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A Middle East Hat Trick for the President?


Official White House photo by Pete Souza

Official White House photo by Pete Souza

By Sarwar Kashmeri 

The three most dangerous issues that confront U.S. national interests in the Middle East, President Obama pointed out in his Sept. 23, 2013, speech at the United Nations, are Syria’s civil war, the nuclear stand-off with Iran, and resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. With this week’s agreement to begin direct negotiations with Iran, and the joint U.S.-Russian deal to force Syria to destroy its chemical weapons, President Obama has significantly increased the odds of resolving two of them. And he has set the stage for finally ending the impasse on the long festering Israeli-Palestinian dispute.

Whether one thinks the turn of events in Syria and Iran were stage managed by the Obama team, or as many of his critics claim the lucky result of a muddled and fumbling U.S. policy, the fact remains that the Obama administration is on the cusp of engineering a major reset of the Middle East’s geopolitical landscape.

The world is starting to see the first results from an evolving redesign of America’s global leadership role. This redesign began, I pointed out in an earlier Huffington Post op-ed, with the appointment of John Kerry as secretary of state and Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense. The two secretaries, together with Vice President Joe Biden, and the president’s chief of staff, Denis McDonough, are at the heart of redesigning how U.S. leadership is projected abroad. As my op-ed noted:

All of them, including the president have thought long and hard about the face of U.S. leadership in the 21st Century. And their blueprint for change is based on a keen understanding of what it means to live in a world of 6 billion interconnected people, in an age where the basic equation of geopolitics, that superpower = ultimately getting ones way, no longer holds.

The president and his team of realists has long understood that the Syrian and Iranian issues do not lend themselves to an American-centric solution, and particularly not to a U.S. military solution. They also understand that there is simply no possibility of a durable solution to the two issues without the involvement and buy-in of Israel, Russia, and Turkey. That is why the Obama administration began the year with strenuous and successful attempts to resolve its differences with Russia and Israel and to strongly support Turkey’s request for Patriot missiles on its border with Syria.

The results of the administration’s calculations are now beginning to bear fruit. As a clearly impressed David Sanger pointed out in the New York Times of Sept. 19, 2013:

Only two weeks after Washington and the nation were debating a unilateral military strike on Syria that was also intended as a forceful warning to Iran about its nuclear program, President Obama finds himself at the opening stages of two unexpected diplomatic initiatives with America’s biggest adversaries in the Middle East… Without much warning, diplomacy is suddenly alive again after a decade of debilitating war in the region. After years of increasing tension with Iran, there is talk of finding a way for it to maintain a face-saving capacity to produce a very limited amount of nuclear fuel while allaying fears in the United States and Israel that it could race for a bomb.

The path forward has not been easy. But to its credit, the Obama team stuck to its guns and with adroit use of smiles, handshakes, bluff, tangible reminders of America’s incalculably powerful military muscle, and yes, let’s say it, luck, the crises in Syria and Iran now look manageable.

Where does this leave that generations-long intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Will the breakthroughs in Syria and Iran be followed by a similar rapprochement between the Israelis and the Palestinians? Let me stick my neck out and say yes.

The resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a vital American national interest. Not only does it involve a close U.S. ally in the region, but by its continuation the crisis portrays the United States as permanently biased toward Israel and opposed to Palestinian and Muslim interests. The crisis therefore serves as a powerful narrative for terrorist recruitment.

This situation cannot hold. And it won’t. That is why I believe the Middle East reset engineered by the United States will not stop with Syria and Iran, and the president is about to pull off a hat trick in the Middle East.

Sarwar Kashmeri is a Fellow of the Foreign Policy Association, and an Adjunct professor at Norwich University. This column first appeared in the Huffington Post.