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For 60 years, Republican presidents have waged war in the Middle East, and Democratic ones have sought peace. Yet neither has been successful. Why the next president needs neo-regionalism.

By Steven Spiegel

Tagged Foreign PolicyMiddle East

The Middle East is unraveling, in part because it is returning to its roots of communitarian conflict. In the last great cascade of crises, during the 1980s, the Iran-Iraq war was raging, Lebanon was in civil war, and the Israelis and Palestinians were fighting in Lebanon. Today’s situation is much worse: Iraq is ablaze, Iran has political momentum, Lebanon is again imploding, the Israeli-Palestinian scene is mired in a decade of unprecedented violence (first between the two sides and now primarily among Palestinians), the region has become a base of terrorism and a breeding ground for weapons of mass destruction (WMD), and extremism seems to gain from every American misstep. In looking at how to handle this potentially catastrophic combination, what can we learn from previous presidents’ Middle East strategies–and can this analysis help pave the way to a more secure and stable future?

In the 60 years since the United States first became heavily
involved in the Middle East, American presidents have been remarkably
consistent in the overarching strategies with which they approach the
region. There are essentially three different strategies: global,
local, and regional. These are, of course, ideal types; no president
ever pursues one strategy consistently all the time. Nevertheless, in
every administration, one prevails above the others. Moreover, the
choice of strategy divides remarkably along party lines. Most
Republicans, including the current president, have been visionaries,
applying global perspectives onto regional dynamics. Others, all
Democrats, have been repairmen, seeking to solve local problems but
failing to look at the big picture–global or regional. In the Middle
East, at least, Republicans have viewed the area in relation to
American concerns everywhere (whether the Cold War, energy, terrorism,
or weapons proliferation, for example); one vision fitting all of the
world’s dilemmas seems to help these presidents assess the world and
address its problems in a unified and coherent manner. Democrats, on
the other hand, seem to understand that one vision cannot fit every
problem. They are ready to take the time and devote the effort to
design policies that solve problems. Resolving paramount challenges one
by one suits their pragmatic conception of how to maneuver within the
international arena.

Interestingly, America has never gone to war in the Middle East
under a president pursuing a localist strategy, while the only
globalists who did not intervene militarily were the Richard
Nixon/Gerald Ford tandem (Nixon refused to invade the Arab states
embargoing American oil after the October 1973 war and instead pursued
a proto-form of tactical localism). Similarly, all Arab-Israeli peace
treaties have taken place under localists (except for the disengagement
agreements under Nixon and Ford, and these could hardly be compared in
importance to the Egyptian and Jordanian peace treaties, or even Oslo
in its time). Why, then, do Republicans wage wars in the Middle East,
while Democrats wage peace? And does the answer recommend one strategy
over the other?

When a president has a global conception of how the Middle East
should be approached, each issue has worldwide implications that raise
the stakes and hence make the use of force more justifiable (e.g.,
Iraq). On the other hand, a local focus allows a president to devote
more time and resources to a particular issue, which increases the
chances of a peaceful resolution of that specific problem. But these
are theoretical merits; on the ground, in recent years, both strategies
have failed. Clinton, after enormous effort, could not achieve an
Israeli-Palestinian or Israeli-Syrian agreement, and, in his laser-like
focus on these two matters, he allowed the situation in both Iraq and
Iran to deteriorate. Conversely, like all but one of his GOP
forbearers, George W. Bush relied on big-picture objectives of fighting
a war on terrorism and proliferation while spreading democracy, and
today we are suffering the consequences.

What’s more, both globalism and localism may well be outdated after
the attacks of September 11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq,
developments that have created a worrisome interconnectedness of
regional crises. The current administration has demonstrated the danger
of “big picture” approaches that avoid dealing with stark local
realities. But given the number of crises in the region, it is also
more difficult than ever to focus enormous attention on a single
problem in the area at the expense of others.

Fortunately, globalism and localism are not the only choices
American presidents face. The third option is regionalism: devising
policy in terms of the region itself and drawing connections among the
various problems of the area. But, despite its utility and relevance,
only the George H.W. Bush Administration tried such an approach, an
incipient regionalism that it applied unevenly. A truly complex
regionalism, one that moves beyond a simple “best of both worlds”
combination of localism and globalism, has never really been pursued.

This neo-regionalism would entail looking at the Middle East in its
entirety and asking how to address threats and opportunities within the
region, how they affect one another, how they may exacerbate or help
one another, and how policies can ameliorate conditions in the region
in ways that enhance American interests. Rather than being simply a
midpoint between globalism and localism, neo-regionalism would balance
our concerns with regional realities; recognize the interconnectedness
and the individuality of problems; and synchronize our means
(diplomatic, political, economic, and military) with our objectives.
Make no mistake: Neo-regionalism does not mean regional determinism,
that solving one problem is going to make another disappear. In certain
cases, it might help; in others, it might hurt; for still others, it
might have little effect. And, of course, there is always tension in
any regionalist approach, but that just reflects the reality of today’s
Middle East. Globalism and localism don’t have the same tensions,
because they try to simplify by focusing on the big or the little
picture. Neo-regionalism would force us to understand the
contradictions in the area and then to try to find acceptable
alternatives that we–and as many competing parties in the region as
possible–can live with.

Americans do not utilize this approach easily because it is the most
difficult, requires the most knowledge and expertise about local
conditions, and demands a complete image of how the obstacles facing
the United States will be addressed in a highly complex and unstable
region. It is also alien to the United States, a country pursuing a
federal system (with national versus local approaches at home) in a
part of the world that fundamentally lacks a region (other than
bilateral relations with Canada and Mexico). Yet regionalism is
essential to handling the tribulations of the Middle East
post–September 11. It represents a new strategy that does not repeat
old patterns of either developing a global war or dealing with
individual problems. Such a new approach is critical if we are ever
going to stabilize Iraq, effectively handle Iran, and bring a measure
of stability to this critical region. Without this new direction, the
next president, whoever he or she is, will lead a country that
inevitably will sink even deeper into the Middle East morass.


Whether the concerns are containing the USSR, promoting democracy,
fighting the global war on terrorism, or ensuring global energy
supplies, globalist foreign policies superimpose worldwide objectives
on the region regardless of local conditions. Five presidents, all
Republican, have approached the Middle East as globalists. The first,
Dwight Eisenhower, believed the region was threatened by Soviet
expansionism, which he thought would inevitably jeopardize the oil
supplies of our European allies and even conceivably lead to Soviet
victory in the Cold War. Eisenhower and his secretary of state, John
Foster Dulles, thus pursued a combination of policies to thwart
perceived Soviet agents in the region. Iran’s controversial prime
minister, Mohammed Mossadegh, was overthrown with CIA help in 1953, for
instance, and the Shah was returned to power because Washington feared
that Mossadegh would push for rapprochement with the Soviets.

Eisenhower’s globalism, in turn, led him to be astonishingly
inconsistent on local issues. For example, he first tried to sell arms
to Egypt’s Gamel Abdel Nasser and offered him support for the
long-sought Aswan Dam, but then withdrew the offer because of fear that
Nasser was getting too close to Moscow. When Nasser nationalized the
Suez Canal in retaliation, the British and French, in collaboration
with Israel, tried to overthrow Nasser by force in the Suez Crisis of
1956. Eisenhower then stepped in to save him, only to turn against the
Egyptian leader once again. He later commented in his memoirs, “If
[Nasser] was not a Communist, he certainly succeeded in making us very
suspicious of him.” Fear of the USSR also explains the Administration’s
unusual distance from Israel, because central to the anti-Soviet
strategy was the notion that an American embrace of the Jewish state
could become an encouragement to pro-Soviet forces in the region.

Nixon and Ford also pursued globalist policies. In fact, Nixon and
his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, followed one of the
most sophisticated global strategies in American history. But until the
October 1973 war, the Middle East was a secondary element of that
strategy, executed in a manner to keep the local parties in place while
a new approach of “negotiation and confrontation” was taken toward
China and the USSR in the hope of stabilizing Indochina. Meanwhile,
Nixon and Kissinger conceived of the “twin pillar” strategy, relying on
Iran and Saudi Arabia to bring stability against potential Soviet
advances in the Gulf. On a visit to Tehran, Nixon told the Shah,
“Protect me,” and the Iranian leader, in turn, pushed for oil-price
increases to fund arms for America’s new regional cop.

Ronald Reagan was the next globalist to occupy the White House, and
his position was made clear when his first secretary of state,
Alexander Haig, announced a strategic “consensus” in which America’s
friends (Arab and Israeli) would unite against communism regardless of
the divisions among them. But instead of uniting, the region fragmented
further into overlapping crises: the Iran-Iraq War, the continuing
Lebanese civil war, and the lingering struggle between Israel and the
Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), which ultimately resulted in
the Israeli intervention in Lebanon in 1982. The Reagan Administration
demonstrated its true preoccupation with the region in 1987, when the
Kuwaitis sought protection from attacks against their oil tankers by
re-flagging them as American. The Administration refused, until the
Kuwaitis reached agreement with Moscow to provide the re-flagging.
Reagan then immediately changed his mind. Ironically, the move helped
Iraq win its war over Iran and subsequently led to Saddam Hussein’s
attack on Kuwait, setting in place the first post–Cold War crisis.

Hussein would stay in power until the administration of the most
recent globalist president, George W. Bush. In this administration,
globalist assumptions and patterns of behavior have been taken to their
extreme. Whatever justification one prefers for the intervention in
Iraq–whether it be preventing the spread of WMDs, disrupting the
terrorism network, or creating a democratic model for the region, they
all share typical globalist origins–a strategic objective applied to
the region regardless of facts on the ground or local conditions,
namely that the global war on terrorism is the preeminent struggle of
our time and that the United States must actively spread liberal
democracy throughout the Middle East. The Bush approach to Israel,
though the precise opposite of Eisenhower’s, is generated from these
same conceptual origins–both begin with the fact that Israel, the
region’s only democracy, is on the frontlines of this struggle.

What’s wrong with globalism

The globalist approach provides vision, coherence, and a clear
connection to the rest of America’s worldwide objectives and
commitments. But it also discourages an understanding of the region’s
internal dynamics. It creates a type of policy tunnel vision, as
ideological blinders seek to compensate for the absence of attention to
regional concerns. And by placing greater emphasis on worldwide
strategies and ideological motivations in formulating policy,
globalists accord less importance to cultural, historical, and local
factors. As a result, the United States is placed into situations that
Americans do not understand and for which they are not prepared, such
as the intervention in Lebanon in 1982 and the invasion and occupation
of Iraq in 2003.

Moreover, globalism encourages American policymakers to pay less
heed to conflict management and more attention to big-picture schemes.
Prolonged engagement and concentration on the specifics of Arab-Israeli
issues, for example, is much less likely to occur. Thus, only Nixon
after the October 1973 war, followed by Ford, was prepared to allow
Kissinger (who by then had added secretary of state to his portfolio)
to devote the time and effort to produce Arab-Israeli agreements. But,
even then, the Nixon and Ford administrations dealt only with
disengagement accords, not a comprehensive peace. Typical of
globalists, they were more interested in how disengagement would help
contain the USSR, save detente, and solve the energy crisis than what
lasting peace would mean for the Middle East.

Finally, it is not clear that globalism even works, at least in
regards to reducing conflict. The globalists’ lack of attention to
local details results in the emergence of crises, some especially
intended by their perpetrators to capture American concern (as was
Egypt’s explicit strategy in initiating the 1973 war). Other wars occur
in part precisely because the United States is occupied elsewhere and a
situation spins out of control (the Suez Crisis, the First Intifada,
the continuation and escalation of the Second Intifada, the
Hezbollah-Israeli war of 2006). Naturally, regional wars have their own
local dynamic, but it is surprising how many conflicts can be tied at
least in part to dissatisfaction with Washington’s policies, to
American inattention, or to frustration with the United States within
the region. Because globalism encourages American inattention or
ideological motivation, more wars have been waged under globalist than
under localist presidencies.

Globalism also makes small conflicts larger. If the issues have
global implications that seriously affect American interests
everywhere, the rationale for using American forces in some kind of
intervention is enhanced. Eisenhower intervened in 1958 in Lebanon to
stop the fall of pro-Western regimes in the region. Similarly, with the
1982 Lebanon intervention and his re-flagging of Kuwait’s oil tankers
in 1987, Reagan was trying to stabilize the region to prevent further
Soviet gains. These escalations, in turn, almost uniformly ended badly.
The re-flagging of Kuwaiti oil tankers in 1987 was intended to assure
the free-flow of oil through the Straits of Hormuz; but it also helped
to tilt the war’s outcome toward Iraq and worsened U.S.-Iranian
relations, especially when a U.S. warship accidentally shot down an
Iranian civilian airliner late in the war, killing all 290 aboard. And
other than unseating an evil dictator, it would be difficult to argue
that the U.S. military intervention in Iraq in 2003 produced any
positive consequences whatsoever. Only Eisenhower’s 1958 intervention
in Lebanon was an unvarnished success, in part because it may well have
been unnecessary.

To be sure, wars, and in particular U.S.-led military interventions,
can be at least theoretically stabilizing. There are certainly cases
where they may be required as in frustrating countries’ aggression
against their neighbors (to thwart an Iraqi attack against Kuwait, or a
Syrian attack on Lebanon, or an imminent threat to Israel). But often
the blood and resources required for military incursions would be far
more wisely spent on economic assistance, forming alliance systems
(e.g., a network of defense treaties with local states), strengthening
internal institutions to foil the threats of extremism and terrorism,
and pursuing creative diplomatic initiatives. Ultimately, by
encouraging an ideological policy focused on abstract concerns that are
often irrelevant to the Middle East, globalism promotes military
interventions that usually weaken American interests, security, and
reputation in the region while compromising the security of our allies.


Where globalists superimpose ideological or strategic concerns onto
the Middle East, localists attempt to deal with the area pragmatically,
in terms of specific problems as they arise. Instead of viewing the
region as a medium through which to carry out global objectives, these
presidents look at (or often wait for) specific issues and then address
them accordingly in a conflict management or mediation orientation.
Localist presidents can, of course, have global strategies of their
own. However, they do not utilize their global orientations in the
context of the Middle East, instead often viewing the region as
irrelevant or a distraction from what they are trying to achieve

Harry Truman, John Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson all pursued localist
Middle East strategies precisely because they did not believe the area
was directly related to their prime global preoccupation, confronting
the USSR. To be sure, early in his administration Truman briefly took
what looked like a globalist stance, challenging Josef Stalin in 1946
over his reluctance to leave Iran. He wrote a stiff note to the
Soviets, called for action from the UN Security Council, and prepared
troops for possible deployment. But when Stalin withdrew, Truman
quickly turned to other problems. Later in his presidency, the
prolonged confrontation between the British-controlled Anglo-Iranian
Oil Company and Mossadegh was treated as an annoying diversion from the
pressures of the Korean War, and he sought to address the problem
through a pragmatic accommodation between London and Tehran. Nor did
Truman spend much time on the Palestinian situation; when the British
announced they were leaving, he was happy to hand the issue over to the
UN. During the next two years of the crisis, Truman dealt with the
Palestine problem only when and as his attention was demanded. Because
his concerns were directed elsewhere, the policy was punctuated by
sporadic periods of concentration followed by long weeks or even months
of inactivity.

Likewise, during his brief presidency, Kennedy celebrated the
“special relationship” with Israel, encouraged reforms in Iran, and
explored a new approach to Nasser, all with little follow-through or
prioritization. Johnson tilted toward Israel and the conservative Arab
states like Saudi Arabia and Jordan, but until the 1967 war his
preoccupation with Vietnam caused him to pay even less attention to the
region than Kennedy. A major international crisis and the possibility
of a Soviet-American confrontation changed all that, but only briefly;
as soon as a UN resolution was set in motion after the 1967 war for a
“land-for-peace” agenda, Johnson, like Truman before him, was pleased
to turn the issue over to a UN mediator.

Jimmy Carter took localism in a different direction. Building off
the close-contact shuttle diplomacy of Nixon and Kissinger, he focused
intensely on the Arabs and Israelis; at one point during the 1978 Camp
David talks, Carter even wrote out a draft Egyptian-Israeli peace
treaty in longhand on a yellow pad of paper. Here was a new,
concentrated attention to detail instead of a global vision. But his
triumph in achieving the first Arab-Israeli peace treaty did nothing to
help him elsewhere in the region. Carter had compartmentalized the area
so starkly that when the Iranian revolution and the Soviet invasion of
Afghanistan took place, he was helpless to put the pieces back together

Bill Clinton was the most recent localist president and, in some
ways, the consummate one. His entire foreign policy was defined by
dealing with particular issues separately, from Bosnia to Haiti to
Kosovo to North Korea. It could be said without exaggeration that under
Clinton, “localism everywhere” had become the new “globalism.” In the
Middle East, Iraq and Iran were placed in America’s waiting room with a
fancy label of “dual containment,” so the Administration could
concentrate first on the resolution of the Arab-Israeli problem with
specific approaches to Jordan, Syria, and the Palestinians. But as with
Carter before him, individual successes on the Arab-Israeli front did
nothing to solve problems in other parts of the region.

What’s wrong with localism

Localism certainly has its share of problems. Presidents who follow
it can ignore the Middle East until there are conflicts to manage
(Truman, Kennedy, and Johnson), by which time the challenges are more
daunting or dangerous. Or they can turn diplomacy into a fetish (Carter
and Clinton) that risks sapping their attention when crises emerge
elsewhere in the region. For example, both Carter and Clinton failed to
be sufficiently attuned to other dangers, especially those involving
Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan. Localism also risks inserting the United
States into discussions (especially Arab-Israeli) that are not ripe for
diplomatic intervention and which are better left to the parties

On the flip side, localist presidents also can become so preoccupied
with solutions to a particular problem that they set their standards
too high and just give up when they cannot fulfill them. Certainly, the
more Carter and Clinton devoted themselves to, and expended political
capital on, a grand Arab-Israeli rapprochement, the more likely they
were to suffer political and historical costs if they failed. Moreover,
there is no question that Carter and Clinton set a standard of
presidential involvement that now plagues the Arab-Israeli peace
process, because local participants will accept nothing less than
presidential participation, even at times when high-ranking diplomats
may be able to handle problems as well or better. The Carter-Clinton
standard simultaneously has frightened other presidents (especially
George W. Bush) away from becoming more involved. Finally, for
localists more than globalists, developing the correct tactics and the
correct use of personnel is critical to success, yet hard to execute.
No localist administration has entirely succeeded in producing a golden
mean, and all–even those who succeeded–ended up, at least in part,
frustrated and dissatisfied.


Regionalism attempts to address this gap in localism by dealing with
the region in all its parts and problems. Unlike localists and
globalists, regionalists address the Middle East on its own terms by
considering the interrelatedness of its culture, politics, and
conflicts. They understand the region’s dynamics, history, and the
tradeoffs necessary between issues. Instead of separating problems into
more manageable parts in classic localist style, regionalists pursue
policies in one sector of the region that may facilitate conflict
management elsewhere. And, unlike globalism, regional actions are not
delineated by global objectives.

Not surprisingly, a regionalist policy is easier to implement in the
post–Cold War era, when the specter of the USSR does not interfere with
policies designed to see the region as an end in itself. Nevertheless,
only one administration, George H. W. Bush’s, has pursued an incipient
form of this strategy, and even then in a more elementary manner than
may be possible in the future. It intervened to reverse the Iraqi
occupation of Kuwait, but only after it had gained widespread regional
support. Similarly, influenced by the warnings of Iraq’s neighbors, the
Bush Administration did not attempt to overthrow Saddam Hussein. Its
military initiative was balanced by the organization of the October
1991 Madrid Conference, the first regional Arab-Israeli conference
attended by the leaders of Israel and its neighbors, which resulted in
both a set of bilateral talks based in Washington and a series of
highly innovative multilateral talks.

The regional approach, as undertaken by the first President Bush,
has inherent difficulties. The act of balancing different issues can
easily produce disequilibrium. The Bush Administration’s overt conflict
with Israel may well have led to false Arab expectations; it certainly
(pointlessly) increased Israeli anxieties. This form of regionalism
also can lead presidents to overlook countries that have key regional
relevance but do not gain sufficient consideration, as the elder Bush
did vis-à-vis Iran. In other words, while for globalists the key
problem is the relevance of their policies to the region, and for
localists it is the ability to devote sufficient time to solve
problems, for regionalists it is the delicate balancing between
competing interests to produce a viable policy that does not needlessly
alienate, destabilize, or mislead specific regional players.

Seeking a New Regional Strategy

Because of the long and unpromising track record of localism and
globalism, it behooves the current administration and its successors to
examine whether neo-regionalism offers a viable alternative. To be
sure, one of the problems of arguing in favor of neo-regionalism is
that, because the policy rarely has been tested, it is difficult to
envision. Moreover, some, such as Washington Institute for Near East
Policy Executive Director Robert Satloff, see regionalism as impossible
because they claim linkages between localities and issues rarely exist.
But today that is becoming less the case. Indeed, progress on any of
the major trouble spots confronting the region–Iran, Iraq, the
Palestinian Authority, and Lebanon–would likely have a positive impact
elsewhere. For example, progress on the Palestinian question, if
sufficient, would assuredly make it easier for Arab moderates to
cooperate with Israel against the Iranian arc of extremism. The
reduction of Hezbollah’s role in Lebanon would strengthen Israel’s
ability to make concessions to the Palestinians, just as the
Hezbollah-Israeli war last summer–especially in combination with
attacks against Israel from Gaza–disrupted Israeli moves toward
unilateral withdrawals on the West Bank.

Similarly, a positive conclusion of the Iraq imbroglio would
undoubtedly enhance America’s influence over other conflicts, if only
because it would no longer be a drain on U.S. resources and prestige.
Indeed, we have seen a sort of negative regionalist dynamic at work in
the Iraq fiasco, which has strengthened Iran and encouraged it to
intensify its support for Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, and Hamas. Such
support in turn has weakened Israel, while the new Shia challenge has
alarmed moderate Sunni Arab states like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and
Jordan. In addition, the Administration’s pressure for elections in the
Palestinian Authority in January 2006, against the best judgment of
both the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships, led to the emergence of a
Hamas government, emboldened Hezbollah (arguably resulting in the
Hezbollah-Israeli war), and further destabilized regional relations.

Granted, for those who accept the idea of regional linkages, there
is an opposite tendency to rely upon them too heavily. A very popular
approach is to suggest that progress, and certainly resolution of the
Arab-Israeli conflict, is a panacea that can unlock doors throughout
the region. British Prime Minister Tony Blair repeatedly focuses on
this issue in search of what he calls a “whole Middle East” strategy.
“A major part of the answer to Iraq lies not in Iraq itself but outside
it, in the whole of the region,” he said in a November 2006 speech. “We
should start with Israel-Palestine. That is the core.” Blair was even
more clear last August, when he claimed that there is “one cause which,
the world over, unites Islam, one issue that even the most Westernized
Muslims find unjust and, perhaps worse, humiliating: Palestine.” He is
correct in assuming that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is the most
emotional and unifying rallying cry in the Arab, and even the Islamic,
world. But Blair is misguided if he believes that somehow resolving a
century-old conflict, and expeditiously at that, would stop Iraqi Shia
and Sunnis from killing one another (and Americans and British as
well). As Daniel Kurtzer, the former U.S. ambassador to both Israel and
Egypt, put it, “If the United States brokered peace talks between
Israel and the Palestinians, do you think a single Iraqi gunman would
put down his weapon? Not a chance.” There are limits to regional
linkages: Extremists who want Israel destroyed will never be assuaged
by sudden Israeli-Palestinian comity.

Similarly, the Iraq Study Group (ISG), saddled with reassessing
America’s failed policy in Iraq, put forward as one of its solutions a
plan for the United States to adopt an elementary regional approach. It
sought to engage Iraq’s neighbors and regional states in Iraq’s future
and even suggested a new American dialogue with Iran and Syria on the
subject. It also argued that the “United States will not be able to
achieve its goals in the Middle East unless the United States deals
directly with the Arab-Israeli conflict.” The ISG proceeded to
recommend intensified U.S. engagement on all remaining fronts in the
dispute–Syria, Lebanon, and the Palestinian territories. But, like
Blair, the group failed to show how its goals could be achieved. It
argued that dealing with the Arab-Israeli dispute facilitates progress
in Iraq. This implies, however, that Israel may be asked to make
dangerous concessions in order for the United States to get out of
Iraq, an unlikely proposition.

Nevertheless, at the ISG report’s December 2006 unveiling, Co-Chair
Lee Hamilton made a clearer statement on regionalism than any presented
in the report itself: “You cannot look at this area of the world and
pick and choose among the countries that you’re going to deal with.
Everything in the Middle East is connected to everything else. And this
diplomatic initiative that we have put forward recognizes that.” In
other words, with so many multiple challenges in the region, it is
actually difficult to avoid regionalism. The question is not
really whether or not to adopt regionalism, but how. Or, to put it
differently, just because Blair and the ISG are incomplete in their
recommendations, they are not wrong in their methodology. Rather than
casting them aside entirely, we should see how a regionalist approach
can be better constructed. We must realize that a neo-regionalist
strategy does not mean that every problem can be solved through action
in another part of the region. However, taking a “whole Middle East”
approach permits dealing with issues on their own, while still taking
account of their connection to other problems in the area.

So what would an effective regionalism look like? It may resemble a
strategy outlined in a little-noticed speech delivered in Athens last
fall by the Greek foreign minister, Dora Bakoyannis. In blunt terms,
Bakoyannis said, “In the Middle East, there is no way of definitely
solving an issue while ignoring the others. This is why we need an
integrated strategy for dealing with the Middle East as a whole. Such a
strategy would necessarily involve all actors in the region, as well as
the international community.” However, she makes it plain that a
regional approach does not automatically entail engaging the region on
every issue. Rather, the essence of her regional approach is to deal
with each problem individually and only to involve others in and
outside the region where appropriate. In her regionalist conception,
each issue is understood in and of itself, but the primary conception
is to have a regional vision for dealing with these individual issues.
Thus, among other policies, Bakoyannis called for the “strengthening of
the Lebanese state and the government of Prime Minister [Fouad]
Siniora”; a program of engagement with Syria comparable to the Bush
Administration’s transformation of Libyan policy; and an international
conference on Iraq (including Iran and Syria) similar to the one that
took place regarding Afghanistan. She identified Iran’s failure to
cooperate with the international community vis-A­ï¿½-vis its nuclear
development and its refusal to recognize Israel as the two key
“barriers” preventing an improvement in ties to Tehran. Finally,
Bakoyannis dwelled on the advantages of promoting a national unity
government in the Palestinian Authority and on the importance of
reviving the Palestinian economy toward “the creation of an independent
and viable Palestinian state next to Israel, and in friendly relations
with it.”

Some might add other ideas. I would, for example, stress the
importance of strengthening a Lebanese army loyal to Siniora; point out
the pitfalls of the Administration’s opposition to an Israeli-Syrian
dialogue; place a new focus on the Saudi peace plan that now has the
expressed interest of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert (with no apparent
American reaction); call on the Administration to explore moving most
American forces in Iraq to nearby safe locations like offshore carriers
or Kuwait while the training of Iraqi forces and police accelerates;
and recommend recognizing the current Iranian regime (just as we
recognized the communist governments of Russia and China), even as we
energetically and consistently oppose its nuclear program and its
support for terrorism.

But on top of these locally focused solutions also should be
regional ones. We should revive multilateral talks like those that
followed the Madrid Conference in the early 1990s and invite all states
in the region–including Iran and Syria–to participate. At the same
time, we should broaden the subject matter and the content of the
dialogue so that the key regional issues can also be addressed. To be
sure, the Madrid talks did not produce specific agreements, but they
did serve as a forum for the exchange of perspectives and ideas not
otherwise available in the region. Finally, the United States should
contribute to international efforts to bring together non-governmental
figures from the region to discuss the economic, diplomatic, security,
political, and human problems the region faces. It is likely that, if
such a program had been in place during the last two administrations,
it would have been harder for the current Bush Administration to ignore
the dire regional implications of an attack on Iraq, just as it would
have been more difficult for the Clinton Administration to
insufficiently appreciate the helpful role countries like Saudi Arabia,
Egypt, and Jordan might have played in bolstering the Camp David
process in 2000.

There are, of course, those who argue that a regional policy
necessarily involves distancing the United States from Israel. But the
fact that the George H. W. Bush Administration was as cool as it was
toward the Jewish state does not mean that a future administration
pursuing a regional policy need approach Jerusalem in the same vein. It
is just as logical to imagine a regional policy that brings the United
States closer to Israel, and certainly services its security needs
better. Moreover, globalists and localists have been both warm and
cool, respectively, toward a closer relationship with Israel:
Eisenhower and George W. Bush were both globalists despite stark
differences on Israel; localists Carter and Clinton offer a similar

Analysts of U.S. foreign policy may argue that Americans are not
capable of producing the kind of nuanced approach a regionalist
strategy demands. True, the current Bush Administration failed to weigh
adequately, if at all, the impact on the regional power balance of
invading Iraq, especially one accompanied by an ill-prepared
occupation. But that does not mean that adequate instruments cannot be
devised and strategies envisioned so that this kind of disaster does
not occur again. Despite who sits in the White House today, the U.S.
government still employs people with the expertise needed to pull off a
regionalist approach.

In sum, in approaching the thicket of security challenges entangling
the Middle East, what we need is a neo-regionalism that recognizes the
interconnectedness of issues but does not expect that progress in any
one area will necessarily solve all, or even any, others. Individual
conflicts must be approached by looking at the regional dynamics that
affect the Middle East–not by viewing them in isolation or through the
lens of a global vision. Of course, a neo-regional strategy is not a
magic potion; it will take more effort and creative diplomatic and
economic initiatives. Yet just as we have seen how the current
administration’s failures in Iraq have led to power imbalances,
domestic instability, and local conflicts, a neo-regionalist strategy
wisely integrating the pressing problems of the region is most likely
to repair this damage and restore the United States to a role providing
stability and security in the Middle East.

Read more about Foreign PolicyMiddle East

Steven Spiegel is a professor of political science at the University of California, Los Angeles.

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