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The Upstart Saudi Prince Who’s Throwing Caution to the Winds

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — With the tacit backing of his father, Saudi Arabia’s 32-year-old crown prince (wali al 3ahd) has established himself as the most powerful figure in the Arab world, rushing into confrontations on all sides at once.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the arrest of 11 princes in his royal family and nearly 200 members of the Saudi business elite, and has begun to take power from the kingdom’s conservative clerics.

He has blockaded neighboring Qatar, accused Iran of acts of war and encouraged the resignation of Lebanon’s prime minister. And in Yemen, his armed forces are fighting an Iranian-aligned faction in an intractable war that created a humanitarian crisis.

The crown prince has moved so quickly that American officials and others worry that he is destabilizing the region. Signs of potential blowback are growing.

Investors, nervous about his plans, have been moving money out of the kingdom. Prince Mohammed has sought to counter the capital flight by squeezing detainees and others to surrender assets. He has presented the arrests as a campaign against corruption, but his targets call it a shakedown, and he has turned for advice to a former Egyptian security chief who has been pilloried at home for brutality and graft.

Prince Mohammed’s supporters say he is simply taking the drastic measures needed to turn around the kingdom’s graft-ridden and oil-dependent economy while pushing back against Iranian aggression.

But analysts around the region debate whether the headlong rush might be driven more by a desire to consolidate power before a possible royal succession, desperation for cash to pay for his plans or simply unchecked ambition to put his stamp on the broader Middle East.

And despite President Trump’s enthusiasm for the prince, some in the State Department, the Pentagon and the intelligence agencies say they fear that his impulsiveness could both set back his own goals and destabilize the region.

“He’s decided he doesn’t do anything cautiously,” said Philip Gordon, the White House Middle East coordinator under President Barack Obama. But, Mr. Gordon said, “if the crown prince alienates too many other princes and other pillars of the regime, pursues costly regional conflicts and scares off foreign investors, he could undermine the prospects for the very reforms he is trying to implement.”

The extrajudicial arrests have spooked investors enough, analysts say, to extinguish the prince’s plans for an public stock offering of Aramco, the Saudi state oil company, in New York or London next year. It had been a centerpiece of his overhaul.

Photo

President Trump and King Salman joined Arab leaders for a family photo in Riyadh in May.CreditStephen Crowley/The New York Times

The crown prince’s threats against Iran and Lebanon have raised the specter of wars that the Saudi military, already bogged down in Yemen, is ill-equipped to fight. Riyadh would be forced to depend on the United States and ill-prepared Israel in any new conflict.

His corruption purge at home, meanwhile, risks alienating parts of the royal family and the financial elite at a moment that would appear to demand unity, either to smooth a succession or to face off against Iran.

As many as 17 people detained in the anti-corruption campaign have required medical treatment for abuse by their captors, according to a doctor from the nearest hospital and an American official tracking the situation.

The former Egyptian security chief, Habib el-Adli, said by one of his advisers and a former Egyptian interior minister to be advising Prince Mohammed, earned a reputation for brutality and torture under President Hosni Mubarak. His lawyers say he plans to appeal his recent sentence in absentia in Egypt to seven years in prison on charges of corruption.

Officials of the Saudi Royal Court referred press queries about these reports to the Embassy of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in Washington, where a spokeswoman, Fatimah Baeshen, said the embassy could not confirm or dispute them.

With the decline in the price of oil in recent years, Saudi Arabia has frozen projects and spent more than a third of its financial reserves, draining them to about $475 billion this fall from a peak of $737 billion in August 2014.

At that burn rate, the kingdom has only a few years to lift its revenue or slash its spending to forestall a financial crisis.

Against that backdrop, the prince’s supporters argue that the anti-corruption campaign aims to recapture hundreds of billions of dollars that have leaked from the state budget through graft and self-dealing — money he needs to fund his development plans.

Prince Mohammed had appealed to the kingdom’s wealthy for months to invest in his modernization program. But some groused that his plans — like a new $500 billion business hub “for the dreamers of the world,” built from scratch and fueled entirely by clean energy — were ill-conceived and grandiose, and instead of investing at home they quietly moved their assets abroad.

Now, he is no longer merely asking.

The Saudi government is pressing some of those detained and others still at large to sign over large sums in exchange for better treatment, according to an American official briefed on the crackdown and associates of the royal family. Employees of some of those arrested had been summoned months before to answer questions about their bosses, a sign that the purge was planned well in advance.

A senior Saudi official defending the crackdown said this week that it was meant to show that the old rules of business in the kingdom had changed.

Photo

Prince Mohammed kissing the hand of Prince Mohammed bin Nayef (sacked since then) at the royal palace in Mecca in June. CreditAl-Ekhbariya, via Associated Press

“Corruption is at every level, and there are hundreds of billions of riyals that are lost from the national economy every year,” the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive government matters. “The point here was mainly to shock the system, to send a message that this will not be tolerated anymore and that nobody is immune.”

Corruption has been so endemic for so long — from inflated government contracts for large projects to simple bribes to obtain passports — that countless Saudis have participated. Yet, some princes with reputations for conspicuous corruption appear to have been left alone, raising questions about who is being targeted, and why.

Other signs suggest that Prince Mohammed may also be seeking to thwart perceived rivals.

In June, he and his father stripped the titles of crown prince and interior minister from Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, 58, temporarily confining him to his palace. Admirers of the ousted crown prince were relieved last week when a video surfaced showing him moving freely through a family funeral, receiving kisses on his shoulder in a show of deference and loyalty from a procession of well-wishers.

That display of his continued popularity, however, may have been too much for the younger Prince Mohammed, who the next day ordered the seizure of the former crown prince’s assets, along with those of his wife and daughters, according to two family associates.

Ms. Baeshen, the Saudi embassy spokeswoman, said she could not comment on any potential investigations.

Some American officials suspect that Prince Mohammed may be rushing to lock down the levers of power in anticipation of a formal abdication by his father, King Salman, who scholars and Western officials say could be suffering from dementia.

When President Trump visited Riyadh for a summit meeting last summer, the king remained seated as he struggled to read a prepared statement. His speech was at times weak, halting or slurred. He seldom speaks publicly. Saudi officials, however, insist his mental capacities are sound.

Prince Mohammed’s supporters argue that Saudi Arabia’s recent threats against Iran and Lebanon came in response to provocations beyond his control.

As he was preparing his anti-corruption roundup, they say, Tehran’s allies in Yemen launched an Iranian-made missile in the direction of Riyadh, where it was intercepted over the outskirts of the city (the damage shown by videos prove otherwise).

The Lebanese prime minister, Saad Hariri, resigned his position the same day with a televised speech from Riyadh that accused Iran and its Lebanese client Hezbollah of sowing “discord, devastation and destruction” in the region.

But many, including current and former American diplomats, say Prince Mohammed’s boldness also reflects his conviction that he has the support of Mr. Trump.

Photo

Mr. Trump meeting with Prince Mohammed, center, in the Oval Office in March.CreditStephen Crowley/The New York Times

Even in the last days of the Obama administration, another Persian Gulf royal who had already forged deep ties around Washington, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan of Abu Dhabi began to promote his Saudi counterpart to the incoming Trump team as a useful ally. Both princes appear to have formed a particular bond with Jared Kushner, Mr. Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, who at 36 is a contemporary of the young Saudi prince.

Mr. Trump chose Saudi Arabia for the first foreign trip of his presidency, and Prince Mohammed and Mr. Kushner have built such a strong rapport that other American officials say they are not briefed on what the two discuss.

“Jared is a bit of a black hole,” said one State Department official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss frustration with the White House. “There is no sense of the positions he has advocated. We can only guess, based on what he has done and where he has been.”

The official added: “The Emiratis and the Saudis have been very careful to cultivate him and bring him along” toward their “confrontational posture in the region.”

A White House official who also insisted on anonymity disputed the characterization of Mr. Kushner, saying he regularly briefed the State Department and National Security Council on his trips and conversations.

Mr. Kushner made his third visit to the kingdom this year ( and many to Israel)— this time unannounced until his return to Washington — in late October, when American officials say he stayed up late talking with Prince Mohammed at his ranch.

The sweep of arrests unfolded days later, and Mr. Trump was quick to applaud, although several White House officials said the Saudis gave Mr. Kushner no heads up on what was about to take place.

“I have great confidence in King Salman and the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, they know exactly what they are doing,” President Trump said on Twitter after the arrests had begun. “Some of those they are harshly treating have been ‘milking’ their country for years.”

Ms. Baeshen, the embassy spokeswoman, said that Saudi Arabia and the United States “enjoy a wide range of cooperative discussions” but that “domestic affairs are just that: domestic affairs.”

The State Department official, though, said that its diplomats, the Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency all felt “growing alarm” that Prince Mohammed “is behaving recklessly without sufficient consideration to the likely consequences of his behavior, and that has the potential to damage U.S. interests.”

Is the Middle East Falling Apart to a point of no return?

Warning:  All points that the US/Israel/England strategy in the Middle-East is mainly focused on dismembering Syria, the most strategic State in the Middle-East facing Israel expansionist policies.

If the strategy of weakening the current Syrian State institutions materializes,  then Jordan will fall, the Palestinians will start their 5th Intifada, all the Israeli colonies bordering Jordan will be reoccupied by Palestinians living in Jordan, Saudi monarchy will disappear, Egypt will face a long period of instability and Europe will brace itself for a long period of terror and instability.

Philip Gordon,  senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington DC, published:

As news out of the Middle East goes from bad to worse—the humanitarian disaster in Yemen, Libya’s disintegration, the fall of Ramadi to ISIL, take your pick—the inevitable American tendency, especially in the political season, is to attribute all these developments to U.S. policy choices.

Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in May the United States has “no Middle East Strategy at all,”

The Washington Post editorial page explains the fall of Ramadi not as the result of an Iraqi dynamic but as a consequence of U.S. strategy and Republican candidates are of course tripping over each other to attribute the region’s unraveling to the “weakness” and lack of resolve of the Obama administration.

Negative outcomes certainly require critical examination of policy choices, and no one in their right mind would suggest the outcomes in the Middle East today are anything but negative.

What most of the current critiques have in common are an assumption that U.S. policy is the most relevant variable in explaining what is going on—it’s not—and an utter failure to present an alternative approach that would work.

The harsh reality is that the Middle East today is going through a period of tectonic and destructive change.

If I took away anything from two years as the White House’s coordinator for Middle East policy, it’s that U.S. policy is not the main source of this change and the U.S. has no good options for dealing with it.

Some of the proposed remedies for the region’s woes, such as U.S. military intervention in an effort to “transform” or “remake” the region or simply to impress our foes, would likely make things worse.

This should be clear from the U.S. effort to do so in Iraq just over a decade ago. The lessons of that war seem to have been bizarrely forgotten by many today (though almost all the Republican presidential candidates seem to want to disown the results of the Iraq war while embracing the policy approach that produced it).

Whereas in other fields of human endeavor—take medicine, for example—we seem to accept that there are certain problems and challenges that we did not create and cannot entirely resolve (and that trying to do so sometimes makes things worse), the U.S. policy debate about the Middle East suffers from the fallacy that there is an external, American solution to every problem—even when decades of experience, including recent experience, suggest that this is not the case.

Accepting that the United States is not to blame for, and cannot resolve, every problem in the Middle East is not a prescription for inaction or resignation.

The United States remains the world’s most important power and has unique capabilities that give it an unmatched ability and responsibility to play a key role in a region where critical US interests are at stake.

Unfortunately, we cannot master the historical forces that probably mean the region will be plagued by instability for years or even decades to come.

But we can and should manage this instability as best we can and protect our core interests, which include defending our allies, preventing regional war, keeping sea lanes open, avoiding nuclear proliferation and preventing a terrorist safe haven from which the United States or its allies could be attacked.

Such an approach might not sound like a path to presidential glory and it does not make for much of a campaign bumper sticker.

But it’s both the least and the most we can do. We should know by now that trying to do much more would likely come at great human and financial cost, produce unintended consequences and fail to work.

The Great Unravelling

What explains the historic disorder we’re seeing in the Middle East today?

Four interrelated trends are most relevant.

What we should understand is that the United States is not primarily responsible for any of them and can do little to reverse their course.

The collapse of state authority and erosion of borders.

For nearly 100 years, the modern Middle East has been organized around a state system put in place by the Western powers after the Ottoman Empire collapsed. The borders of new states like Iraq, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon made little sense, but they were internationally recognized, and—for all the new states’ internal tensions—for many decades they remained intact.

These states were relatively stable; they had agreed upon territories (save for some border disputes), flags, anthems, and authoritarian leaders, some of whom (Mubarak, Assad, Saddam Hussein, Gaddafi, Ben Ali, Saleh, etc.) stayed around for a very long time.

That post-Ottoman order is now falling apart—largely due to the consequences of the Arab Spring, when Arab publics finally rose up in protest against this artificial division.

The United States embraced the Arab Spring, but it certainly did not create it, and it had little to do with the democratic trends, rise in political awareness or frustration with the failed governance that led to the revolt.

In that sense I always found it strange when some critics complained about our “throwing Mubarak under the bus,” as if the United States just one day decided to change Egypt’s leadership, or could have prevented it when the Egyptian public decided to do so.

In any case, the result of this revolution has not been the increased freedoms many hoped to see but rather the collapse of state authority and the unraveling of national borders. The state called “Syria” no longer corresponds to its official borders and likely never will again.

A real map of Syria today—like the ones produced on a regular basis for policymakers—would show something more like “Assadistan,” “ISISstan,” “Nusrahstan,” “Kurdistan,” etc., but not a political entity called “Syria.”

The state of Iraq has also essentially broken apart, and Baghdad has little sway in the Kurdish region or in the Sunni-majority Anbar or Ninewa provinces.

The state structures of Libya and Yemen no longer exist and may not ever be put back together again.

This particular trend is captured well in an only slightly exaggerated recent headline in The Onion: “Everyone in Middle East Given Own Country in 317,000,000-state solution.” We’re not there yet. But as much as we can and should try to avoid it, it’s now more likely that other states will collapse than it is that the now-broken states will be put back together again.

The Sunni-Shia split.

The Sunni-Shia split is hardly a new trend—it’s been going on since the 7th century, when the Prophet Mohammad’s followers failed to agree on his rightful successor. Nor it is necessarily worse than ever—the tensions today still fall short of periods like the late 18th century, when Wahhabi tribes from the Arabian Peninsula were sacking Shia cities like Kerbala and Najaf in today’s Iraq.

But there is no question that this historic phenomenon that has risen and fallen in intensity over the years has entered a new and particularly dangerous phase. The latest escalation started with the 1979 revolution in Iran and the subsequent Iran-Iraq war, but it was given its real near-term emphasis by the 2003 Iraq war, which put the majority Shia back in charge in Baghdad and thus tipped the sectarian balance in the region.

(Ironically, this was one of the few major trends we did have a major role in producing.) By doing so, it both spurred and allowed the development of extremist ­Sunni groups like al-Qaeda in Iraq and its successor ISIL, whose attacks on Shia only reinforce this literally vicious circle.

The Arab Spring in 2011, and the collapse in state authority it produced, further exacerbated sectarianism: As insecurity rose in the post-authoritarian chaos, people have gravitated to their kin—producing the horrible sectarian violence we now see in Syria, Iraq and Yemen.

The growing Sunni-Shia divide—and the growing Sunni fear of Shia Iran—is summed up by the narrative heard by any traveler to parts of the Sunni world that Iran and the Shia now control “four Arab capitals”—Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut and Sana’a—and are looking to control more.

The narrative is exaggerated (The Sunnis have not called the shots in Damascus and Beirut for a long time) but reflects a genuine fear of Iranian (Shia) hegemony, that the Sunnis are determined to resist—as we see in the Sunni coalitions now at war directly or indirectly in Syria, Iraq and Yemen.

The Saudi-led intervention in Yemen—supported (rhetorically) by all the Sunni states in the region—is best seen not as a plan to bring peace to Yemen but simply to put down a marker to Iran. The Sunni world will not tolerate further Shia encroachment in the region.

The Sunni-Sunni Split.

Most of the focus in the region has understandably been on the real divide between Sunni and Shia, but the Sunni-Sunni split may be just as important.

Al Qaeda, after all, and now ISIL, are Sunni groups who target the Sunni regimes they believe are beholden to the West and not true to Islam.

The Sunni regimes are thus fighting back, including by bombing ISIL in Syria and Libya.

In Sunni countries that do not have large Shia populations, such as Egypt and Jordan, it’s not the “Shia threat” but the Sunni-Sunni split that has leaders and populations worried.

An even more significant Sunni-Sunni split is a growing ideological battle between the region’s Sunni regimes and the Sunni version of political Islam.

The al-Sisi regime in Egypt, for example, backed by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, views the (Sunni) Muslim Brotherhood as a mortal enemy—one it is determined to crush at all costs.

Other Sunni states, however—Turkey and Qatar—are sympathetic to the Brotherhood, and thus entirely at odds with their Sunni brethren in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. They opposed Sisi’s takeover in Egypt (a takeover Turkey still refuses to recognize) and support rival Islamist groups in Libya and Tunisia that the Saudis and Emiratis see as adversaries.

The resulting sets of alliances across the region is thus hugely complicated, but if you’re following this at home: In places divided among Sunni and Shia (like Syria, Iraq or Yemen) the Sunni states (including Turkey and Qatar) all line up in a coalition against the Shia.

But where there are no or few Shia, like in Egypt or Libya, the Sunni harmony breaks down, and the Sunnis are deeply divided amongst themselves.

Because of this, Qatar and Turkey are fighting a sort of cold war with Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE.

In March 2014, those three Gulf countries withdrew their ambassadors from Doha to protest what they considered to be Qatar’s support for threatening Islamist movements, including through Doha’s hosting of the Al Jazeera broadcast network and its support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

The ambassadors have since returned, but deep tensions remain, as do the violent proxy conflicts in Libya and Egypt. Such conflicts are hard enough to manage when there is unity among outside powers or at most an external sectarian divide—they become almost impossible when the Sunni states themselves are divided.

The Collapsing Prospects for Middle East Peace. (It was meant to be collapsing at any cost?)

A fourth trend, different from the others, deserves to be mentioned in any assessment of the current or future Middle East disorder: the fading prospect of peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

For two decades, the goal of both the United States and the parties was a negotiated solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict based on the 1993 Oslo accords. The parties were within reach of an agreement in 2000, close again in 2008, and Secretary of State John Kerry made Herculean efforts last year to try again, but he was unable to close big gaps on all the key issues.

The prospect of a negotiated solution now seems exceedingly remote.

There are now over 350,000 Israeli settlers living in the West Bank and they are dispersed in such a way as to make a contiguous Palestinian state virtually impossible—even setting aside the even more complicated question of East Jerusalem, where Israelis continue to build. Israel has just elected the most right-wing government in its history, made up of parties committed to further settlement growth and in several cases opposed to the very concept of a two-state solution.

Even putting aside the pre-election controversy of his remarks appearing to rule out a two-state solution, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made clear he does not believe there is a chance to negotiate one anytime soon.

On the other side, President Mahmoud Abbas has largely given up on the prospect of a negotiated peace. With his legitimacy in question—for failing to deliver peace, halt Israeli settlement growth or hold a long overdue election—he would be unable to impose an agreement on his people even if he could negotiate one (which he knows he can’t).

Eighty-years-old and with little to lose, Abbas has already begun to pursue international recognition—through membership in the United Nations General Assembly, the International Criminal Court, and other international bodies—as an alternative to pursuing peace negotiations with Israel. And this is to say nothing about Gaza, where last summer’s brutal war—which killed over 2,000 Palestinians and saw indiscriminate rocket and tunnel attacks against Israeli cities—foreshadowed what could still be to come.

The collapse of the Palestinian Authority and a full reoccupation of the West Bank—which is where things seem to be headed—would not only threaten Israel’s future but fuel Arab extremism and further destabilize a region already in free fall.

What the USA Can Do and What We Cannot

A large number of Americans look at these trends and want to give up.

They conclude the region is just too complicated and too dysfunctional, and we should just get out. These feelings came home to me most clearly in the summer of 2013, when the Obama administration proposed using force to respond to Syria’s use of chemical weapons.

For all the talk of the need for bold action or leadership in Congress and among other critics, the overwhelming public—and Congressional—response was an absolute refusal to support even limited strikes. The arguments we heard—and the percentages of people opposed to intervention, as indicated by public polling and reported calls to Congressional offices—were reminiscent of the isolationism of the 1930s.

The mindset was that we tried intervention before, the region is not worth it and we should just stay out.

While the public mood has since shifted somewhat in response to concerns about the threat from ISIL, there is still a strong feeling that any involvement in the Middle East is too much. I understand this view, but it goes too far.

Other Americans take the opposite approach—increasingly so as memories of the 2003 Iraq war recede and the perceived threat from ISIL rises.

These increasingly vocal critics argue that U.S. restraint is part of the problem and call for a more interventionist approach that would include more troops in Iraq, air strikes or even ground forces against Assad in Syria, and potentially the use of force to destroy the Iranian nuclear program.

Just listen to the next forum for Republican presidential candidates—let alone even more hawkish voices like Senators John McCain, Lindsey Graham or the neoconservatives who supported the war in Iraq—and you’ll hear a vigorous appeal for a more “muscular” and interventionist approach.

Given the stakes, the desire to “do something” is understandable but this approach is potentially even more dangerous than walking away.

Only recently, we saw that U.S. interventions in the region (Iraq) can be enormously costly ($1 trillion, 5,000 U.S. lives, half-a-million Iraqi lives and the United States’ global reputation) and only bring unintended consequences—like the exacerbation of the Sunni-Shia divide and the creation of ISIL.

Using force to get rid of Assad is a noble goal and no doubt would remove one real problem—but it would surely create many others, including potentially even more instability and sectarianism in Syria, as well as creating genuine U.S. ownership of the problem.

The notion that limited airstrikes would lead Assad to abandon power—and turn leadership over to moderates—would be a particularly egregious case of placing hope over experience.

When implying the United States can “fix” Middle Eastern problems if only it “gets it right” it is worth considering this: In Iraq, the U.S. intervened and occupied, and the result was a costly disaster.

In Libya, the U.S. intervened and did not occupy, and the result was a costly disaster.

In Syria, the U.S. neither intervened nor occupied, and the result is a costly disaster. This record is worth keeping in mind as we contemplate proposed solutions going forward.

So what to do? There is no simple answer.

There are historic, tectonic changes going on that will take a generation or generations to play out. But this does not mean we can or should give up, either.

I would propose that the United States identify its core interests in the region and focus on goals it (and often only it) can reasonably accomplish.

My list, not in any particular order, would include the following:

1. Deterring regional war and protecting our allies.

We cannot stop civil wars, but we can still prevent inter-state war—and have largely done so successfully for decades.

Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait was the exception that proved the rule—and the decisive U.S. response reinforced deterrence since.

Pulling out our 36,000 troops and major air bases in the region would diminish our ability to do this and make the region safe for major war—which would dwarf in intensity even the current disorder. At the recent Camp David summit with Gulf leaders, President Obama was right to commit to use all elements of our power to protect our partners against external aggression. And this commitment obviously applies to Israel as well; whatever our differences over Iran and the peace process, the U.S. commitment to Israel’s security and “qualitative military edge” helps to prevent intra-state conflict.

2. Keep sea lanes open.

We must also maintain our military presence in the region and commitment to preserve commercial freedom. More than 20 percent of the world’s oil supply (and more than 30 percent of oil shipped by sea) passes through the Strait of Hormuz, which without American military power would be under constant threat. Even with growing U.S. energy independence, the fungibility of global energy markets means a closure of Middle East sea-lanes would have a devastating impact on the U.S. economy. Only the United States has the power to do this, and it should do so out of self-interest and collective interest as well.

3. Preventing nuclear proliferation.

As bad as things are in the region, they would be unimaginably worse if multiple countries, or even one (Iran) had nuclear weapons. If Iran got a nuclear weapon others in the region would likely eventually move in that direction as well, increasing the possibility of an actual nuclear war.

Even an Iranian nuclear weapon alone would be a threat, not because Tehran is likely crazy enough to actually use it, but because our ability to contain and deter Iranian aggression in the region would be severely limited if Iran had a nuclear deterrent. The best way to achieve this goal—as I have written previously in POLITICO—is the sort of long-term, verifiable agreement blocking all of Iran’s pathways to a bomb.

4. Preventing a terrorist safe haven.

We cannot kill or capture every terrorist in the Middle East. But we can and must prevent the creation of a terrorist safe haven from which terrorists could plot and execute mass-destruction attacks against the United States and its allies.

That is why the United States is right to be leading a coalition and conducting airstrikes (which it has an unparalleled ability to do) against ISIL in both Syria and Iraq, while also working to cut off the group’s finances, discredit its ideology, stop foreign fighters and bolster the Iraqi government.

Critics are right to say our ability to destroy ISIL is limited by the lack of U.S. or other ground forces, but they don’t explain how the presence of such forces would work out any better than they did when we went into Iraq.

We also need to bolster regional partners—Jordan, Tunisia, the Gulf States—that are at risk from ISIL and can be more effective partners in the fight against it. If the breeding ground for terrorism is fertile due to ineffective, unresponsive and corrupt governance, all the military force in the world will not contain it.

5. Avoiding Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The United States has an interest in a stable and secure Israel and a stable and secure Palestinian state. While we can do little immediately to bring about a two-state solution, we should at least try to preserve its prospects for when conditions might be ripe.

That might mean supporting a U.N. Security Council resolution with balanced and fair parameters for a diplomatic solution.

It certainly means trying to preserve the viability of a Palestinian entity that eschews violence, recognizes Israel and respects past agreements, as well as trying to persuade Israel—its public, if the current government is out of reach—that there is no way it can remain a secure Jewish and democratic state—at peace with its neighbors—if it tries to govern the millions of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank.

This may not seem like an ambitious or particularly glorious list. It is not a “silver bullet” and will never sound as compelling a promise to “transform” or “remake” the Middle East. But, for all of the reasons explained above, the Middle East disorder is likely to persist for years and decades to come.

We can’t make that reality go away, but we can preserve our core interests, try to contain and limit the damage, avoid missteps that would lead to unintended consequences and harbor our precious human, military and financial resources for strength at home and other great challenges abroad. A focus on core U.S. interests is not a perfect solution for the Middle East—but it is better than all the alternatives.

Philip Gordon is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington DC.
From 2013-15 he was Special Assistant to the President and White House Coordinator for the Middle East North Africa and the Gulf Region.
As the most senior White House official focused on the greater middle east, his responsibilities included the Iranian nuclear program, Middle East peace negotiations, the conflicts in Syria and Iraq, US relations with the Gulf States, Democratic transitions in North Africa and bilateral relations with Israel, Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon. 
Andrew Bossone and Erin Cunningham shared this link
  
June 8, 2015

As news out of the Middle East goes from bad to worse—the humanitarian disaster in Yemen, Libya’s disintegration, the fall of Ramadi to ISIL, take your pick—the inevitable American tendency, especially in the political season, is to attribute all…
politico.com|By Philip Gordon

Read more: http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2015/06/america-not-to-blame-for-middle-east-falling-apart-118611.html#ixzz3cg6bGGhi


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