Jan 19th 2021

After Bush, Obama, and Trump: What Biden Can Do

by James J. Zogby

Dr. James J. Zogby is the President of the Arab American Institute

 

In January 2017, ​the Middle East that Donald Trump inherited from his predecessors was mostly in tatters. Daesh was in control of large swaths of Iraq and Syria. Civil wars were raging in Yemen and Libya. Iran and Turkey, each dreaming of becoming regional hegemons, were meddling in conflicts across the Middle East. And Israel, feeling no restraint, was continuing to oppress Palestinians and consolidating its control over the West Bank.

Other than continuing the effort launched by President Obama to defeat Daesh, instead of reversing the other negative regional dynamics​, the Trump Administration pursued a series of short-sighted piecemeal policies. And instead of attempting to play a leadership role in reducing tensions and resolving conflicts​ the US became a participant in many of them, causing them to grow more intense.

​Today, Daesh in Iraq and Syria may ​be dismantled, but deep sectarian tensions remain pronounced in both countries and extremist groups continue to present a danger. The wars in Syria, Yemen, and Libya have become internationalized with the engagement of multiple regional and global actors lining up on competing sides of each of these conflicts. 

Iran, though severely weakened by the Coronavirus pandemic and the severity of US sanctions​, ​and embittered by the US withdrawal from the nuclear deal, continues to wreck regional havoc. Turkey and its ally​, Qatar​, have come play an increasingly dangerous role in supporting politicized Sunni groups especially, but not exclusively, in Syria, Palestine, and Libya. And now new regional anti-Iran alliances are forming between Israel and Sunni states.

Israel, emboldened by the Trump Administration’s carte blanche, has felt free to strike Iranian and pro-Iranian targets in Syria, Lebanon, and even in Iran itself. It also aggressively expanded its colonial presence in the West Bank, making the once dreamed of Palestinian State almost impossible to imagine. And the Palestinian leadership​, reduced to a dependency on the whims of the occupier and deeply divided between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority​, has been incapable of projecting a strategy leading to liberation. As a result, the region’s attention has turned elsewhere.

This is where we are as we enter the century’s third decade – still paying the price of the disastrous consequences of Bush’s devastating Iraq war and the inability of the Obama and Trump Administrations to undo the damage. Added to this is the impact of the pandemic on the people of the Middle East and the incapacity of the weaker states of the region to deal with the continuing spread of the novel Coronavirus.

As the incoming Biden Administration begins to ​map out its approach to this region, several things should be clear. The first is that it is not possible to simply return to the status quo ante - resurrecting the nuclear deal, as it was, or restarting Israel-Palestinian peace talks. Consideration must be given to the new realities that now exist across the region and lessons must be learned from past failures.

It is also important to acknowledge that the US, while retaining significant strengths and resources, no longer has the dominant leadership role it possessed just two decades ago. And finally, it is critical to recognize that it is not possible to pick around the edges and deal with issues piecemeal. Everything is connected. All of the region’s players are engaged, in varying combinations, in ​each of the region’s upheavals. What is happening across the Middle East may not be of the magnitude of the two wars that ravaged Europe in the last century, but it is time we addressed ​these connected conflicts across the Middle East as the equivalent of a world war.

This being the case, if the US is to play any constructive role, it would be best to begin carefully by building a broad international effort that lays the groundwork for a comprehensive approach to resolving the connected crises that are currently tearing apart the Middle East. The immediate goal of this effort would be the convening of an all-party international peace conference under the auspices of the United Nations.

The main agenda item for this conference would be the creation of a regional framework – like the OSCE – that would provide all states a platform for dialogue to discuss regional security guarantees coupled with commitments to non-intervention and non-aggression. It would also lay the groundwork for regional trade and investment that would help to advance greater economic integration and prosperity.

The international conference would of necessity break out into working groups in which all relevant participants would address the region’s issues of concern. For example, there would need to be focused discussions on the Israel-Palestinian conflict, the wars raging in Syria, Yemen, and Libya, the elimination of weapons of mass destruction, and the role played by sectarian religious extremism.

Such an approach will no doubt be difficult and quickly rejected by hardliners in some countries. But it holds advantages over the alternatives. Since each of these conflicts involve competing regional players, working piecemeal by addressing each of them as if they are merely products of local unrest will continue be a dead end. Such a comprehensive approach taken by the P5+1 countries would a far better use of their combined strength and influence then just focusing on one problem. And promoting a vision of a peaceful Middle East that is so compelling that people can see the possibilities of a promising future may be the approach that will inspire the region’s leaders and opinion shapers to demand a change in course from the current downward spiral.  

What our polling tells us is that what the peoples of Middle East want is regional unity and investment in the future that can bring peace and prosperity. They’ve had enough of war and want​ stable employment, education, health care, and better future for their children. It’s time we start listening to them.

 

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Jul 8th 2021
EXTRACT: " .... while China’s leaders never mention it, they are just as embittered over Russia’s theft of Chinese territory in the nineteenth century as they are over the West’s imperial predations. With Western imperialism having been largely rolled back, it is Russia’s continued occupation of historic Chinese territory that stands out the most to ordinary Chinese observers. For example, the city of Vladivostok, with its vast naval base, has been a part of Russia only since 1860, when the tsars built a military harbor there. Before that, the city was known by the Manchu name of Haishenwai." ---- "There is also a demographic argument for Putin to consider: the six million Russians spread along the Siberian border face 90 million Chinese on the other side. And many of these Chinese regularly cross the border into Russia to trade (and a good number to stay)."
Jul 7th 2021
EXTRACTS: "According to a new analysis by researchers at Brown University, America’s two-decade war in Afghanistan cost it nearly $2.3 trillion. Now, Afghanistan’s neighbors – Pakistan, Iran, China, India, and the Central Asian countries – are wondering just how much it will cost them to maintain security after the United States is gone." ----- "After clandestinely supporting the Taliban as a means to undermine the US war effort, Russia now fears broader destabilization in Central Asia and beyond." ---- "Similarly, after having made nice with the Taliban, China also now fears the greater regional instability that the US withdrawal may incite. In addition to disrupting Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Eurasia-spanning Belt and Road Initiative, a revitalized Taliban could re-energize the Islamist extremist threat in China’s western Xinjiang province."
Jul 1st 2021
EXTRACT: "When former Fed Chair Paul Volcker hiked rates to tackle inflation in 1980-82, the result was a severe double-dip recession in the United States and a debt crisis and lost decade for Latin America. But now that global debt ratios are almost three times higher than in the early 1970s, any anti-inflationary policy would lead to a depression, rather than a severe recession. ---- Under these conditions, central banks will be damned if they do and damned if they don’t, and many governments will be semi-insolvent and thus unable to bail out banks, corporations, and households. The doom loop of sovereigns and banks in the eurozone after the global financial crisis will be repeated worldwide, sucking in households, corporations, and shadow banks as well. ---- As matters stand, this slow-motion train wreck looks unavoidable."
Jun 19th 2021
EXTRACT: "Xi Jinping’s call for friendship gives us an opportunity to examine Chinese politics on both the domestic and international stage. On the face of it, it suggests the possibility of rapprochement between the rich liberal democracies represented by the G7 and the authoritarian Chinese state. However, despite appearances of a call for a closer relationship, there is more than one way of being friends – and Xi’s idea might be somewhat different to what many in countries attending the G7 might expect."
Jun 12th 2021
EXTRACT: "China’s recently published census, showing that its population has almost stopped growing, brought warnings of severe problems for the country. “Such numbers make grim reading for the party,” reported The Economist. This “could have a disastrous impact on the country,” wrote Huang Wenzheng, a fellow at the Center for China and Globalization in Beijing, in the Financial Times. But a comment posted on China’s Weibo was more insightful. “The declining fertility rate actually reflects the progress in the thinking of Chinese people – women are no longer a fertility tool.” "
Jun 12th 2021
EXTRACT: " I remember recounting fellow leaders of the story of a Rwanda schoolboy caught up in the genocide of the 1990s and now immortalized in the Kigali Genocide Memorial museum, where, in a section devoted to children, one can find his photograph and a plaque that reads: ----- David, age 11 ...... Ambition: to be a doctor ...... Favorite sport: football ...... Favorite hobby: making people laugh ...... Death: by mutilation ...... Last words: the UN are coming to save us ----- In his idealism and innocence, David believed the international community would save him and his mother. We didn’t. "
Jun 8th 2021
EXTRACT: " While many conservative Republicans opposed Trump and saw that he posed a danger to their party and democracy itself, they were hesitant to buck the mass movement they had created, fearing that it would turn against them. Some of these same conservatives assumed that with Trump's defeat, the horror of January 6th, and the former president's banishment from social media, the time had come to restore sanity to their party. But the GOP leadership’s continued cowering in the face of what they now call "Trump's base" has caused them to circle the wagons and purge their ranks of those who call for sanity. "
May 26th 2021
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May 25th 2021
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May 18th 2021
EXTRACT: "This period in US history could go down as the moment when America’s democratic system for electing a president – the most consequential duty of US citizens – was broken, perhaps for good."
May 16th 2021
EXTRACT: "While reading Human Rights Watch’s (HRW) monumental report “A Threshold Crossed,” I felt a range of emotions. It also left me with one big question. I was deeply impressed by the report’s rigorous scholarship. At the same time, it brought to the surface feelings of anger and profound sadness. It’s an extraordinarily complete study detailing not only the many ways Israel has violated a broad range of Palestinian human rights, but the ideology of racial superiority and entitlement that Israel has used to justify its repression." ..... "My advice to both Israel’s defenders and weak-kneed liberals is​, “Read the damn report.” "
May 16th 2021
EXTRACTS: .... "He transformed a transitioning market economy into a stable statist project that rests on an alliance of his inner circle," ..... "He transformed Russia from a respected member of the international community into a rogue state" .... ". He energized NATO by providing it with the adversary it lacked after the end of the cold war," ..... "He befriended hopelessly corrupt, dysfunctional, and unstable dictatorships..." ..... "He forged a quasi-alliance with China, thereby enhancing Russia’s dependence on the one country that might have reason to appropriate those Russian territories inhabited by Chinese."
May 15th 2021
EXTRACT: "On the face of it, the latest escalation of violence is following the template of all inter-ethnic wars. Muslims observing Ramadan shouted nationalist slogans and clashed with Israeli right-wing groups chanting “Death to the Arabs.” The Israelis haughtily marched with their national flag on Jerusalem Day, marking Israel’s capture in 1967 of East Jerusalem and the Temple Mount, the site of the biblical Second Temple, and of Al-Aqsa, completed in the year 705. Battles in and around the Al-Aqsa compound erupted, with worshipers inside throwing stones at the Israeli police, who responded by firing rubber-tipped bullets and other projectiles, wounding hundreds."
May 13th 2021
"Regardless of how the current and future violent conflicts between Israel and the Palestinians in Jerusalem will end, there will be no Israeli-Palestinian peace unless East Jerusalem becomes the capital of a Palestinian state while the city remains united."
May 7th 2021
EXTRACT: " Would the United States be prepared to risk a catastrophic war with the People’s Republic of China to protect the Republic of China, better known as Taiwan? "
May 5th 2021
EXTRACT: "Human history, ancient and contemporary, is replete with instances of genocide – that is, the effort to eradicate a people, erase their history, denigrate their culture, and destroy their physical presence. Many of these atrocities have been recognized by the victims and other nations who support them. But, with the notable exception of the German acknowledgment of the Holocaust, rarely have the perpetrators of these crimes accepted responsibility and offer recompense "
May 2nd 2021
EXTRACT: "The best way to defend liberal democracy is to practice it at home and abroad with the “courage and self-confidence” that Kennan touted at the dawn of the Cold War. This is also the best way to ensure the survival of our own conception of human freedom. And survive it will."
May 1st 2021
EXTRACT: "Ann Arbor (Informed Comment) – Sammy Roth at the LA Times/ Boiling Point Newsletter reports that California’s main power grid was powered for several hours last Saturday by 90% renewables. For just four seconds that day, the grid, which covers 4/5s of the state, reached 94.5% generation by green energy. California is the world’s fifth largest economy. The main grid does not cover Los Angeles County. On the other hand, these figures do not include the electricity generated by the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant, which is not counted as renewable but which is also very low-carbon."
Apr 23rd 2021
EXTRACT: "It is no accident that there has been an economic divergence in Central and Eastern Europe. Those countries that have joined the European Union have improved their economic governance, and GDP has begun to converge with Western Europe. Between 2014 and 2019, Hungary, Poland, and Romania grew at an annual average rate of 3.9%, 4.1%, and 4.7%, respectively. Meanwhile, Belarus and Ukraine experienced minimal growth during this period, and Russia’s economy expanded at an average annual rate of just 0.7%. Though Russia had a higher per capita GDP (in terms of purchasing power parity) than Croatia, Poland, Romania, and Turkey as recently as 2009, all of these countries have since overtaken it. Russians today are shocked to learn that they are worse off than Romanians and Turks. Among EU member states, only Bulgaria is still poorer than Russia. With its close proximity to the EU single market, Russia could have had higher growth if it had pursued sound economic policies. Instead,..... "