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Is It Time For A New U.S. Strategy In The Middle East?

A US military convoy drives on the outskirts of the Kurdish-controlled northern Syrian city of Qamishli on February 12, 2020. (Delil Souleiman/AFP)
A US military convoy drives on the outskirts of the Kurdish-controlled northern Syrian city of Qamishli on February 12, 2020. (Delil Souleiman/AFP)

Former U.S. diplomat Martin Indyk, who has spent his career trying to fix problems in the Middle East, says it’s time to rein in our grandiose vision for the region in exchange for something more attainable.


Martin Indyk, fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and former U.S. ambassador to Israel. (@Martin_Indyk)

Interview Highlights

Why are you feeling heartbreak right now about the relationship between America and the Middle East?

“I’m not feeling heartbreak at the moment, but I will admit that my heart has been broken at least three times. And that was because I came to the Middle East via the Arab-Israeli conflict, and the belief that the United States had a critical role to play in resolving that conflict. And indeed, I’ve devoted my entire professional career to that proposition. Studying, writing about and then practicing the art of American peacemaking diplomacy in the Middle East. And it’s not as if we didn’t have some successes along the way. But in the end, we were unable after repeated efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And I think that that’s what has been heartbreaking for me.”

On the United States’ ability to bridge the gap in Middle East relations

“The peace has to be made between the parties involved in the conflict. The United States can at best be an honest broker and a mediator and can support the parties; underwrite their risks if they’re prepared to take risks for peace, as Israeli and Palestinian leaders have been prepared in the past. But there’s no risk-taking involved in a plan for the Israelis that meets all those security requirements — which I think is important — but also meets all their other requirements, and doesn’t take into account Palestinian concerns. So, it’s easy to make peace between the United States and Israel, but that’s not the purpose of the exercise.

“That doesn’t end the conflict. And that’s all that the Trump plan has done. So I think the essence of it is: how do you actually bridge the gap between the parties? The United States can put forward ideas based on their knowledge of their positions and their flexibility. But you can’t do it simply by agreeing with one side on what their needs are, and then turning around and trying to impose it on the other. The United States doesn’t have the ability to bludgeon the Palestinians into saying, ‘yes.’ The one advantage they have in their immense weakness is the ability to say no. And that’s exactly what they’re saying.”

On the possibility of a two-state solution

“I don’t believe that a one-state solution is any more viable than the solution that’s being presented at the moment in the Trump plan. I do think that in the end, the parties will eventually, after exhausting all the other possibilities, come around to the reality that the only way to live together is, first of all, to separate into two independent states living alongside each other in peace. But at the moment, the conditions, as I’ve said all along, aren’t ripe for that.

“The notion, however, that Israel is somehow going to agree to equal rights for Palestinians in a way that turns the Jewish state into a binational state is also fanciful. Israel is just not going to do that. The word apartheid has been used a lot. And I’ve avoided using it at all because I don’t believe that Israel is pursuing an apartheid policy; has a philosophy of apartheid like the South African regime had. Far from it. But I do think that one of the multiple ironies of the Trump plan is that it is, in fact, creating an apartheid-like situation. In which the map — and I urge everybody to go and look at it, because it’s online at whitehouse.gov.

“The map essentially creates Bantustan, where Israeli territory surrounds these cantons which are separated by settlements, and connected by roads and tunnels to provide what you might call transportational contiguity — but not territorial contiguity — which is fundamental to the viability of an independent state. So, you know, ironically, you have a situation — an apartheid-like situation — that would be created if the Trump plan were ever to be implemented.”

On the way forward in the Middle East

“I think the most important thing is that we have to downsize our ambitions and bring them into a meaningful relationship with the resources we’re prepared to commit to them. … The extreme example is, on the one hand, the Trump administration says they want to remove every Iranian boot from Syria. At the same time as they are committed to removing every American boot from Syria. So we don’t have the means of achieving an objective. Don’t declare an objective that we’re not going to put the means up to achieve. And the most important point there is let’s stop seeking regime change as an objective in the Middle East. We don’t have the means to achieve it. If we do achieve it, it turns out to be a disaster for our own interests in the region. We should learn from past mistakes that that kind of grandiosity doesn’t serve our interests and is beyond our means to achieve it. So let’s bring our objectives and our means into some more realistic relationship.”

From The Reading List

The Wall Street Journal: “The Middle East Isn’t Worth It Anymore” — “Last week, despite Donald Trump’s repeated pledge to end American involvement in the Middle East’s conflicts, the U.S. was on the brink of another war in the region, this time with Iran. If Iran’s retaliation for the Trump administration’s targeted killing of Tehran’s top commander, Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, had resulted in the deaths of more Americans, Washington was, as Mr. Trump tweeted, “locked and loaded” for all-out confrontation.

“Why does the Middle East always seem to suck the U.S. back in? What is it about this troubled region that leaves Washington perpetually caught between the desire to end U.S. military involvement there and the impulse to embark on yet another Middle East war?

“As someone who has devoted four decades of his life to the study and practice of U.S. diplomacy in the Middle East, I have been struck by America’s inability over the past two administrations to resolve this dilemma. Previously, presidents of both parties shared a broad understanding of U.S. interests in the region, including a consensus that those interests were vital to the country—worth putting American lives and resources on the line to forge peace and, when necessary, wage war.

“Today, however, with U.S. troops still in harm’s way in Iraq and Afghanistan and tensions high over Iran, Americans remain war-weary. Yet we seem incapable of mustering a consensus or pursuing a consistent policy in the Middle East. And there’s a good reason for that, one that’s been hard for many in the American foreign-policy establishment, including me, to accept: Few vital interests of the U.S. continue to be at stake in the Middle East. The challenge now, both politically and diplomatically, is to draw the necessary conclusions from that stark fact.”

The Washington Post: “The idea that U.S. interests in the Middle East have decreased, and so should U.S. involvement, has been around for almost a decade. In a recent Wall Street Journal essay, Martin Indyk presented its best articulation so far. Indyk, a veteran diplomat who devoted most of his career to the protection of U.S. interests in the Middle East, argues that these interests are no longer vital and do not justify the current level of American involvement there.

“Oil from the Middle East no longer constitutes as significant a percentage of American energy consumption. Israel’s military prowess makes it more self-reliant than ever before. And the American quest for an Arab-Israeli peace is futile. This does not mean the United States should completely withdraw from the Middle East, Indyk writes, but it should find a realistic policy alternative commensurate with the reduced importance of the region.

“Indyk echoes not only President Trump’s repeated statements about the importance of disengaging from Middle Eastern conflicts but, more tellingly, President Barack Obama’s doctrine. During a lengthy interview with the Atlantic in 2016, Obama justified his position by arguing that United States has finite resources and has to choose where best to employ them. And, to his thinking, that would be Asia, not the Middle East. In Obama’s words, if the United States does not engage Asia because it is focused on ‘figuring out how to destroy or cordon off or control the malicious, nihilistic, violent parts of humanity,’ then it is ‘missing the boat.’

“Yet this view leaves out important parts of the story.”

The Atlantic: “America has Come Full Circle In The Middle East” — “In 1958, U.S. leaders stood at the threshold of an American era in the Middle East, conflicted about whether it was worth the trouble to usher in.

“A year earlier, in the context of the emergent Cold War and fading British and French power in the region, Dwight Eisenhower had articulated and received congressional approval for what became known as the Eisenhower doctrine. The United States had for the first time staked out national interests in the Middle East—oil, U.S. bases and allies, Soviet containment—and declared that it was prepared to defend them with military force.

“Sixty-two years before President Donald Trump dispatched a drone to Baghdad to kill Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, this is how American combat missions in the post–World War II Middle East began.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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