5 things U.S. should do in Middle East
January 12th, 2013
12:11 PM ET

5 things U.S. should do in Middle East

Watch GPS special 'Memo to the President' on CNN this Sunday at 8 p.m. and 11 p.m. ET

By Michael Rubin, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and senior lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School. The views expressed are his own.

In the first months of his presidency, Barack Obama laid out his vision for the Middle East. “If countries like Iran are willing to unclench their fist, they will find an extended hand from us,” he told the Arabic satellite channel Al-Arabiya in his first television interview as president. Six months later, in Cairo, he proposed “a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world, one based on mutual interest and mutual respect…[and] principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings.”

Unfortunately, Obama has not backed his lofty vision with coherent strategy. Since the Arab Spring protests caught not only regional autocrats but also Washington by surprise, U.S. policy has been reactive rather than pro-active. Far from shaping events, the White House struggles to keep up with events that increasingly spin out of control.

If the president wants to make his vision reality, there are five directives he should immediately issue. Some conservatives will find these controversial, and others will cause progressive complaint. Each means an end to business as usual, but decades of policy failure should be reason enough to consider them.

1) Remove carriers from the Persian Gulf. Whether Obama likes it or not, Iran will dominate foreign policy in his second term. His nomination of former senate colleagues John Kerry and Chuck Hagel to be, respectively, secretary of state and defense, suggest he aims for renewed diplomatic engagement. If success came from simply sitting at the table, however, the nuclear impasse would have long ago been solved. As important as a willingness to talk is the care with which the circumstances are set to succeed. Unless Iranian leaders believe that a diplomatic resolution is their last best option – and insincerity would be met by force – they have no incentive to do anything but stall.

If Obama wishes to convince the Iranians that his patience is not infinite, he should remove the two U.S. aircraft carriers which normally ply the Persian Gulf and redeploy them in the northern Indian Ocean. At first glance, this might seem to affirm Iranian threats about the Persian Gulf being a no-go area for the U.S. navy, but Iran’s generals know better: The Persian Gulf is both narrow and shallow. Aircraft carriers have limited maneuverability in such tight corridors, can have trouble acquiring the wind speed to launch planes, and are vulnerable to swarming Iranian speedboats. Keep the U.S. destroyers and cruisers in the contested waters, but removing the carriers would enable the United States to strike at Iran, while keeping our most valuable platforms secure. Only such a move will convince Tehran that the time for defiance has ended.

2) Don’t Confuse Iran and the Islamic Republic. The two are not synonymous: Iran is the inheritor of a rich culture and a great civilization; the Islamic Republic is an increasingly repressive regime that subjugates the Iranian people. That Obama each year issues a greeting for the Iranian New Year is smart; that in 2009, he did so to “the people…of the Islamic Republic of Iran” was disheartening (although he has not repeated that mistake in subsequent years). Still, as Obama courts Iran, many Iranians fear being sold out as part of a grand bargain with their regime. Remember that the Islamic Republic represents not the pinnacle of Iranian political evolution, but rather an anomaly. It is in the U.S. interest to see the Iranian people, who are far more moderate than their government, succeed. After all, it is not simply Iranian nuclear weapons that pose a threat to the United States, but rather the ideology of those who would wield them. Just because the White House wants to deal with the Iranian leadership does not mean that it should ever turn its back on independent Iranian trade unions, students, journalists, and civil society movements not corrupted by Iranian government ties.

More from GPS: History lesson could deter Iran

3)  Don’t Consider Egypt too Big to Fail. It was no surprise that the Muslim Brotherhood did so well in Egypt’s initial elections: During more than 80 years in opposition, they could promise the world. While some Egyptians were surely attracted to the Brotherhood’s religious position, many ordinary Egyptians cast their votes for them because they said they would eliminate corruption, jumpstart the economy, right wrongs, and put a chicken in every pot. For such Egyptians, President Mohamed Morsy must be a disappointment: Security has plummeted, the economy is abysmal, the currency shaky, and the gaps between haves and have-nots growing wider.

Instead of undertaking real reform, the Brotherhood has subjugated women and minorities, sought rapprochement with Hamas, and threatened the Camp David Accords with Israel. As frequent protests in Tahrir Square attest, Egyptians are growing increasingly disenchanted with Morsy. Rather than bail the Brotherhood out for their questionable choices, the White House should underscore that the basis for democracy is accountability. Providing debt forgiveness and foreign aid (beyond that mandated by the Camp David Accords) simply allows Morsy to avoid responsibility for his actions. U.S. taxpayer support is not an entitlement. If the Brotherhood fails, Egyptians might learn that religious rhetoric is no panacea.

4) Cut Off Aid to the Palestinian Authority. The late Israeli statesman Abba Eban once quipped that the Palestinians never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity. To that we can add Yankee catcher Yogi Berra’s quip, it’s déjà vu all over again. The Palestinians have received more aid per capita than any other people. If Singapore can thrive, so too can Gaza. Yet, as the two decade anniversary of the Oslo Accord nears, Palestinians have little to show for it. The problem is not Israel, but rather endemic corruption and a leadership that has promoted terror more than development; and incitement over education.

The best gift the United States could give the Palestinians is not hundreds of millions of dollars more, but the knowledge that Western patience with endless subsidies absent serious reform has ended. Such a lesson has never been more important than now: As not only Hamas but also Fatah turn their backs on the agreements Arafat made to form the Palestinian Authority, they risk demonstrating that they consider agreements ephemeral, not permanent. Such a conclusion would ruin any chance at lasting peace, not only between Israel and Palestine, but also between Israel and other Arab states for no state can expect to trust treaties that are worth little more than the paper upon which they were once written.

5) Define Terrorism.  In 1988, Western police and security officers used more than 100 different definitions of terrorism. A quarter century later, more than 250 different definitions are in use. For the West today, the definition of terrorism mirrors U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s 1973 quip about pornography, “I shall not today attempt further to define [it]…but I know it when I see it…” That’s not good enough, however, when so many U.S. allies take an à la carte approach to terrorism, condemning it only so long as they disagree with is cause. Turkish officials, for example, demand the West treat the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) as terrorists, even as they embrace Hamas.

If any country wants American aid against terrorists, it should first accept a common definition, perhaps something as simple as “terrorism is the deliberate targeting of civilians for political gain.” Any country that’s not willing to sign on to that is not serious about countering terror and should not expect any American counterterror support. In the war against terrorists, it’s got to be all for one and one for all, regardless of whether the victim is Jewish, Christian, Muslim, or Hindu.

You can follow Rubin on Twitter @mrubin1971.

soundoff (22 Responses)
  1. Lyndsie Graham

    The very 5 things that the U.S. needs to do in the Middle East is to first, stop sending troops back into Iraq, then quit aiding and abetting the Syrian "rebels", quit supporting such tyrants such as the king of Bahrain and Hadi the new dictator of Yemen, butting out of Egypt's internal affairs and finally, start negotiating with the Iranians. These are the 5 things that we need to do in the Middle East and only a complete idiots would disagree!

    January 12, 2013 at 12:34 pm |
    • Kerry

      Thank you, Lyndsie. How true that is! Too bad that most Americans are just too ignorant to see that or agree with you. It's this kind of ignorance that threatens to eventually bring this country to it's knees!

      January 12, 2013 at 3:07 pm |
      • j. von hettlingen

        Michael Rubin will be disappointed, if Obama ignores his advice. The president has been doing more or less the right thing in shaping his Middle East policy: reactive rather than proactive. The people in Muslim countries would hate the US more, had Obama applied the neocon doctrine there:
        •a tendency to see the world in binary good/evil terms
        •low tolerance for diplomacy
        •readiness to use military force
        •emphasis on US unilateral action

        January 13, 2013 at 5:30 pm |
  2. gazalshahin

    Dear Lyndsie Graham! these things you menstineoned are all Ahmadinejads wishes!!!

    January 12, 2013 at 1:20 pm |
  3. Tembisa

    Reblogged this on World Chaos.

    January 12, 2013 at 3:53 pm |
  4. rightospeak

    We need more Palestinians to write articles about Middle East -less spin.

    January 12, 2013 at 9:47 pm |
  5. outspoken

    IRAN is too big to swallow for Uncle Sam.

    January 12, 2013 at 11:44 pm |
    • Kerry

      Let's all hope that you're right, outspoken. These warmongering idiots here make me sick to my stomach!

      January 13, 2013 at 1:15 pm |
  6. mickeyhoffman

    No mention is made of the money Israel's been taking for years and years and how they also ignore agreements.

    January 14, 2013 at 12:21 pm |
  7. Jim Benham

    It is in the USA's interest to resolve the Israel/Palestine conflict. Israel is bent on stealing more Palestinian land in contravention of International law. This land theft is thwarting the prospects of peace between the parties. Israel is the largest recipient of US aid in the world. The US should demand that Israel stop expanding settlements with the threat of cutting off aid payments. Israel needs to know that there will be consequences for breaking international law and inflaming tensions in the mid-east. The US is suffering consequences for its blind support of illegal Israeli policies. This has to stop.

    January 14, 2013 at 12:23 pm |
  8. mariapalestina

    The number one thing the U.S. needs to do to promote peace in the Middle East is end all funding to Israel.

    January 14, 2013 at 1:01 pm |
  9. Mike

    I am tired of the blame to Israel. The true tragedy of the Palestinians were inflicted by their brethren who attempted to destroy Israel several times now, and have continued to use the refugee crisis toward that end. It wasn't long ago (10 years?) that Israel unilaterally offered concessions; the result was the anti-Fatah and missiles being lobbed over the boundary. The main thing that is needed is an agreement and commitment that Israel is a country with the right to survive. Living with that truth will enable some business to be made and some civilization to happen.

    January 14, 2013 at 1:56 pm |
    • U.S.

      Indeed this is the issue. A full Arab/Muslim recognition of the Jewish state of Israel right to exist. You'll get nothing out of Israel unless you do that.

      January 14, 2013 at 3:47 pm |
  10. Nicholas

    With the views expressed here by this writer, I question the idea he is transferring to his students. To this this is a policy expert scares me to death. His ideas are weak and will only embolden Iran rather than cede ground.

    January 14, 2013 at 4:03 pm |
  11. Nick

    Is this guy for real ? Like i lived in the middle east for 9 years and your solutions couldn't be so far from right. 1) Remove aircraft carrier ? Iran fears American air power as much as Russia or China do ( Iran AA systems = Russia AA system).
    2) Iran is the Islamic republic and if you deny that you are a bigger idiot than i thought; its all about religion and the shia people of Iran will follow this agenda till the end. 3) Butt out of Egypt's business and let Morsi do his job. Repressive ? how and the people are protesting and hitting the street that if this happened when Mubarak was around heads would roll. There is no money in Egypt; after the regime fell all the money disappeared with it. Cut of aid to Palestinians ? Enough that they are tied to Israel's inflating economy that they just can't cope with but you want to cut them off the only life line they have ? Do you want a third Intifada ? America need to stop Israel from building settlements in the west bank and bring both parties back to the peace table. Define terror ? hahahah If a America does that then many of its allies and even itself would fall under that definition. Come on, your talking like the war on terror is actually to stop terror in the world. Wake up buddy and look in at the united states government and you will see the biggest sponsor of terror. Proof ? Who made Al-Qaeda ?( Uncle Sam did to fight the good old soviets).

    March 8, 2013 at 2:56 am |
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