The Stakes Have Never Been Higher: The Need to Debate U.S. Mideast Policy in the 2008 Election

I’m writing from Los Angeles, where I have come to speak to the World Affairs Council. This is the beginning of a national lecture tour which I call "The Stakes Have Never Been Higher: The Need to Debate U.S. Middle East Policy In the 2008 Election."

I have been doing this every four years, since the 1984 election. In 2004, for example, my lecture was entitled "The Mess We’re In: How Our Leaders Failed Us in the Middle East" . In that talk I noted that, despite our deep investment and involvement in the Middle East, because we didn’t understand the region’s history or its requirements, and because our policy decisions were too often distorted by political considerations and ideology, we had dug a deep hole for ourselves in the Arab world.

  • We were ground down in a war in Iraq, not understanding what went wrong;
  • We had neglected a failed Middle East peace process, with tragic consequences;
  • We were increasingly disliked and mistrusted throughout the region, and, as a result;
  • We had placed at risk important allies and interests.

I argued then that we needed a national debate on our policy, and needed to change direction. This we did not do. And the last four years have only served to compound the tragedies in the region, digging deeper the hole we’re in.

Beginning in 2005, accelerating in the especially tragic year of 2006, and continuing on to today, the following characterize the regional situation:

  • Al-Qa’ida and the Taliban, instead of being defeated, have reemerged, threatening Afghanistan and Pakistan. Al-Qa’ida, itself, has metastasized, spreading into Iraq, other parts of the Middle East and North Africa, and Western Europe.
  • The Palestinian situation, which many keep saying "can’t get worse", did. Palestinians are today physically and ideologically divided, encapsulated by a strangling occupation.
  • Lebanon saw its Prime Minister and many of its leaders assassinated; and despite the removal of Syrian forces from the country, it remains deeply divided, having endured a devastating war and internal political paralysis. It is a tinderbox waiting to ignite.
  • Iraq, though somewhat calmer, remains a time bomb which can explode anew into a not only internal, but also regional conflict. Parts of the country have been ethnically cleansed, and are under the control of ethnic, sectarian or ideological groups which are nowhere near to making the concessions needed to achieve national reconciliation.
  • Iran and allied extremist groups have been emboldened, threatening Iraq, the Gulf, and countries across the Middle East.
  • Anti-American attitudes have hardened and deepened, putting at risk both our allies and interests.

This, sadly, is where we find ourselves today.

The bottom line here is that the dangers have never been so pronounced, the challenges have never been as great, and the stakes have never been higher. The question, of course, that Americans face in this election is, do we "stay the course," digging in deeper and ignoring failed policies and their consequences; or do we change direction and find a way forward? If the latter is to be the option, it will only come about because an informed public demands it of our leadership.

And so, as I begin my national tour, I am challenging audiences to better understand the region, embrace thoughtful solutions, and reject failed formulas. Toward that end, I recommend efforts like that proposed by the Iraq Study Group or the recently released U.S. Institute for Peace report – "Negotiating Arab-Israeli Peace: American Leadership in the Middle East."

It is important to note that in this election year not only a president but a third of the Senate and the entire Congress will be elected. None should be given a pass. Candidates should be questioned, in depth, as to the direction in which they will lead America over the next four years, and the discussion should be broader than the narrowly-focused fetishes of the national press.

We must know more than whether they will stay in or how quickly they will leave Iraq; whether or not they will talk to Iran; more than whether they’ll renounce or reject (or both) Louis Farrakhan; and more than how strongly they’ll support Israel. The problems are more complex and require more thoughtful discussion.

The questions include, but are not limited to:

  • How will we contribute to moving Lebanon away from paralysis toward national reconciliation and reform?
  • Will we reject the illusion of a "military victory" in Iraq and, if we leave Iraq, will we do so responsibly in a manner that creates regional stability and internal reconciliation?
  • How will we effectively use American diplomacy to advance and complete a peace process that brings about the security of Israel and justice for the Palestinians?
  • How will we restore American standing and values, rebuilding our relationships in a manner that allows us to better combat extremism and help the region move toward progress and reform?

All of this can be done, but will only occur, I remind my audience, if the American people demand it.