Speak Up, Mr. President

A memo to Barack Obama on how to talk about the Middle East policy no one thinks he actually has.

Memorandum to the President

Subject: Your Middle East Policy, Ignore the Critics.

Listening to your critics, Mr. President, you'd think that America had no Middle East policy. You'd think that U.S. interests in the region were in ruins, and that your administration had abdicated its moral and strategic responsibilities by following inchoate, directionless, and risk-averse decisions that have dragged U.S. credibility to an all-time low

While what's happening in the region is not primarily America's fault, you certainly do bear some responsibility for the unhappy state of the Middle East. You intervene in Libya, but not in Syria; support an Arab Spring in Egypt, but not in Bahrain; draw red lines on the use of chemical weapons, but defer to Congress when it comes to the use of military force. Inconsistent policies in Egypt have managed to offend just about every political group in the country. And you accuse opponents of a very tentative deal with Iran of warmongering when they dare to pressure a Tehran they understandably don't trust by using the very sanctions that brought the mullahs to the table in the first place.

Your rhetoric has often exceeded your capacity and intentions, and there are inconsistencies and contradictions in your approach to the Middle East that have never been adequately explained. Indeed, implementation of your decisions has been poor, but articulation of what it is you think is important, and what is not, has been even worse.

In reality, though, your critics are wrong. Maybe not entirely so, but they're definitely overstating. You are doing the best you can at this point. You do have a Middle East policy, I believe, or at least a series of priorities and plans that you are working to execute. And they are focused around one central element: that there are no easy solutions -- possibly not hard ones, either -- to the problems in the region. . 

I'm not a fan of speeches as substitutes for clearly articulated and implemented policy. But you or Secretary of State John Kerry ought to consider giving a speech that lays out expressly what you've achieved in the Middle East, what your priorities are, and why America isn't actually failing in a region of the world so vital to its interests.

You certainly don't need any ego boosts. But as you write the speech I suggest, here are the reasons that the course you're following is, on balance, the right one.

You Realize that You Can't Fix the Middle East. You are dealing with an angry, broken, and dysfunctional region in the midst of profound change, most of which is headed in the wrong direction. Power in the Arab world is dissolving and decentralizing. There's no serious commitment to real reform. Grievances between Shia and Sunni, driven more by who's in and out of power than by religious tensions, are intensifying. And Islamists of varying persuasion -- some funded by U.S. allies, others by al Qaeda derivatives -- are taking advantage of the situation.

As for the so-called Arab Spring, the Roman historian Tacitus was right: The first day after the death of a bad emperor is always the best day. Right now, with the possible exception of Tunisia, that's the story of the would-be revolutions we saw in 2011.

What impact can the United States possibly make in this mess? With 140,000 U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, trillions of dollars spent, and a decade of effort expended, the politics of those two countries have not been fundamentally altered -- certainly not in a way that would justify the price America has paid. Why, then, would anyone believe that you could end the war in Syria or stare down an Egyptian military that believes it's in a fight for its life, as well as for the identity of its country? Your critics refuse to accept the reality that America's values, interests, and policies -- cutting of aid to Egypt, arming the Syrian opposition, striking President Bashar al-Assad -- cannot be harmonized in some sort of neat package that will fix things in the region.

You've Stayed Out of Syria. That your critics -- a strange combination of liberal interventionists and neoconservatives -- accuse you of being responsible for the civil war in Syria, specifically for missing the so-called great opportunity that supposedly existed in 2011 to aid an budding group of rebels opposed to Assad, is either willfully manufactured politics, a misreading of the situation on the ground, or a gross misunderstanding of where the American public is and what America's priorities should be. 

There was never an opportunity; at best, there was a calculated risk -- and even then, you have to wonder what it would have taken from the United States to get the rebels to actually make an impact against the regime. And you had other priorities to deal with: You didn't want to involve the United States in a proxy war with Iran over Syria because you perceived rightly that a nuclear deal was the more important objective.

Syria is a disaster, both morally and strategically. The idea that you could have fashioned -- or could still fashion -- a policy that would have improved things in the country with a significant economic investment and military intervention is an illusion. You could not have helped the rebels topple Assad, or convinced him to leave power, or prevented the rise of radical jihadists.

Your critics blast you primarily for not following their advice. But it's a good thing you're not.   At least on Syria, your critics have failed to come up with a carefully thought-through policy as to exactly how U.S. military power would end the conflict and ensure that the United States doesn't get stuck with the check. Simply put, there are no opportunities in Syria -- only traps, minefields, and potential disasters. 

What you are doing -- trying to contain matters by supporting Jordan, Turkey, and Iraq and pushing humanitarian assistance with an option to ply a political track with the Russians in Geneva (if you can) -- isn't perfect, but it's the best you can and should do. While your policy might be amoral, it isn't immoral. The United States has its own needs and requirements that take precedence and that simply do not square with a major commitment to or in Syria.

You Are Protecting U.S. Interests. Your critics seem to overlook the fact that, when it comes to protecting U.S. core interests through actions toward and in the Middle East, you are actually doing pretty well. And when I say core interests, I mean the kinds of things that affect the security and economic well being of the American people and those enterprises where we risk American lives and resources.

There are several pieces of evidence that you are doing the right thing by these interests. First, your policies and those of your predecessor in the area of counterterrorism have kept America safe since 9/11. There have been costs: your policy on drones and the NSA dragnet, to name just two. But you have delivered on the central tenet of any foreign policy: protecting the homeland.

Second, you are withdrawing from the two longest wars in U.S. history where the standard for victory was never "can we win" but "when can we leave."  And whatever responsibility you bear for the current situation in Iraq, your predecessor who launched this discretionary war bears so much more. Indeed, the sad reality of these wars is that, from the beginning, it was always clear that what happened after America left would be much more determinative than anything we could accomplish while we were there.

Third, you are the beneficiary and are helping to promote a revolution in North American energy that will help wean the United States off of its dependence on hydrocarbons from the Arab world. Oil will continue to trade in a single market, and energy security of Middle East oil will always be a challenge, so we will never be truly immune from disruptions and shocks. And there are environmental costs to new techniques, such as fracking, off-shore drilling, and Key StoneXL. But encouraging and nurturing greater use of shale-oil gas, renewables, and other resources is critically important. It will give the United States additional leverage and security even while we will remain dependent on hydrocarbons for years to come.

Fourth, you have embarked on a critically important objective of trying to keep Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. There are risks to this policy -- both on the political and strategic sides. But they probably pale in comparison to the risks and uncertainties of war. As a practical matter, Iran is already a nuclear-threshold state, and it has objectives in the region that are at odds with ours and those of our allies, particularly Israel and Saudi Arabia. You've taken the right, calculated risk in trying diplomacy. It may pay off; it may not. So don't trivialize your critics' concerns or the legitimate worries of those in Congress who don't trust the mullahs. And don't get so invested in your own interim agreement that you can't abide criticism from key allies who have legitimate worries about your policies.

Your Secretary of State is Your Best Talking Point. Finally, in John Kerry, the Energizer Bunny of U.S. diplomacy, you have chosen to employ a real asset. I worked for half a dozen of his predecessors; this guy is really good and really busy. And unlike you (and me), he may actually believe in what he's doing in the Middle East. His rhetoric is at times a bit over the top. But he's in the middle of the mix on just about everything: the Israeli-Palestinian issue, Iran, Syria. These are all long shots. But they demonstrate that the United States is hardly absent from the Middle East or abdicating on our responsibilities. You need to push the hell out of what he's doing -- keeping in mind, with humility, that it's all a work in progress.

Mr. President, the fact is that you are holding U.S. policy together in a region that is coming apart. If you want to be loved (see: your Cairo speech in 2009) find another part of the world. For a wide range of reasons, you may never even be admired in the region. But that's not your fault.

The best advice right now?  Keep at it. Franklin Delano Roosevelt once said that Abraham Lincoln died a sad man because he couldn't have everything. And Lincoln was undeniably our greatest president. In the Middle East, you can't have everything either. But keep focusing on what you can achieve, and don't chase after what you can't. There are no real solutions here, only best-possible outcomes. You can help to shape those in a way that will minimize the damage to U.S. interests -- and maybe, just maybe, do a thing or two in the process to help the Middle East, too.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images


With Negotiators Like These...

Peace talks won't solve the crisis in South Sudan. Africa-style justice will.

After a power struggle between South Sudanese President Salva Kiir and his former vice president, Riek Machar, plunged the world's newest state into crisis in mid-December, the international community dutifully mobilized to bring the warring parties to the negotiating table. Right now, as South Sudan slides toward open civil war, representatives from both sides are engaged in direct, face-to-face talks in Addis Ababa. Unfortunately, however, the international community is misleading Africa yet again. The track record for face-to-face negotiation in post-colonial Africa -- and in Sudan itself -- is abysmal. Instead of trudging down the same, well-worn path toward failure, South Sudan should look to traditional modes of conflict resolution to end the current standoff.

More than 40 wars have been fought on the continent since 1970. Year after year, one African country after another has imploded with deafening staccato, scattering refugees in all directions: Sudan erupted in 1972, Angola and Mozambique in 1975, and Ethiopia in 1985. Then came Liberia (1992), Somalia (1993), Rwanda (1994), Zaire (1996), Sierra Leone (1997), Congo (1998), Ethiopia/Eritrea (1998), Guinea (1999, 2010), Ivory Coast (2001, 2005, 2010), Libya (2011), Mali (2012), and now the Central African Republic and South Sudan.

Almost without exception, attempts to reach peace accords have ended in failure. The most common modality has been the direct, face-to-face negotiation between the warring factions -- a Western approach often pushed by a well-intentioned international community. But this has seldom worked in Africa.

Face-to-face negotiations only succeed when factional leaders want peace or are forced to pay a price for the mayhem they wreak -- conditions that have rarely been met in Africa. More often than not, conflict becomes profitable for warlords because it provides them with opportunities to rape, pillage, and plunder natural resources. For rebel soldiers, their weapons are often their livelihoods. Likewise, government soldiers sometimes live by looting, since they are routinely unpaid by their cash-strapped governments. Countless examples can be drawn from the wars in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Somalia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Conflict also gives national governments a ready-made excuse -- "national security" -- to suspend development projects, halt provision of social services, and keep their defense budgets secret, thereby shielding corrupt dealings from scrutiny.

Face-to-face negotiations often reinforce these wartime patterns by failing to dole out punishment for combatants. Often, militant leaders are actually rewarded at the negotiating table, gaining the respectability and influence that comes with international recognition. Back in 1993, the late Somali warlord Mohammed Farah Aideed was transported in U.S. military aircraft to Addis Ababa to take part in peace negotiations. The spectacle raised Aideed's stature and bolstered his confidence in becoming Somalia's next president -- only months before his forces killed 18 U.S. Rangers in Mogadishu. In a similarly outrageous arrangement brokered by the international community, the head of the notorious Revolutionary United Front (RUF) -- which chopped off the limbs of everyone, including women and children, who stood in their way -- was made Sierra Leone's minister of lands and mines in 1999.

A related problem with direct, face-to-face negotiations is that they often lead to the establishment of what are invariably termed "governments of national unity" -- clumsy attempts to forge power-sharing agreements between warring factions that have only just agreed to put their weapons down. This, of course, defies common sense. How are mortal enemies expected to cast all suspicion aside and blithely work together for the benefit of all? Most of the time they don't, and conflict breaks out again (See: Angola in 1992, Congo in 1999, Sierra Leone in 2000, and Ivory Coast in January 2003). But it's not just that unity governments are destined to fail; it's that when they succeed, they amount to blueprints for the joint-plunder of the state. Ministerial and governmental positions are divvied up between government and rebel leaders -- invariably igniting bitter squabbles in the process -- and then the rent-seeking begins.

Making matters worse, African leaders seldom honor agreements they append their names to, much less implement them in good faith. During the Ivoirian crisis in 2003, for example, a peace accord was signed in Ghana establishing a power-sharing deal between the government of President Laurent Gbagbo, which controlled the southern half of the country, and rebel groups that controlled the north and much of the west. But conflict soon erupted over the distribution of cabinet posts, and Gbagbo flouted the accord by refusing to spell out the powers he would cede to the opposition and only funding the government ministries he controlled. Predictably, fighting broke out again, threatening to reignite the civil war.

A similar script played out in Liberia during the civil war that saw tens of thousands slaughtered, raped, and maimed between 1999 and 2003. At peace talks in Ghana in June 2003, President Charles Taylor, who had been indicted for war crimes by a U.N-Sierra Leone court, pledged to step down under a cease-fire his government signed with two of the rebel groups battling his regime. The agreement called for Taylor's resignation and the formation of a transitional government, composed of the government, rebels, and political parties, among others. But within hours of signing the accord, Taylor's government was backtracking on the question of his resignation. In the end, it was only after an intense bombardment of Monrovia -- coupled with heightened international pressure and an offer of political asylum in Nigeria -- that Taylor finally resigned in August 2003.

More than 30 such peace accords have been brokered in Africa since the 1970s -- and the track record has been appalling. Only Mozambique's 1991 peace accord has endured, and even now it appears shaky as clashes between the government and the rebel group Renamo have flared recently over implementation. Elsewhere, peace accords were shredded like confetti even before the ink on them was dry. The most spectacular failures occurred in Angola (1991 and 1994), Burundi (1993), Rwanda (1993), Sierra Leone (1999), Democratic Republic of Congo (1999), and Ivory Coast (2003). All collapsed because face-to-face talks were marred by brinkmanship and broken promises.

Even where peace accords are successfully concluded and unity governments are established, they are almost always short-lived. Angola's unity government failed after six months in 1992. Congo's 2003 unity government created four vice presidents but did not bring peace to the eastern part of the country. Burundi's civil war flared up again in August 2003, despite the establishment of a unity government brokered by former South African President Nelson Mandela and Ivory Coast's 2003 unity government has proceeded in fits and starts. Kenya's unity government has floundered since 2008; Zimbabwe's since 2009.

Given this record, it is difficult to be optimistic about South Sudan's current peace talks in Addis Ababa. Add to this the fact that the South's 2005 power-sharing agreement with Sudanese President Omar Bashir failed miserably and that Kiir and Machar have already tried a unity government, and the third time looks even less likely to be the charm. Another unity government simply doesn't make sense. Rebel leader Machar almost certainly won't agree to a deal in which Kiir remains president, and Kiir is unlikely to resign. Nor is there a clear military solution -- a bitter lesson from the post-colonial era is that no African government has successfully put down a rebel insurgency.

But perhaps Africa's own indigenous conflict resolution mechanism can offer a way out of the conundrum. The key ingredient in the African method -- missing in the Western approach -- is engagement with civil society. "When two elephants fight, the grass gets trampled upon and hurt," goes the African proverb. African conflict resolution, then, requires four parties: the two elephants, an arbiter, and the "grass" (composed of all those affected by the conflict.) Just as it takes a village to raise a child, so too does it take one to resolve a conflict.

In most traditional African societies, when two people cannot resolve their differences by themselves, their case is taken to a village chief's court for adjudication. The court is open and anyone affected by the dispute can participate. Both parties are invited to make their case. Next, anybody else who has something to say may do so. After all the arguments have been heard, the chief renders a decision. The guilty party may be fined, say, three goats. By default, his or her family is held liable. The injured party receives one goat, the chief is given a goat for his services, and the final goat is slaughtered for a village feast for all to enjoy.

The latter social event is derived from the African belief that frayed social relations need to be healed -- the "grass" restored. More importantly, the interests of the community supersede those of the disputants. If they adopt intransigent positions, they can be sidelined by the will of the community and fined for disturbing social peace. In extreme cases, they can be expelled from the village. In other words, there is a price to be paid for intransigence and for wreaking social mayhem -- a price exacted by the victims. The current system of internationally-mediated peace talks, by contrast, imposes no such punishment on the combatants.

Already, there is limited evidence that traditional dispute-resolution mechanisms can work on a much larger scale. Indeed, following the collapse of the former Soviet Union in 1989, African traditional methods were revived to sweep dictators out of power and transition to a democratic order. In 1989, after unpaid civil servants went on strike and demanded the resignation of Benin's military dictator, Mathieu Kerekou, a sovereign national conference was called representing various political, religious, trade union, and other groups encompassing the broad spectrum of Beninois society. The conference, chaired by Father Isidore de Souza, held sovereign power and its decisions were binding on all, including the government. It stripped Kerekou of power and scheduled multiparty elections that ended 17 years of autocratic Marxist rule. Similar inclusive national conferences in Congo and Niger (both in 1991) brought dictatorships to an end and set the stage for free and fair elections.

In South Africa, the vehicle used to make the difficult but peaceful transition to a multiracial democratic society was the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA). It began deliberations in July 1991, with 228 delegates drawn from about 25 political parties and various anti-apartheid groups. The government of F.W. de Klerk made no effort to control the composition of CODESA. Political parties were not excluded, not even ultra right-wing political groups, although they chose to boycott its deliberations. CODESA strove to reach a "working consensus" on an interim constitution and set a date for the 1994 elections. It established the composition of an interim or transitional government that would rule until the elections were held. Most importantly, CODESA's decisions were binding. De Klerk could not abrogate any decision made by the convention -- just as the African chief could not disregard any decision arrived at the village meeting.

Instead of facilitating direct negotiations in Addis Ababa, the African Union should serve as an arbiter between South Sudanese civil society organizations, and political and religious groups. An interim government should be set up -- headed by neither Kiir nor Machar -- and a date set for elections. If the two leaders remain recalcitrant, they should be fined proverbial goats for disturbing the social peace. By default, they should be expelled from the "village" and handed over to the ICC for prosecution for crimes against humanity. And just as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) did to Mali when Gen. Amadou Sanogo seized power in March 2012, the African Union should close all borders with South Sudan and impose an economic blockade. When elephants have trampled the grass, they should not be rewarded with additional stomping grounds.

Paula Bronstein/Getty Images