Prioritizing the Middle East

Respect and active engagement must start right away.

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Upon entering the Oval Office for the first time, the past 10 American presidents have found a towering inbox of priorities, near the top of which laid a thick, tattered file marked “Middle East.” President Barack Obama will be no exception. On Jan. 20, he will inherit the immediate consequences of the past eight years of a failed policy toward the region. A failed policy marked by rhetoric, hubris and neglect, as well as decades of mishandled diplomacy that has challenged the resourcefulness of many previous leaders.

Expectations for a new approach to the Middle East are exceedingly high. A reorientation of the U.S. strategy that places high priority on active and sustained diplomatic peacemaking with the president’s personal involvement would be a significant step forward. But change will not come easily. Secretary of State-designate Hillary Clinton acknowledged the challenges during her Senate confirmation hearing, yet clearly articulated a different path with an emphasis on diplomacy as the way forward.

The challenges are many. Iraq remains fragile, despite improvements in the political and security situations. A judicious drawdown of American troops should proceed in line with the recently negotiated Status of Forces Agreement. Iran’s position in the region has only strengthened in recent years, as a result of the war in Iraq and revenues from surging oil prices. And there is growing concern over Iran’s capacity to produce significant amounts of nuclear weapon-grade fuel and support to Hamas and Hezbollah. Arab-Israeli peace initiatives with Syria, over the Golan Heights issue, and the Palestinian Authority, have been left to falter.

The fighting between Israel and Hamas in Gaza over the past two weeks exemplifies the limited utility of using military force at the innocent’s dreadful expense. There will be no time to waste. There is a dire need for an immediate ceasefire and diplomatic efforts to get underway.

Jan. 20 cannot come soon enough. When the clock strikes noon on that historic day, the world will be watching and waiting with bated breath for a pronouncement from President Obama on crises in the Middle East. He must quickly give the Palestinians and the Israelis a reason to move away from the battlefield and to the negotiation table.

Obama will set U.S. policy toward the Middle East on the right path by making it a priority early on in his administration, with a view to restoring the credibility and effectiveness of American leadership in the peace process. This demands a return to being an honest broker, capable of drawing on alliances with key international allies and countries in the region such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. On ABC’s This Week on Jan. 12, Obama said it best when he talked of “taking a new approach of engagement…a new emphasis on respect,” particularly when dealing with Iran. He added, “… the reason it's so important for the United States to be engaged and involved immediately, not waiting until the end of their term, is because working through the politics of this requires a third party that everybody has confidence [in], [who] wants to see a fair and just outcome.”

Engagement of this kind will require a renewed, robust and sustained diplomatic effort. Obama’s team of experts in waiting must hit the ground running and outline the framework for ongoing engagement. As Madeleine Albright, former U.S. Secretary of State, noted in her Memo to the President Elect, “diplomacy isn’t a light switch that can be turned on and off; it requires a steady current of contacts, discussions, probes and tests.” The next administration must seek an activist, but lithe strategy that can withstand unanticipated events bound to transform the political landscape and create opportunities for peace. Of course, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will be at the helm of diplomatic efforts. But Obama’s personal participation is essential.

Taking seriously the country’s energy policy is also critical. Obama has proposed a single ambitious goal to, in 10 years, eliminate the need for oil from the entire Middle East and Venezuela. Reducing our dependence on hydrocarbons and pushing for alternative sources of energy will alter the nature of the game both domestically and internationally. For certain, energy policy is foreign policy.

With an upcoming election and a new government not only in Israel, but in Iran, a wounded Hamas and an Iraq becoming a more self-run government in this new year, Obama’s administration will face a reconfigured Middle East. This political change provides the United States an opportunity to create a new process that downplays military force and enhances the leverage of diplomacy as the tool of choice for all parties in the region over the next four years and beyond.

Sundaa Bridgett Jones is a regular contributor to The Root.

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