POLICY BRIEF: Middle East Challenges Lie in Wait for the New Team

The Middle East Policy Council convened its 87th Capitol Hill Conference on Wednesday, January 11. “U.S. Commitments in the Middle East: Advice to the Trump Administration” offered viewpoints from veterans of the Obama administration and observers of the incoming Trump one on how President-elect Trump’s worldview might intersect with some of the region’s most pressing foreign policy challenges. The four-person panel had expertise gained from working in various areas of the federal government (the National Security Council, Department of Defense, Department of State and the CIA) including for both President Obama and President George W. Bush.

Richard J. Schmierer (former U.S. Ambassador to Oman; Chairman of the Board of Directors, Middle East Policy Council) moderated the event and Thomas Mattair (Executive Director, Middle East Policy Council) was the discussant. The panelists included Derek Chollet (former Senior Director, NSC); Jake Sullivan (former Senior Policy Advisor, Hillary Clinton for President 2016); Dimitri Simes (President and CEO, Center for the National Interest); and Mary Beth Long (former Assistant Secretary of Defense).

Mr. Chollet explained the recalibration sought by the Obama administration through withdrawing from Iraq, opening dialogue with Iran, resetting relations with the Muslim world, and re-engaging in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. He credited the Obama administration with dispelling the illusion that there is a role for the U.S. in solving every problem in the Middle East. Admittedly, this has led some regional allies to question U.S. commitments and heightened their sense of uncertainty, but Mr. Chollet views the region as in the midst of a broader convulsion that has very little to do with the United States. While acknowledging that changed U.S. relations with Iran have unsettled some regional allies, Mr. Chollet asserted that the Obama administration is leaving a situation in the region that is sustainable and has broad support from the U.S. public.

Mr. Sullivan summarized five hard questions that the Trump administration will be forced to deal with: how to pressure Iran for supporting terrorism or other transgressions without disrupting the framework of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA); how to contain Iranian influence and fight ISIS simultaneously; how to promote Syria’s long-term stability in following Russia’s lead in ending the civil war in the short-term; how to reconcile Trump’s stated admiration for regional strongmen with U.S. democratic values; and how to define Russia’s core interests in the region. He emphasized the contradictions in many of President-elect Trump’s statements on these topics. For example, “tearing up” the Iranian nuclear deal would likely complicate efforts to forge closer ties with Russia, not to mention alienate U.S. allies in Europe.

Mr. Simes offered mostly Russia-focused observations, beginning with a reminder that rhetorical expressions of “admiration” between Putin and Trump mean very little, especially as the original statement Putin made about Trump was somewhat lost in translation and less positive than reported by U.S. media. He suggested that better relations between the two countries should be explored, at a minimum to avoid an unintended nuclear confrontation that could result from poor communication and misread signals. Beyond such a low probability event, better relations might help avoid a strategic nightmare for the United States: Russia and China forming a major coalition working in a coordinated manner against U.S. interests. Ultimately, Russia will seek security guarantees and if it can’t get them from the U.S., it will be more likely to “lash out” through actions that may be more detrimental to U.S. interests.

Ms. Long sees a realignment of interests in the incoming Trump administration, with a more transactional approach guiding the U.S. posture towards Iran, Russia and the conflict in Syria. More specifically, she predicts that the Trump administration will view the region through a domestic lens, and that this may produce some inconsistencies. She stressed that the Middle East is the most violent region globally and the U.S. must remain engaged and reassert its leadership given the power vacuum that she believes has been occupied by Iran and Russia during the Obama administration. Ms. Long also advocated for greater focus on humanitarian crises like Syria’s refugees, for moral reasons and their potential to foment extremism and terrorism.

The full video from the event is available on the Middle East Policy Council website. An edited video by speaker, including a full transcript from the event, will be posted in a few days at www.mepc.org and published in the next issue of the journal Middle East Policy. For members of the media interested in contacting these speakers or other members of the Middle East Policy Council’s leadership, please email mepc.press@gmail.com.

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