Your email is not valid
Recipient's email is not valid
Submit Close

Your email has been sent.

Click here to send another

America’s Future in the Mideast

Thomas Friedman, Elliott Abrams, Walter Russell Mead, and Aaron David Miller advise the next president

Print Email
(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photos Getty Images and Kaveh Sardari/Council on Foreign Relations)

When Barack Obama took office four years ago, the United States was fully engaged in two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; strongmen sympathetic to the United States ruled Egypt and Tunisia; and Bashar al-Assad’s Syria was the standard-bearer of resistance to Israel and the United States. Now, at the end of Obama’s first term, U.S. troops are out of Iraq and on their way out of Afghanistan. Iran, on the brink of acquiring nuclear weapons, is filling the vacuum the American exit from both countries leaves behind. In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, Tunisia and Egypt are ruled by Islamist parties; Syria is torn by sectarian conflict that threatens the Assad regime; and Libya, in spite of free elections that brought a non-Islamist party to power, is still up for grabs.

The region is in a state of flux perhaps more volatile than it has been since the end of the Ottoman empire—and in some cases, the situation is more hopeful than ever. Politicians, militiamen, journalists, liberal activists, jihadis, Muslims, Christians, and Jews across the region are intently focused on the upcoming presidential election: They know that the outcome may play a large role in determining their future. Would a President Romney take military action against Iran’s nuclear weapons program in his first year in office? Would President Obama, secure in his second term, push hard on the peace process, determined to secure a negotiated agreement between Israelis and Palestinians as part of his historical legacy? What about Syria? Would either candidate step up and support the rebels intent on bringing down Assad?

This week, we asked four leading thinkers what Mideast policies the next American president should prioritize. Aaron David Miller, now a distinguished scholar at the Wilson Center, has served six secretaries of state as an adviser and negotiator on Middle Eastern issues. Walter Russell Mead, a top foreign-policy expert, blogs at Via Media and is the author of Power, Terror, Peace, and War: America’s Grand Strategy in a World at Risk. Elliott Abrams, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, is a former deputy national security adviser to George W. Bush. Thomas Friedman is the foreign-policy columnist for the New York Times.

Aaron David Miller:

Our predicament in the Middle East issues from the fact that the regional agendas of the Israelis, Palestinians, Iranians, and others are in conflict with ours, and our capacity to shape decisions is fundamentally constrained.

We’ve largely failed at war-making and peace-making over the past 20 years. Today we’re extricating ourselves from the two longest and among the most pointless wars in our history. So, an appropriate question should be: When and how do we project power in a region that we can neither fix nor leave? How do we pick our spots?

The Obama Administration killed Osama Bin Laden, has conducted a tough and effective counter-terrorism policy, and carried out a sound approach to get rid of Muammar Qaddafi, so it’s unfortunate that the administration’s competence is now being questioned because of the way it handled the security threat at the U.S. embassy in Benghazi.

Our street credibility under Obama is as low as I have ever seen it.

The last time we had a serious and compelling foreign policy in this country was under Bush 41. We ended up succeeding in war- and peace-making. Bush and James Baker pursued a limited and successful war in pushing Saddam out of Kuwait and got everyone else to pay for the campaign. Then we moved on to peace-making with the Madrid conference. It was effective and successful, and as a result American prestige was at an all-time high. From there it proceeded to diminish. Now we are neither feared nor respected nor admired in that part of the world. Our street credibility under Obama is as low as I have ever seen it.

I remember what Bill Clinton said to us before we went to the Camp David summit and how inspired I was: Trying and failing is better than not trying at all. But this is a better slogan for a high-school football team, not for the world’s greatest power. Success is the world’s most compelling ideology.

Walter Russell Mead:

I think Syria is the focus of everything going on in the Middle East right now. If U.S. policymakers really want to change the calculations in Iran, the fate of Syria will change thinking in Tehran more than anything that is likely to happen with the sanctions leveled against them. This is a way of confronting Iran that might put it in a position in which its leaders are more interested in compromise.

Iran’s regional strategy is two-pronged. It’s based first on the notion of the Shia crescent, including Iraq, Syria, and Hezbollah in Lebanon. With those in place, Iran becomes a major player in the region—not a peripheral figure trying to force its way in, but one with a comfortable place on a nice couch right in the living room. Knock Syria out of the equation, and Hezbollah’s position in Lebanon is adjusted, while Sunnis in Iraq will start pushing for a new deal where they get more power. Taking Syria out of the Shia crescent brings Iran’s frontier much closer to Tehran.

Second, Iran is attempting to replace the Sunni-Shia sectarian conflict with resistance to America and Israel as the dominant political narrative in the Middle East. The ongoing civil war in Syria, whatever else it has done, has made this idea much harder to sustain. For instance, it’s forced Hamas to look for support from Turkey and Egypt rather than Iran, which weakens Iran’s narrative about the united front of Islamic resistance.

The longer this conflict drags on in Syria, the more destructive it will become, and bad actors, like Sunni jihadists, will become more powerful. I don’t advocate U.S. military intervention but do think we should look for ways to bring this conflict to an end by supporting the best elements in the resistance—not only because of the effect on Syria itself, but as a way of promoting a positive outcome for American interests with respect to the confrontation with Iran.

We don’t really know, but the Iranians seem not to be totally opposed to some sort of accommodation with Washington. Up until now the price they’ve wanted is so ridiculously high that serious discussions have seemed beyond reach. But if Iran is knocked back in Syria, perhaps the grand bargain with Tehran that some people talk about might really become a possibility.

Thomas Friedman:

Regarding Iran, the Iranian currency has taken a sharp dive, which suggests that sanctions are working. We should be patient and give the sanctions more time to work, because ultimately the goal there is regime change. There is nothing like a 50 percent devaluation to get the regime to think differently about its nuclear strategy.

The peace process seems to be stuck right now, and it gives me a headache just to think about it. If there is a breakthrough, it will be because of something the Israelis and Palestinians do—not because of something we do.

As for Syria, I’m for the United States getting together with Russia much more energetically to find a balanced way to secure the interests of the Alawite minority, as well as other minorities, and the Sunni-majority opposition. What we’re seeing in Syria is an attempt to reverse a longstanding political order, and different sides seem to need to test each other’s power. Both sides seem to recognize that neither has the power to assert its will entirely.

The challenge with Syria, as with all such low-trust societies, is that you need a midwife to manage any transition from one power structure to another. It’s the role we played in Iraq, very imperfectly and with plenty of mistakes, but I don’t see anyone stepping up to play that role in Syria today. So, it seems like a good time for a much more aggressive approach to Russia, which has been the acting lawyer for the Assad regime. Maybe a negotiated deal is not possible, but it’s time for more energetic efforts.

Most importantly, the big thing is nurturing the next phase of the Arab awakening. The United States needs to start a race to the top in the Middle East, incentivizing creative approaches in modern education and modern democratic institution-building. Now that we have finished the fun part—bringing down nasty dictators—here’s where the really difficult part begins, in building a new model for consensual politics. And we should be thinking of innovative ways to abet that process so if people choose an Islamist government, they’ll opt for a model that looks more like Turkey than the Taliban; and if the government they choose is secular, it won’t be a return to dictatorships, but will be based on some form of consensual governance, with regular rotations in power and an independent judiciary.

Elliott Abrams:

There are three major issues. The first is that both Arabs and Israelis feel there is an alarming American passivity and want to see the United States play a much stronger role. I think this begins in Syria, which is the most serious case of American inaction. We need to have a policy that gets Assad out as soon as possible and strikes a blow against Iran and Hezbollah and eliminates the vacuum—which jihadists are now filling—by providing serious American leadership.

Then there is the Iranian nuclear arms program. We are not achieving what we need to by increasing sanctions on Iran. The problem is that there is no clear connection between the sanctions and how they might be affecting the Iranian economy and the regime’s decisions with respect to the nuclear program. We should stop squabbling with the Israelis in public and instead make it clear that there will be a devastating military strike unless Iran gives up its nuclear weapons program. The Iranian regime simply does not believe that now.

The third issue is more general. The administration is indicating that it believes the Muslim Brotherhood is the wave of the future. It has adopted a policy that Arab moderates, liberals, and secularists see as accommodationist with the Brotherhood. This explains Secretary Clinton’s reception in Cairo, where in July she was snubbed by liberals and leaders from the Coptic community.

I think their perception is correct and the administration’s accommodationist policy should be abandoned. First, it’s a misreading of the region. The election results in Libya and Egypt show that a lot of people don’t want Islamist governments. In Libya the Islamists lost, and in Egypt Ahmed Shafiq lost by a very small percentage of the vote. Islamism may be the future, but that remains to be decided by Arab populations—and many Arabs will resist such an outcome. They deserve such help as we can give and will be useful. Second, the kinds of societies and international policies that are best for the United States are not those the Brotherhood wishes to promote and achieve. We need a policy that supports our interests as well as our principles in the region.


Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.

Print Email

Daily rate: $2
Monthly rate: $18
Yearly rate: $180

Tablet is committed to bringing you the best, smartest, most enlightening and entertaining reporting and writing on Jewish life, all free of charge. We take pride in our community of readers, and are thrilled that you choose to engage with us in a way that is both thoughtful and thought-provoking. But the Internet, for all of its wonders, poses challenges to civilized and constructive discussion, allowing vocal—and, often, anonymous—minorities to drag it down with invective (and worse). Starting today, then, we are asking people who'd like to post comments on the site to pay a nominal fee—less a paywall than a gesture of your own commitment to the cause of great conversation. All proceeds go to helping us bring you the ambitious journalism that brought you here in the first place.

Readers can still interact with us free of charge via Facebook, Twitter, and our other social media channels, or write to us at Each week, we’ll select the best letters and publish them in a new letters to the editor feature on the Scroll.

We hope this new largely symbolic measure will help us create a more pleasant and cultivated environment for all of our readers, and, as always, we thank you deeply for your support.

I am surprised that Thomas Friedman was asked to contribute to this symposium. He has been a long – time distorter of the actual situation in the Arab- Israeli conflict. And his consistent antagonism toward the Israeli Government and especially toward Prime Minister Netanyahu have been evidence of an ugly unfairness toward the Jewish state. His continuing to ignore the fact that there is not so much an ‘Arab Spring’ as an ‘Islamic Brotherhood takeover’ in countries throughout the Middle East shows again his bias and poor perception of the realities of the ground. I agree with Walter Russell Mead about the Syrian situation being one of the keys to Iran’s power drive in the Middle East. I agree with Aaron Miller about the largely wasted efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and about the worsening of conditions for at any kind of Peace at the moment. I do not think anyone here however has really given a prescription for the correct ways the U.S. must act in a whole complex of situations. One point should have been underlined. The U.S. must somehow prevent Iran from becoming a Nuclear power and succeed in getting some real supervision on Pakistani nuclear arsenal. This latter goal may be unachievable and the U.S. failures in regard to Pakistan are one of the great unwritten stories of American Foreign Policy from the Clinton Administration through the present.

    Shalom is 100% correct. How can Thomas Friedman be a contributor. All his columns are continually expousing his Anti-Bibi venom which includes his inequitable Bias against most of Israel Domestic and Forign Policy’s
    Harry Guttman

      Domestic and foreign policy a la Bibi fairly difficult to defend don’t you think?

      Domestic and foreign policy a la Bibi fairly difficult to defend don’t you think?

        LtcHoward says:

        I agree with all the negative comments about Tom Friedman. From his early days at Brandeis he has not changed. I find that if the left would not be so active in undercutting Bibi, he would be much more effective. I am amazed at American liberals and Israeli liberals and how little they understand the Middle East. My main source of information comes from Arabs. They understand and express those views of contempt for the soft liberals as costing many hundreds of Muslim and Jewish lives.

At least Abrams has his head on straight. The others just want more of the same failed policies of the last 20+ years.

fred capio says:

every single comment is completely useless and the worst is friedman…..

herbcaen says:

Thomas Friedmann has been thoroughly discredited as an expert in the Middle East. First, not a single prediction of Friedmann has turned out to be correct. Second, his columns in the New York Times have crossed the lines into plain anti-Semitism, and could be transposed upon similar writings in White supremacist literature on Jews. I believe that the expertise of Friedmann is no greater than that of David Duke, and probably not much difference in opinions either. Aaron David Miller is also a hasbeen, but is not as virulent as Friedmann. I hope that one day, Israel bars entry to Friedmann as it has to Norman Finkelstein and other professional Israel haters

    Hershl says:

    Friedman is a traitor to his people, a professional haus jude, who uses his NYTimes column to curse Israel every chance he gets. When it comes to sheer chutzpah, Friedman gets first prize. Evil incarnate.

    LtcHoward says:

    One of the major concerns I had with Aaron David Miller was his firm belief of tough love for Israel when he did not recommend cracking down on Palestinian incitement. He supported Robert Malley in his contacts with Hamas (which were communicated to Hezbollah) which basically told Hamas to act against Israel below a certain threshold. This gave Hamas the green light to fire rockets or missiles against Israel.

Beatrix17 says:

On the evening news was a story of our soldiers in
Afghanistan hiding behind huge boulders and only allowing the two
Afghani commanders into their post because Americans are being
slaughtered by Afghani soldiers who are supposed to be allies.

Going into Iraq to rid the country of a bad man (who
had invaded Kuwait) and his two crazy sons made more sense than
going into primitive Afghanistan, which did nothing to us except to
inadvertently allow a group of madmen into their country whose goals
they couldn’t have guessed.

Mubarak, a dictator, was nevertheless an ally for 30
years. We did nothing to assure his safe passage out of Egypt as
Carter at least did with the Shah. We are allowing him to be tried
and to eventually face hanging.

Qaddafi, a terrible man, who was nevertheless an ally
at the end, was slaughtered by the rebels.

Obama lacks sophistication, and for all their
craziness, Mideastern leaders are sophisticated. The only one who
cares what we think is Netanyahu.

    Yaw Mandy says:

    I like your post but totally disagreed with you about going to Afghanistan. What was the alternative-remember Bush gave the Talibans ample time to handover Osama?

      Beatrix17 says:

      You’re right. But as I said before, it was too
      much—a huge 20th century war for a 21st
      century terrorist strike. Yet, I understand. It was just 2001 and
      Bush’s only precedent was Pearl Harbor. Americans would have been
      very angry if we’d been attacked and Bush hadn’t fought back

julis123 says:

Its too bad that you trot out the usual gang of “experts” who are known for being mostly wrong about things connected with the Middle East. Why not speak to somebody with a proven track record like Barry Rubin?

Thomas Friedman is anti Israel, and more so anti Netanyahu.. he should never be included in any discussion about Israel.

Nat Ben Zimri says:

I take great comfort in the fact that our great US of A has a staunch ally in the Middle East called Israel. Israel has sometimes been called the largest aircraft carrier in our fleet. And for good reason. While the whole Mideast region radicalizes and boils over in anti-USA violence and hatred, we can always count on Israel for a safe landing, to represent our real interests and to be our only true friend in this region that hates the West more and more with each passing day. We both share the same Judeo-Christian values. We are both democracies. We are both proud countries that respect human life, human rights and freedoms of all kinds. We are both the West. Like it or not, we need Israel perhaps as much as Israel needs us. I dare say maybe even more. That’s why I am more than a bit concerned about our government’s misguided foreign policy towards Israel. It seems that far from supporting her as we should be, we’re throwing her under a bus. We appease her enemies. We disrespect her prime minister. And most disturbingly, we try to push through what’s euphemistically called the “Two State Solution” to the Israel-Palestinian issue.
This Two State Solution is bad for Israel – no, it’s deadly for Israel. It’s deadly because if this “solution” is crammed down Israel’s throat (which is what Obama is trying to do right now), then Israel will be forced to surrender her most important strategic asset – the high ground – and will be left defenseless. She’ll be left to swim in a pool full of sharks without a harpoon. Don’t believe me? Take a look at the following website for an explanation. The pictures that you’ll see herein don’t lie. They make a convincing argument why Israel must never agree to this trap called the “Two State Solution”. A vote for Obama is a vote for Israel’s demise.
Click here:


Your comment may be no longer than 2,000 characters, approximately 400 words. HTML tags are not permitted, nor are more than two URLs per comment. We reserve the right to delete inappropriate comments.

Thank You!

Thank you for subscribing to the Tablet Magazine Daily Digest.
Please tell us about you.

America’s Future in the Mideast

Thomas Friedman, Elliott Abrams, Walter Russell Mead, and Aaron David Miller advise the next president