Middle East Conundrum

How U.S. Can Achieve Peace

Posted July 13, 2009 at 2:21pm

Formulating lucid policy toward the Middle East, given the long and tortuous relationship the United States has had with the region, is a little like a contentious family dinner: The accumulated weight of the past makes it hard to approach the current situation objectively.

This is the conclusion Dennis Ross and David Makovsky draw in their new book, “Myths, Illusions, & Peace: Finding a New Direction for America in the Middle East.— Drawing on history, rival schools of diplomatic theory and voices of Middle Eastern commentators, Ross and Makovsky make their case for a reassessment of U.S. policy.

In their introduction, Ross

and Makovsky note that the Bush administration has diminished America’s stature in the Middle East, but they do not restrict their criticisms to the cadre of neoconservative minds who pushed the United States into Iraq, writing that “the tendency to fly metaphorically at 50,000 feet and to miss the complexities of the region was, unfortunately, not limited to the Bush administration.—

Since the Cold War spurred the U.S. to plunge into the Middle East in an effort to limit Soviet influence, America has always seen the region through the prism of its own interests. Ross and Makovsky identify the ways in which this tradition has led diplomats and presidents alike to adopt oversimplified views of the region, while the historical precedent of U.S. opportunism has bred a deep suspicion about America’s motives.

Ross, a former Middle East diplomat under former Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton who currently serves as a senior adviser for the White House’s National Security Council, and Makovsky, a veteran Middle East journalist-turned-analyst, draw on a deep well of experience in formulating their arguments.

However, their central premise — that policymakers are impeded by ingrained assumptions when it comes to the Middle East — raises the question of where Ross and Makovsky’s own biases are located.

Throughout the book, some of these become clear: They identify the risk of radical Islamists obtaining nuclear weaponry as “the preeminent threat of our time;— they favor maintaining strong U.S. ties with Israel, both strategically and in virtue of “shared values—; they reserve a special animus for certain prominent thinkers, most strikingly for John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt.

Ross and Makovsky do an admirable job of debunking some of the myths surrounding the Middle East and in exposing flaws in both the realist and the neoconservative mindsets that, throughout the book, are set in opposition to one another. But, inevitably, the amounts of page space they devote to certain topics reveal their own priorities.

Foremost among the myths they seek to dispel is “linkage,— which they characterize as the wrongheaded idea that all Middle Eastern conflict emanates from the Israeli-Palestinian issue. For one example, they point to the 2006 Iraq Study Group Report, which suggested that stability in Gaza would help to quell violence among Iraqi Sunnis.

Ross and Makovsky argue that Arab regimes, cognizant of the emphasis the U.S. places on Israel-Palestine, distort the importance of the conflict to bolster their popular support, while nonstate actors such as Hezbollah and Osama bin Laden justify ongoing terrorist attacks by connecting them to an intractable root cause.

“In reality, Arab states tend to pursue their own interests, and inter-Arab dynamics are their own variable, independent of Israel,— Ross and Makovsky write. They note instances in which Arab states ally with Israel when it is in their best interest, such as Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s famous visit to Jerusalem.

Just as Middle Eastern actors are pragmatically motivated, U.S. policymakers often act on a set of tacit assumptions that can make them reluctant to sit the parties down to negotiate rationally, the authors write. Neoconservatives see Arabs as duplicitous and conditioned to categorically reject Israel regardless of the situation on the ground. Conversely, realists see a dichotomy of Palestinians and Israelis as the victimized and the victimizer that places full responsibility for the conflict on Israel.

Ross and Makovsky also devote considerable time to deconstructing the dominant views on Iran in a section that is of particular interest given how post-election turmoil has revealed the deep fissures within Iran’s ruling regime. Their mantra here is “engagement without illusion,— recognizing the potential of a nuclear Iran as an event that would fundamentally alter the power politics of the region.

The authors’ understanding of Iran’s internal complexity lead them to reject a foreign policy approach that relies on a simplified vision of the country. Despite Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s posturing, the country has made overtures to the United States that represent an opportunity to make diplomatic inroads; simultaneously, the view that the United States should leap headfirst into negotiations without proper preconditions is a sanguine one that belies the fundamentalist bent of some of Iran’s leadership, the authors say.

They also question the neoconservative vision of fomenting a popular uprising against Iran’s corrupt leadership, and their analysis of the potential outcome seems eerily prescient given the government clampdown on supporters of oppositional candidate Mir Hussein Mousavi: “But what if the will of the mullahs and those who are ideologically committed to the regime — the Revolutionary Guard and the Basij revolutionary militias — is unrelenting?—

Makovsky acknowledged in an interview that “we might not be in the throes of that revolution, but we’re in a prerevolutionary period. You’re seeing cracks in the elite,— but he said the steady advance of Iran’s nuclear program does not afford America the luxury of waiting for the current regime’s demise.

Ross and Makovsky avoid offering quick solutions, but they outline avenues for progress. They seek a multilateral response to Iran that relies on mutually enforced sanctions, a circumspect willingness to negotiate under the correct circumstances and recognition of the weaknesses of Iran’s ruling regime, such as an overdependence on oil exporting.

The final message of the book is that the population of the Middle East is not a monolith and that potential allies abound. There are many Arab leaders who fail to condemn radical Islamists for fear of losing popular support but who fear the ascendancy of a violent and regressive Islam that is bolstered by Iranian influence. Among Islamists, U.S. policymakers would do well to discern between violent militias and nonviolent, solely political movements.

Makovsky said the U.S. needs to keep an eye on the “relationship between the internal dynamics of these regimes and their internal behavior,— referring to the disjunction between what leaders tell diplomats in private and what they say to their people as “a gap that needs to be narrowed.—