Argument

Containing the Islamist Revolution

The next American president would be naïve to think that the uprisings sweeping the Middle East will be good for America. It's time to retrench and protect U.S. interests from the Islamist tidal wave.

When politicians are in election mode, they can see nothing but victory. All decisions, all considerations, are subservient to one question: how they can convince voters to check their name at the ballot box. As someone who ran for office nine times, I know what I am talking about. But for the candidate who wins the election, and for the voters, there is always the day after.

The rise of anti-Western Islamist movements -- exemplified this week by the victory of the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohammed Morsi in Egypt's presidential election -- represents a grave threat to U.S. interests and values in the Middle East. The next president of the United States, on the day after the election in November, will have to cope with this new reality. If he is to be successful, he must develop a strategy that takes into account the new state of affairs in this region and develop a long-term strategy to unite America's friends and confront its enemies.

Unfortunately, the new reality in the greater Middle East is bad for the United States and its allies, including my country. Most importantly, the president should recognize that Islamist forces are on the move: They have seized control from Waziristan to the Atlantic Ocean in almost uninterrupted territorial contiguity. Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Libya are at the midst of a brutal and destructive battle for their identity. Their future territorial integrity is in doubt. In these five countries, and now in Egypt, the Islamist and extremist forces have the upper hand. The media has already replaced the term "Arab Spring" with "Arab Awakening." Sooner rather than later, it will be replaced again by "Islamist takeover."

In no country are these Islamist forces friends of the United States. The extremists among them despise its culture and way of life. They deplore its status as a global superpower. The pragmatists are ready to receive U.S. financial and military aid, but will not heed U.S. advice on foreign and domestic policy.

As Islamist movements gain strength, America's traditional allies are wavering about how to confront this new threat. They doubt the loyalty of the United States, and wonder if they will enjoy American backing and support when they need it most. They are exploring other options to protect their interests.

Nor are there any glimmers of progress when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. The Israeli government continues to expand and foster settlements in the West Bank. The Palestinians -- to whom everybody, including their Arab brothers, have given a cold shoulder -- are swept into a dangerous despair and growing radicalization. The lack of a serious Israeli-Palestinian dialogue is leading to a binational state, which would signal the end of the Jewish national dream and the Palestinian one.

The complete international illegitimacy of the settlement project and of the occupation aimed to protect it -- combined with the combustibility of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict -- is a liability for U.S. foreign policy. It will remain so even if other parts of the world become a higher priority to the United States than the Middle East.

Both U.S. presidential candidates and their advisors need to begin thinking about the day after the election, and how the next American president will deal with this complex reality. As one who lives in the midst of it, here is my advice.

First, the president has to ignore the naïve illusions about an "Arab Spring." Neither romantic expectations surrounding the emerging new forces nor a guilt complex about supporting authoritarian regimes should affect practical statecraft. Egypt's Hosni Mubarak and Libya's Muammar al-Qaddafi have not been replaced by enlightened democrats. Neither will Bashar-al-Assad.

The few friends the United States has left in the Middle East should be bolstered and linked together in a new alliance. The United States can build a new regional axis to confront Iran and the radical Islamists. This axis should stretch from the Mediterranean to the Gulf, from Tel Aviv to Abu Dhabi. It should be based on the Gulf Cooperation Council states (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates), and Jordan, Israel, and Palestine. Call it the GCC plus JIP. It's an alliance that would boast huge economic growth potential and substantial military strength.

The common denominators of the members of this new alliance are the need to defend themselves against Iran and radical Islam, friendship with Western democracies, and the commitment to building a region based on peace and economic cooperation.

The new axis will change the regional balance of power. It will emerge as an alternative model to the bloody chaos and economic incompetence of radical Islam, and it will draw a clear line on the region's map that Iran's expansion cannot cross. This model is not yet fully realized and fundamental reforms will be required to bring it to fruition. But with U.S assistance, if requested, these can be implemented wisely and without bloodshed.

Israeli-Palestinian peace is indispensable for the formation of this new regional alliance. It is not only vital if Israel wishes to strengthen its ties with the Arab Gulf states, it is a necessary step to prevent the disappearance of the democratic Jewish state that we Israelis fought for.

There are two practical obstacles blocking the way to an Israeli-Palestinian agreement, however. First, there is the need to relocate the roughly 120,000 Israeli settlers who now live in the West Bank in areas that will become a future Palestinian state. Second, there is the need to provide new jobs, proper housing, and a better future to the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians refugees inside and outside the territories who live in poverty and despair.

These two problems are not only political, they are economic. And they can be removed through an international financial initiative led by the United States.

The G-8 states should raise $5 billion per year over five years to enable Israel to relocate the West Bank settlers, mainly through the development of the Negev and Galilee areas in southern and northern Israel. Although the small core of ideological, hardline settlers will reject this incentive, the mainstream of Israeli society, as well as the law-abiding majority of settlers, will not turn it down. 

During the same five years, the wealthy Arab states, including those in the Gulf, should allocate the same amount of money for the economic benefit of the Palestinian refugees. These economic gains would not be in the form of handouts and welfare vouchers -- they would be meant to spur economic development, which will create jobs, vocational education opportunities, and offer Palestinians a hope for a better future.

The flow of these funds -- to the Palestinian Authority (PA), to Jordan, to Israel, possibly to Lebanon -- will inevitably bring political change. They will strengthen Jordan and the PA and offer the people of Gaza a horizon of hope that Hamas can never give them.

At the same time, the people of Israel will have to choose between two outcomes: a troubled, isolated, binational state or a Jewish state on 78 percent of the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean -- a state where the north and the south are as economically strong as Tel Aviv. There is no contest between these possible futures: Given these terms, an overwhelming majority of Israelis will prefer a two-state solution over a binational state, with all its negative repercussions.

For the G-8 and Arab states footing the bill, the financial burden of the combined $50 billion might seem overwhelming -- particularly at this point of world economic distress. These funds, however, are an investment in a more stable Middle East -- the sums are much less than the direct and indirect damage that the unresolved conflict will inflict. Just think of how much money the United States spent trying to stabilize Iraq.

Building a strong axis of moderates in the Middle East is doable, if there is the will in Washington. And if a revolutionary, secular, and democratic change occurs in Iran, then the new Iran will be a natural member of this alliance. Shia-Sunni tensions in the Middle East will subside. On the other hand, as long as the ayatollahs prevail, their regime will face an economically and militarily powerful regional front.

Today, those who deal with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict inspire cynicism and despair. But cynics are not the ones who change history -- people with faith, vision, and courage do. This is what is expected of the man who will lead the United States after November 2012.

KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images

Argument

A Campaign About Nothing

Why are Mexico's presidential candidates ignoring the 800-lb. gorilla in the room -- the failing drug war?

On July 1, some 80 million Mexican voters will turn their backs on the drama and turbulence that has recently beset their country as they select a new president for the next six years. The electorate will choose among three main candidates whose statements and policy positions have been notably cautious -- and who have been strikingly vague about what they would change in how the country is handling its most serious problems.

The lackluster campaign is surprising in such a convulsed setting. Outgoing president Felipe Calderón of the center-right National Action Party (PAN) has presided over a rough stretch since 2006. His term has been marked by some 50,000 murders attributable to Mexico's drug-fueled violence, amid fierce battles among ruthless cartels.

Although the economy has recently rebounded, it, too, has suffered more than other countries in the region, with a sharp surge in levels of extreme poverty since the onset of the global economic crisis in 2008. Mexico's problems are inextricably tied to the United States -- not only its economy but also its drug consumption habits and passionate attachment to weapons that often wind up illegally down south. (It's not just Fast and Furious: A 2011 Senate report found that roughly 70 percent of firearms recovered from Mexican crime scenes and submitted for tracing came from the United States.)

Yet it is hard to discern any fresh policy ideas from the candidates about how to deal with widespread insecurity -- unsurprisingly, the top concern for most Mexicans -- as well as how to more effectively reposition the country in its complicated political relations with the United States.

Enrique Peña Nieto of the long-established, broad-based Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which dominated Mexican politics for seven decades until its ouster in 2000, is the most likely winner. A governor of the state of Mexico, which includes Mexico City, he has enjoyed an ample advantage of roughly 15 points in most polls. Though telegenic, he appears to lack deep convictions and has eschewed strong stands on key national issues. He has had every incentive to guard his comfortable lead and not stake out any new policy ground. He has touted his plan for "effective government," making the case that unlike Calderón, Mexico's former ruling party will actually be able to get things done.

The PRI's likely return should not be surprising. After all, over the past dozen years, the party retained considerable control at the local and state levels even as it was excluded from the National Palace. Much of the party's well-oiled machinery remained intact. Most Mexicans have been disappointed by the performance of the two largely undistinguished PAN governments. But Peña's platform for dealing with the security challenge, the economy, and relations with the United States contains few appreciable differences with the agenda Calderón has pursued over the past six years. In the scheme of things, the proposed changes -- for example, less emphasis on taking down the top echelons of criminal groups -- are relatively trivial. Moreover, Peña's June 14 announcement that Gen. Oscar Naranjo, former head of Colombia's national police, would be his chief security advisor, only underscores the likely continuity with the current policies carried out by the United States and Calderón. U.S. drug authorities have worked closely with Naranjo for years and have a high regard for him.

Josefina Vázquez Mota, the PAN candidate and a former education minister, has been markedly wary of departing too far from the record of the current government (even though she was not Calderón's preferred candidate). She has also not taken advantage of the asset of possibly becoming Mexico's first woman president. Any proposed changes from current policies -- on security, the economy, the social agenda, or relations with the United States -- have been on the margins and mostly rhetorical. On security, her idea of a "militarized national police" force sounds similar to what is being put in place under Calderón. Even on her forte, social policy, she has held back and has not proposed major reforms to the country's dismal education system.

One might have expected that the candidate of the so-called left, Andrés Manuel López Obrador of the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD), would have provided some excitement. But López Obrador, who has now edged out Vasquez for second place in most polls, has been anything but audacious. In 2006, when he was associated with Hugo Chávez's brand of radicalism, López Obrador ferociously disputed his narrow loss to Calderón and claimed that he was Mexico's legitimate president. His obstinacy proved costly with many voters. Six years later, the firebrand qualities and rough edges have been softened and he has sought to project a more moderate and pragmatic image.

López Obrador's political evolution was evident in the second presidential debate on June 10, when the leftist's proposals on fighting poverty, which highlight public health and more educational opportunities, were hardly different than those of the other two. On security, it is hard to find much daylight between what López Obrador is saying -- focus on building an effective police force -- and the main features of Calderon's approach. And apart from a few rhetorical flourishes that point to greater emphasis on development over security, he has not departed from the current policy towards the United States, which entails substantial cooperation on a wide-ranging agenda.

One area of difference is energy policy, where López Obrador has opposed calls made both by Peña and Vasquez to open up flagging state-owned oil and gas monopoly to foreign investment. Peña has suggested moves toward greater privatization of the petroleum sector, following the successful formula of Brazil's Petrobras. But a shift in this direction will surely be politically difficult, particularly within Peña's PRI.

The caution displayed by Mexico's presidential candidates can also be explained by the erosion of social trust in the society. Studies show that deepening public security crisis has taken a heavy toll on public confidence in politicians and institutions. This trend is particularly pronounced among Mexico's expanding middle class which, despite its anxiety about violence, has greater access than ever to education and consumer goods and, in many cases, is experiencing upward mobility. The candidates are perhaps loath to make promises for bold transformation before an understandably cynical electorate. They know that the more they promise, the less they are likely to be believed.

The student protests that erupted May 11 at the Ibero American University provided perhaps the only bit of excitement in an otherwise no-drama campaign. The students were protesting against an appearance by Peña, reviving accusations of corruption and authoritarianism long associated with the PRI. The outrage was then directed against Mexico's two media giants, Televisa and TV Azteca, for their overwhelmingly favorable coverage in support of the PRI candidate. The protests have continued -- a reported 90,000 gathered in Mexico City on June 10 -- and have spurred a social media movement, known by the hashtag #YoSoy132, which refers to the 131 students who showed their University IDs in a YouTube video after the PRI claimed the protesters had actually been "paid agitators." The students are pressing for a freer election and a more diverse media. The protests are yet more evidence of voter disenchantment, particularly among Mexico's youth.

Anyone looking to spin out either an optimistic or a pessimistic scenario in Mexico in the coming years has no shortage of material to work with. Unimaginably grotesque murders co-exist with pockets of stunning economic and cultural vitality. Contradictions abound. But no one should be fooled by the circumspect, cautious campaign. The political climate the new president will inherit will be anything but dull.

ANTONIO NAVA/AFP/Getty Images