Obama and the Middle East: Round Two

Reworking the Strategy towards Iran. Netanyahu is becoming infamously impatient, and the reactors keep spinning (despite false claims to the contrary last week; I doubt we’ll ever really know what is actually going on in those nuclear plants).  The current strategy cannot continue. The sanctions have become so harsh that Iranian patients no longer have access to Western medicine; it was reported in the last few days that six million patients, most with cancer, are affected by these shortages. The sanctions that we currently have in place are killing civilians, plain and simple; Netanyahu and the pro-Israel community can no longer knowingly turn a blind eye to how damaging these sanctions have become. Obama must, then, order a new look at the sanctions program, strengthening them where they hurt the regime and removing them where they harm innocents. Obama must also push for direct talks, which are unlikely but could present the best medium for a surprise deal, while simultaneously introducing a stronger military threat that the Iranians would see as credible. If we can make the Iranian regime worried enough, a conclusion to this high-stakes decade-long scenario could actually be in sight.

Supplying lethal aid to the Syrian rebels. Perhaps the greatest flaw of Obama’s first term foreign policy (I’d call it the greatest flaw of any of his policies, but there’s that thing called the economy that I’d be called foolish to ignore) was his recalcitrance to do anything tangible to abate the massacre and civil war that is so loudly taking place in Syria. Syria is currently in line to become Obama’s Rwanda; but we’ve been there, and we no longer do that. On Election Day alone, 140 people were killed. The Arab League’s envoy for Syria warned this week that Syria is about to become another Somalia, which would put the country into bloody civil war for decades. By now, almost two years since the uprisings, we know very well who the Free Syrian Army is, and we know very well which factions can be trusted with weapons. The situation seems too dire and so gory that Obama may feel that supporting either side with weapons at this point is too late. This would be a tragic miscalculation, because the opposition has made serious inroads, and it can put an end to the fighting with some assistance. Helping in Syria isn’t clean, but it is necessary.

Planning a (first) Apology Tour to the Middle East. No, Obama did not apologize for America in 2009. Out of all the false claims made by both sides during the campaign, this specific Republican criticism has been debunked as the falsest. But in 2013 it is, in fact, time for Obama to apologize, but in a way that Romney would actually approve. Obama let America stand idly by when Iran rebelled in 2009; Obama guided this country in supporting Mubarak in 2011; and he still has yet to convincingly plant his administration on one side or another of the Arab Spring. America’s support for dozens of right wing dictators in the late 20th century is as true as it must be shocking to hardcore American exceptionalists; this country has a history not of supporting freedom around the world but of supporting stable, pro-American dictators and tyrants who on many occasions have murdered their own citizens. Nonetheless, America likes to think it can do better, and while the State Department will forever be cautious of revolution, the Arab Spring and whatever comes next is the ideal opportunity for Obama and this country to actually stand on the side of freedom. He did so slowly and inconsistently his first term; in Obama’s next trip to the Middle East, he should concretely reaffirm America’s commitment to freedom anywhere and everywhere, and should declare that from this day on America’s poor performance during the previous uprisings will be replaced with a forward-looking approach that recognizes the benefit of enabling democracy to grow in the Middle East.

There will surely be a lot else that comes by Obama’s desk in the next four years. And rightfully, he should spend a good deal of time working on jobs creation and deficit reduction. But Americans cannot forget that there is a greater world order at stake, and they must push the President to act boldly to better this world order. Obama is smart enough to recognize that he cannot fashion China and Russia in America’s image; but if he can construct a potent mix of pragmatism and idealism, of carefulness and vision, he can leave the country that voted for him twice in a stronger, smarter place.