Brian Katulis & Mara Rudman
Middle East Progress (Commentary)
June 20, 2008 - 3:10pm

The tenuous cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, negotiated by Egypt, that began this morning in Gaza represents a tentative step forward in managing and ultimately resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. If the period of calm is used to make progress on negotiations, implement obligations and improve the lives of both Israelis and Palestinians, then the ceasefire can help lay the foundation for final resolution.

It is just one more step taken in the Middle East without the United States. The troubling U.S. absence, however, should not suggest that the United States is unneeded or incapable; rather it should reinforce the notion that for regional progress and stability, a United States that is partnering with other countries, keeping an eye on the horizon and helping to manage processes is essential.

In the past month, the Middle East has seen varied glimmers of hope on distant horizons like today’s truce. Qatar brokered a deal among Lebanese factions that ended months of political deadlock and filled the vacant office of the country’s president (although it also may have further enhanced Hezbollah’s power). Turkey has hosted discussions between Israelis and Syrians. In each case, Gaza, Lebanon, and indirect Israeli-Syrian talks, the United States has not seemed to play a role, let alone lead. Egypt, Qatar, and Turkey were the pivotal players.

To assume that U.S. engagement is therefore no longer needed would be the worst lesson to take from recent strong regional leadership efforts, or from earlier Saudi promotion of the Arab League Initiative and Jordan’s role in developing the Road Map in 2003.

The United States can be most effective when it pools and leverages resources with the many with whom it shares objectives in the region. There are no shortages of challenges and players, but with smart management strategies this should increase rather than diminish opportunities for solutions. The problem is not U.S. capability, but rather, the need for detailed management of these multiple tracks in the Middle East–and a vision of ultimate destination–which has been sorely lacking. U.S. officials need an organized strategy to work with those on the ground, in the region and more broadly, to develop that common horizon, and then help steer the course toward achieving it.

Taking stock of where the Middle East and U.S. policy for the region currently stand yields a complicated picture. The challenges posed by the war in Iraq dominate. The war unleashed several years of chaos inside of Iraq, impacted regional balances of power and resulted in spillover effects such as the millions of refugees currently residing in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt. Yet in the last eighteen months, security has improved, although the key Iraqi factions seem no closer to resolving their power-sharing disputes. Meanwhile, Iran poses an increasing threat to regional power balances on several fronts. And the prospects for further advances in its nuclear research program could have devastating destabilizing effects on the entire Middle East and more broadly in the world. Lebanon continues to bear the impact of the region’s turmoil. And the Arab-Israeli conflict has suffered from sporadic and fitful interest by multiple global powers; it clearly could benefit from a concerted and coordinated diplomatic push on all of the key tracks.

Much attention has already started shifting to the next U.S. administration and what it might do in the Middle East; the notion that the United States could have a fresh start and a clean slate is attractive after seven difficult years. But the world, the region, and the United States cannot afford seven months of inaction, or the wrong actions, from the United States over the period between now and then. Much work remains for the current administration. Much should still be expected of this team to provide for a responsible transition for the United States and the region.
Iraq, Iran and the Arab-Israeli conflict present challenges that the United States will address most effectively only with others, but that cannot be resolved without U.S. leadership. Small steps may be achieved in isolation but for there to be sustainable progress, a steady, consistent vision and presence and a facilitating leadership role by the United States is required.

On Iraq, the United States needs follow through on commitments made by Iraq’s neighbors at recent conferences including ensuring border security, sending diplomatic representatives to Baghdad, supporting Iraq’s reconciliation process and providing debt forgiveness and financial support for Iraq’s government. On Iran, as the United States is working with other major powers to increase the package of carrots and sticks to shape Iran’s calculations, it must move forward in close consultation with other countries in the region to ensure that the next steps are closely coordinated with regional allies like Turkey and Saudi Arabia. On the Arab-Israeli front, U.S. leadership in achieving tangible gains on movement and access, economic development, strengthening reform while bolstering pragmatic Palestinian and Lebanese leaders, and ensuring Israel’s security concerns are addressed, is critical. Though the United States should continue to strive for achieving President Bush’s stated goal of a deal on the Israeli-Palestinian track before he leaves office, it also must work to see that leaders in the region and here at home can anticipate a smooth transition to a new administration in the event a complete deal is not reached.

Finally, as the United States works to invigorate its diplomacy throughout the Middle East, it needs a better managed approach at home. To address the Middle East’s numerous challenges, we should and must expect the U.S. government to pay attention to the details and have an integrated approach – ensuring coordination between different departments, accountability for actions and proper follow-up mechanisms. For instance, the secretary of state should know and care about getting a Fulbright student out of Gaza, and if we have three military officials working on movement and access issues, one of them should have coordination with the Israelis on this matter as part of his portfolio. Permits, programs, and processes all contribute to making the grand policy.

The United States leads best when we are working with the best, at home and around the world, toward a common vision, and thinking about the small details and the big picture in order to achieve it.


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