waging a profound struggle for the future of the region.

“In truth, the Middle Eastern order is so fragmented right now that grand visions are utterly unrealistic, if they ever were,” said Emile Hokayem, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies based in Bahrain. “Circumstances, not mere preferences, dictate policy making, and circumstances are dire.”

Here in the region, the United States is seen as disengaging under President Obama, who beyond fighting the Islamic State has been reluctant to be drawn into the swirling forces shaping the Middle East. Mr. Obama’s “politics-free security approaches,” as Mr. Hokayem termed them, have left some hoping for a stronger hand from Washington come January.

To be sure, America’s approach to the Middle East has rarely followed a consistent set of goals or course of action, as Patrick Tyler wrote in his book “A World of Trouble,” a history of 10 presidents and the region. Each president managed the Middle East from different perspectives. Richard M. Nixon saw it as part of his chess match with Moscow. Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton pursued diplomatic breakthroughs between Israel and its enemies. Mr. Bush and his father focused on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

Mr. Obama certainly inherited a messy situation in the region with the war in Iraq. But by the time he took office, Mr. Bush’s troop surge and Gen. David H. Petraeus’s strategy change had helped turn the war around to the point that Mr. Bush felt free to negotiate a three-year withdrawal plan with Baghdad that Mr. Obama then followed.

“At the core of this geopolitical confrontation is the struggle over the future security architecture of the Middle East,” said Bassel F. Salloukh, a regional expert at the Lebanese American University in Beirut. The next president, Mr. Salloukh said, must figure out a new regional arrangement that takes into account all of the main actors and their interests, including Iran and Turkey. “This is a truly herculean enterprise, but nothing less than this can restore a semblance of stability,” he added.

All over Washington, foreign policy specialists have spent the fall busily crafting their own suggestions for the next president to consider in the Middle East. Organizations like the Brookings Institution, the Atlantic Council, the Middle East Institute and the Center for American Progress are issuing reports or holding conferences. Most of them are predicated on the bipartisan conclusion that Mr. Obama’s approach to the region has not worked and requires a reboot. - Read More

Awaiting Next U.S. President: A Splintered Middle East in ‘Free Fall’


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