A Two-Pronged US Strategy for the Middle East

The United States must develop a two-pronged strategy for the Middle East that prioritizes ending the civil wars and unlocking untapped human potential, according to a new report from the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Strategy Task Force.

This is a matter of urgency, not least of all because the West has borne some of the consequences of conflict in the Middle East as it has been inundated by migrants and targeted by jihadists radicalized by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS).

“This is not just a crisis in the Middle East, it is a crisis of the Middle East that is affecting the entire globe,” said Madeleine K. Albright, who served as secretary of state in the Clinton administration and is an honorary director on the Atlantic Council’s board. Albright co-chairs the Middle East Strategy Task Force along with Stephen J. Hadley, who served as national security advisor in the George W. Bush administration.

Hadley and Albright participated in the rollout of the task force’s final report at the Atlantic Council on November 30. They took part in a discussion moderated by Ayman Mohyeldin, a correspondent with NBC News.

The Middle East has been in violent upheaval since the Arab Spring pro-democracy uprisings erupted in 2011. A war in Syria—now in its sixth year—has killed more than 400,000 people and created almost five million refugees. ISIS flourished amid the chaos. Wars are also raging in Libya, Iraq, and Yemen. Of the states buffeted by the Arab Spring, Tunisia is the only one to be on a positive trajectory.

Hadley contended that governments in the Middle East lack the wherewithal to end wars on their own, which is why the United States should help enforce sustainable settlements.

In Syria, all parties in the war must be convinced that it is “militarily unwinnable,” said Hadley. He recommended expanding and accelerating US-led operations against ISIS; warned against making “common cause” with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad; and urged more humanitarian assistance for Syrian civilians as well as greater support for moderate opposition groups.

The United States currently supports Syrian opposition forces that are trying to topple Assad and leads a military coalition that is using air strikes and special forces to target ISIS and al Qaeda fighters.

The Atlantic Council report places emphasis on defeating ISIS, also known as the Islamic State and Daesh. This approach is not inconsistent with what US President-elect Donald Trump has said about the Middle East, said Hadley.

“It prioritizes destroying Daesh and al Qaeda, as he has. It does not require a massive military intervention with large numbers of ground forces. At the same time, it will help check Iran’s hegemonic activity, and it recognizes that US allies in the region must do more for themselves,” he added.

While prioritizing the fight against ISIS, Trump has indicated that he will end support for some Syrian opposition groups. This may be good news for Assad who has said Trump could be a “natural ally” in fighting terrorism.

Meanwhile, Assad’s military, backed by Russia and Iran, has stepped up its offensive to take control of the rebel-held eastern part of the city of Aleppo. They reportedly want to drive out the rebels before Trump takes office in January.

No quick fixes

“The United States cannot walk away from the Middle East, but we also cannot expect easy answers or quick fixes,” Albright said. She advocated for a durable strategy for the region while noting that the United States should not try to dictate solutions.

The report steps away from the typical Band-Aid and fire-drill responses and instead listens to voices from the Middle East, said Albright, noting that the task force discovered “many positive things” on research trips to the region.

Frederick Kempe, president and CEO of the Atlantic Council, said the report takes a comprehensive longer-term approach to the Middle East. “We hope that it will be a road map and color the way that this new [Donald Trump] administration will go about approaching the region,” he said.

Albright conceded that the hardest part is convincing governments in the Middle East that the people are not the enemy. Nevertheless, she said, “Some leaders are beginning to recognize that the region’s greatest resource is not its oil, but its people.” For example, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia have undertaken reforms with this dynamic in mind.

A compact for the Middle East

The report calls for a regional role in ending conflicts in the Middle East and says root causes for such unrest—largely governance failure—must be addressed even as outside powers create incentives for reform. It recommends that these mutual expectations be codified in a compact for the Middle East. “Under this compact, the states that adopt reforms would gain greater diplomatic, economic, and technical support,” said Albright.

Hadley said that the more countries in the Middle East take steps to improve their governance and the lives of their people, “the more support they can expect from the United States and international partners.”

“The countries of the Middle East must seek to unlock their most valuable resource—their people,” said Hadley. This would mean restructuring educational systems; regulatory reforms that encourage trade, investment, entrepreneurship, and innovation; space for citizens to build better societies; and an updated social contract with governments acting inclusively and justly, he added, while suggesting the need for a regional development fund that would build physical and social infrastructure in the Middle East.

“It is a bet on the people of the region and a strategy to empower them,” Hadley said.

However, according to Hadley, the challenge is: “How can you get an authoritarian military leader to do something that seems antithetical—to empower their people?”

“The answer is: If they do not, they will not achieve what they seek, which is long-term stability and prosperity,” he said. Unemployed and disempowered youth are a time bomb and governments have to understand that they need to empower their people or they will push them into the arms of terrorists, he warned.

What happens when the interests of region are at cross purposes with those of the United States?

Albright said there must be a recognition that there will be times when there are disagreements between sovereign nations. Hadley noted that there is considerable overlap in regional and US interests—from defeating ISIS to ending wars to economic development. “If you look at the agenda in the Middle East now, we are all pulling in the same direction,” he said.

On the campaign trail, Trump vowed to ban all Muslims from traveling to the United States.

Albright warned against the “fear factor,” noting that the United States has a thorough vetting process for immigrants.

Hadley described US-educated foreigners as “foot soldiers” of economic reform and “agents of change” in their home countries. He cited the United States’ post-9/11 experience of clamping down on Saudis, many of whom were eager to travel to the United States to study. “One of the things we concluded was that there is a way to balance your security needs and still have an open door to young people to come to this country,” he said.

Ashish Kumar Sen is deputy director of communications at the Atlantic Council. You can follow him on Twitter @AshishSen.

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Image: Co-chairs of the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Strategy Task Force—former Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright and former National Security Advisor Stephen J. Hadley—discussed the task force’s final report in a conversation moderated by NBC News correspondent Ayman Mohyeldin at the Atlantic Council on November 30. (Atlantic Council/Victoria Langton)