x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 July 2017

Obama regime urged to treat Arab countries as 'partners in change'

Two leading US Middle East experts urge incoming Obama administration to pursue gradual reform and multilateral diplomacy in the region.

WASHINGTON // Two leading US Middle East experts have urged the incoming Obama administration to pursue gradual reform and multilateral diplomacy in the region and treat Arab governments "as partners in change, not adversaries". Martin Indyk and Kenneth Pollack of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution this week called on Barack Obama to employ "intensive, creative" diplomacy as he carves out his policy for the region - which, given the violence in the Gaza Strip, has shot to the forefront of his foreign agenda.

Mr Indyk, a former US ambassador to Israel during the Clinton administration, and Mr Pollack, a former top official at the National Security Council, issued a "memo" to Mr Obama as part of a Brookings series offering policy advice to the incoming president. In it, they urged him, even despite the necessity of dealing with near-term crises, including the one in Gaza, to devise a comprehensive plan for the Middle East with long-term objectives, all of which they said must be pursued at once, rather than piecemeal.

"He's got to have a longer-range vision," Mr Pollack said at a briefing in Washington on Monday, cautioning Mr Obama against losing that vision on account of the "crisis du jour" or the "tyranny of his inbox". Although the situation in Gaza - where there may or may not be a ceasefire in place by the time Mr Obama takes office on Jan 20 - underscores the intractability of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it could likewise provide an opening to "jump-start" diplomacy.

"Success in Gaza could serve as a springboard for a diplomatic initiative to resolve the larger conflict, where it is urgent to try for a two-state solution while it is still feasible," Mr Indyk and Mr Pollack said. Mr Indyk, who advised Hillary Clinton, Mr Obama's nominee for secretary of state, during her presidential campaign and continues to do so now, said such a two-state solution should really be a "23-state solution" involving all of the region's Arab states.

The memo outlined several guiding principles for Mr Obama, who said during the presidential campaign he intended to prioritise the peace process, as he sets out his policy for the region. "Reform must be internally driven, although externally assisted," they wrote. "We cannot know better than the people of the region what they want, nor should we try to impose our vision on them." Mr Indyk, who has been mentioned as a candidate for special envoy to the Middle East, and Mr Pollack endorsed a gradual approach, saying that "moving step by step encourages the regimes' acceptance of reform and allows identification of problems before they develop into crises".

"Reform efforts must be multilateral," the authors continued. "We cannot reform the Middle East by ourselves. Many others, particularly in Europe, are willing to help. Moreover, because of the region's rampant anti-Americanism, it may be wiser to let others take the lead." The memo suggested Mr Obama engage with Iran as part of a broader plan to persuade that country to halt its "problematic behaviour" regarding its nuclear programme in exchange for certain incentives, including a lifting of sanctions and economic aid. Iran needs to be accepted by the United States and the international community, they said, as a "legitimate player" in the region.

"Iran's prestige and influence remain high throughout the region, where its promotion of violence and challenge to Israel and the Arab states has greater appeal than the American-led effort to promote reform and peaceful resolution of conflicts," they wrote. "It is late in the day to pull off this breakthrough. Still, a bona fide effort to engage Iran can also serve as a 'best shot' for securing international support for much harsher sanctions if necessary."

Mr Indyk and Mr Pollack urged Mr Obama to pursue a peace deal between Syria and Israel, which could reduce the influence of Iran, strengthen the hand of moderates in the region and put pressure on the militant groups Hamas and Hizbollah. Stability in Iraq will be crucial to every other initiative in the Middle East, they said, so Mr Obama should steer Iraqi political development "toward equilibrium" while preventing a fall back into civil war - even as he draws down US troops there.

But they warned of several dire scenarios, including Iraq returning to a dictatorship, possibly even under the prime minister, Nouri al Maliki, or the staging of a coup by the Iraqi military. "The Iraq war is not over," Mr Pollack said. "Iraq is still precarious. Everything else in the Middle East hinges on continued progress in Iraq." eniedowski@thenational.ae