Hussein Ibish
NOW Lebanon (Opinion)
November 6, 2012 - 1:00am

Dear Mr. President: congratulations on winning today's election. The third debate with your esteemed opponent reflected a broad consensus on foreign policy. Both of you therefore appeared well-positioned to make any necessary course corrections, but the job is yours.
US Middle East policy needs to be tweaked rather than overhauled. On most pressing issues, current policies reflect a reasonable balance between American values and interests, and the really existing options and politically plausible positions for any administration.
However, now that the election is over, the following matters require serious attention.
The current policy towards Syria is proving self-defeating, as many of us had warned. By limiting American engagement to soft power applications and declining to become involved in arming and otherwise empowering those rebels most friendly to our values and interests, we have allowed others to shape the armed opposition's character.
Extreme "Jihadists" are becoming distressingly prominent in the struggle to overthrow the Syrian government, an inevitable and predicted consequence of our relative inaction. Soft power cannot shape the nature, or influence the outcome, of an ongoing armed conflict. Soft power initiatives can address humanitarian issues on the margins of a conflict, and also some aspects of its aftermath, but without being backed by any form of hard power, its impact even in those spheres is limited.
No one is advocating American boots on the ground in Syria. And, indeed, precisely calibrating the application of some form of hard power requires coordination with allies and careful review of intelligence. But now the election is over, the United States must move quickly to reverse the drift in Syria that is producing everything we have most feared: a new focal point for empowered Jihadists; a prolonged sectarian conflict characterized by gruesome atrocities; the spread of the war into neighboring countries; and long-term threats to the security of minority communities.
The lack of American leadership on Syria feeds the broader problem of a growing impression in the region that the United States is adopting an essentially passive attitude towards the tumultuous changes in the Arab world.
The basic American position that we cannot dictate to the Arabs what governments they elect, or object to democracy because Islamists may prosper, is correct. But both the government and much of the broader Washington policy community seem to be drifting towards an excessive accommodation of Muslim Brotherhood-style Islamists.
It is a grave error to misread the Brotherhood as a bulwark against their more extreme Salafist or Jihadist rivals. Dealing respectfully and, when possible, cooperatively with Islamist governments is necessary and important. But it is inexcusable to harbor any illusions about their fundamental worldview, value system and attitude towards the West. And it is urgent and imperative for the United States to do a great deal more to politically empower and support those in the Arab world who share our ideals.
An overcorrection, which would imply an attitude of reflexive hostility to all Islamist groups, is certainly to be avoided. But a more healthy balance between support for Arab democracy and a realistic assessment of the Islamist political agenda must be developed. This is especially important in preventing potential but avoidable confrontations with new Islamist-influenced Arab governments by adopting policies that leave no uncertainty about American values and interests.
It is also imperative that the United States and the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah work together to urgently repair their relationship. Annoyance at Palestinian diplomatic initiatives in the United Nations does not justify a policy that is inadvertently empowering Hamas.
In particular, support for the institution-building project led by Prime Minister Salam Fayyad must be restored, especially as Qatar, Turkey and Egypt are vying for influence in Gaza. The current circumstances allow Hamas to argue they have friends, patrons, a strategy and a vision, while their rivals in Ramallah don't. This is not in the American interest.
Resurrecting meaningful Israeli-Palestinian negotiations will be difficult, but a peace agreement is indeed a vital American national interest. This must begin with repairing American-Palestinian Authority relations, with both sides taking the necessary and courageous measures required.
Proactive, assertive policies such as calling for the removal of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and the limited intervention in Libya characterized what has generally been a sound approach to the Arab uprisings. But the sense of drift on Syria policy; the collapse of the peace process and crisis in US-Palestinian relations; and the impression that Washington sees the rise of Islamist parties in new Arab democracies as either inevitable or innocuous have all contributed to creating a new and dangerous impression of American lack of focus or even apathy.
This drift is easily reversible, and by no means should renewed American assertiveness involve any return to the hawkish aggressivity of the past. But it does require leadership. I'm confident your administration can provide that.



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