Next month, both President Barack Obama and newly minted Secretary of State John Kerry head for the Middle East. They should listen to a range of views, see the sights and pause to smell the hummus. Also: Consider a few policy adjustments.
Below is a briefing -- a briefer briefing than they will get from their advisers -- on the state of the states, the players in play and some different approaches to contemplate.
Israel and the Palestinians
The most that is possible now is the resumption of negotiations -- without preconditions. The Israelis are not about to make concessions just to get Palestinians to sit down and talk with them -- especially because
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has violated his obligations under the Oslo Accords by attempting to change the status of the Palestinian territories unilaterally. Meanwhile, Hamas, a terrorist organization whose primary goal is not
Palestinian statehood but Israeli extinction, remains firmly in control of Gaza, from which Israel withdrew in 2005, receiving nothing but rocket attacks in return. Abbas is almost 78, a heavy smoker in poor health. He has designated no successor. When he dies, Hamas will attempt to take over the West Bank as well. Israel will do whatever is necessary to prevent that. Surely, heading off a crisis this predictable should be a priority.
Hezbollah is both Iran's foreign legion and a terrorist organization; its most recent attack on civilians was in July in Bulgaria. Despite that -- or perhaps because of it -- Hezbollah has become the most powerful force in Lebanon. Hezbollah is installing missiles: at least 60,000 so far, not just in the south but throughout the country, including in densely populated areas where Lebanese civilians are being set up as human shields. If these missiles are fired at Haifa, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, thousands of Israelis will be killed. Unless the situation changes, the next war between Hezbollah and Israel -- a war for which momentum is now building -- is likely to be exceedingly bloody. Time to put effort into averting this catastrophe as well?
What started as a peaceful protest against an oppressive dictatorship has turned into a sectarian/religious/ethnic conflict that has taken nearly 70,000 lives -- with no end in sight. Iran and Hezbollah continue strongly backing the Assad regime. Foreign combatants with links to al-Qaida are fighting on the other side. Is it too late to identify and assist factions that share our values and interests so that they will have some clout after Assad falls? The question is worth exploring.
King Abdullah II, a moderate from an Arab clan that traces its ancestry to the Prophet Muhammad, faces enormous challenges. Among them: a flood of Syrian refugees, the rise of Islamism and Iran's regional ambitions. Jordan needs American help and, like all the reasonable actors in the Middle East, benefits from American strength and is endangered by American weakness and retreat.
The government of President Mohamed Morsi now appears intent on establishing a Muslim Brotherhood dictatorship. The good news is that millions of Egyptians are courageously standing up to him. Morsi must be made to understand that American support is not an entitlement. It's true that Morsi has not abrogated the peace treaty with Israel, but that's not because he wants to sing "Kumbaya" with his Jewish neighbors. It's because he's smart enough to know that a war against Israel is not winnable, at least not now.
The 900-pound camel in the Middle Eastern tent. Iran's nuclear weapons program is a threat to the region -- and beyond. Policy recommendations:
1. Continue on the diplomatic track but remember that a bad deal is worse than no deal.
2. Toughen sanctions to the point they cause the collapse of Iran's currency over the next 18 months.
3. Make the American military threat credible.
4. Give Israelis the military capabilities they don't now have. That will allow them to exercise more patience while making Khamanei nervous.
Taken together, such policies would send this message: The world's most threatening regime will be prevented from acquiring the world's most lethal weapons. Ordinary Iranians need to understand: They are suffering for no good reason.
What about Turkey, Iraq, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Tunisia, Libya, Mali, Algeria and Morocco? Leave those for later trips. I'll leave those for later columns.
Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on national security.