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Navigating the Troubled Greater Middle East

by Robert McMahon, Editor CFR.org
September 3, 2008

MINNEAPOLIS — It is no stretch to say the region ranging from North Africa to Pakistan, known as the “Greater Middle East,” poses the biggest policy challenges for the next U.S. presidential administration. But solutions to the region’s myriad conflicts defy any quick accounting. A panel of top experts at a meeting convened this morning by CFR on the sidelines of the GOP presidential convention outlined the following most pressing issues:

– Pakistan. What CFR President Richard N. Haass, the panel moderator, called potentially “the greatest national security challenge for the next administration” is coping with a troubled civilian government and a military that appears increasingly resistant to cooperating with U.S. efforts to stabilize Afghanistan. CFR Adjunct Senior Fellow Vali Nasr said the Pakistani military has never fully supported U.S. efforts to defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan and should not be considered a reliable ally by an incoming U.S. administration.

Nasr also warned of Taliban preparations for a military surge against Afghan and U.S.-led allied forces by early next spring that may include an attempt to seize Kabul. Meghan O’Sullivan, a former Bush administration deputy national security adviser for Afghanistan and Iraq, said the United States will never be able to bring enough troops to pacify Afghanistan. She suggested looking at new ways of engaging Afghan tribal forces to help secure the country and counter insurgents.

Iraq. O’Sullivan stressed the importance of continuing what she called a “virtuous cycle” that has calmed the country over the past 18 months. She credited the U.S. military surge strategy, the Sunni “Awakening” movement, and the stand down of a major Shia militia for sustaining progress and added “You don’t want to change too many variables in that cycle at once.”

Iran. Nasr said Iranian officials want to steer the United States toward engagement and away from confrontation but are not willing to grant concessions on their nuclear program prior to full-fledged talks with the United States.

The panel noted Israeli officials continue to threaten military strikes against Iranian nuclear sites – believed to be cover for nuclear weapons research – in the absence of Iran suspending its uranium enrichment program. “I take the Israeli government at its word that an Iran weaponized or near weaponized would constitute an existential threat,” said Haass. “Over the next couple of years if Iran continues to advance the way it was advancing, there is a significant chance of [an Israeli strike] happening.”

Israeli-Palestinian talks. Michael Barnett of the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs likened the peace talks to “something akin to a suicide watch.” But Barnett was more optimistic about the prospects of Syrian-Israeli peace talks, noting Syrian officials have “decoupled” those talks from the Palestinian issue. He also cited the positive role of Turkey as a peace broker.

– Democratization. CFR Senior Fellow Steven A. Cook said aside from an initial boost to civil society efforts provided by the Bush administration’s pro-democracy efforts, authoritarian regimes such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia have proven they are “more supple, flexible, and have the capacity to repress political challenges.”

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