- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 4, 2009

A good place for Obama administration policymakers to start in their efforts to improve conditions in the Middle East is to look at what the Bush administration did for its first six years in the region — and then do exactly the opposite.

This especially holds true for the Israeli-Arab conflict, which is susceptible neither to benign neglect, as Bush policymakers believed, nor to comprehensive, historically enduring solutions, as the Clinton administration imagined — and as, no doubt, Obama policymakers also imagine.

After she is confirmed as secretary of state, Hillary Rodham Clinton will need to get personally involved, and she will need to set aside time for serious shuttle diplomacy in the region for weeks at a time if necessary. As Secretary of State Henry Kissinger demonstrated in the mid-1970s, that is the only way to hold different, mutually antagonistic negotiating partners to the diplomatic treadmill and force them to make realistic concessions to each other.

This process can produce workable agreements that can deliver highly significant improvements in economic standards and living conditions for the Palestinians and in security for the Israelis to the mutual benefit of both peoples.

But Barack Obama, as president, and Mrs. Clinton, as his secretary of state, both should manfully reject the temptation to seek a sweeping, comprehensive agreement.

The Washington think tank world, the op-ed pages of every newspaper and the hordes of would-be statesmen among the political appointees who will throng the State Department will come up with a million reasons why only an eternal, comprehensive peace will solve all the problems of the region.

There is just one flaw with this scenario: However endlessly, logically and passionately it is argued, it is impossible to achieve.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas lacks the popular legitimacy with Palestinians on the West Bank to deliver on such a comprehensive deal, and Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement, continues to run Gaza with an iron hand. And it remains implacably opposed to the very existence of the state of Israel.

Also, if right-wing, nationalist Likud Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu wins the Israeli general election on Feb. 10 — and polls strongly suggest that he will — the Israeli body politic will be more reluctant than ever to make concessions either to Hamas, or to Mr. Abbas, who lacks the power to deliver on them.

Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton will need to realize, as their predecessors under President Clinton did not, that Hezbollah, the Shi’ite Party of God in southern Lebanon, cannot be restrained without making a deal with Syria and Hamas in Gaza cannot be restrained without making a deal with Iran.

Improved relations between Syria and the United States may be possible: In the year after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the Syrian security services supplied the United States with invaluable information to fight and destroy al Qaeda networks across the Middle East.

However, any kind of really workable and worthwhile deal or cooperation with Iran appears extremely unlikely as long as President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad remains in power.

Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton will need to avoid making the mistake of giving prestige and legitimacy to Mr. Ahmadinejad without getting genuinely concrete and deliverable concessions of real benefit from him first.

They would be well advised to wait until the upcoming Iranian presidential elections in the hope that Mr. Ahmadinejad will be replaced by a more pragmatic and predictable leader. Rushing too soon to embrace Mr. Ahmadinejad will restore his badly frayed domestic credibility.

The Obama administration is almost certain to agree with the Bush administration in its enthusiasm for spreading democracy and promoting human rights across the Middle East. But it should not.

The Bush initiative on these issues was pushed energetically by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her undersecretary of state for global affairs, Paula Dobriansky. It led to massive gains in political power and influence by extreme Islamist and implacably anti-American opposition forces in Kuwait, Egypt and other countries. In Gaza, they grew so strong that they were able to rout Fatah and the Palestinian Authority and take control of the government.

Democratic presidents are especially susceptible to becoming so obsessed with being eternal peacemakers that they ignore other dangerous trends in the Middle East that have nothing to do with the Israelis and the Palestinians and then those American leaders get blindsided and totally taken by surprise by catastrophic developments they should have seen coming a mile off.

President Carter was so obsessed with playing Prince of Peace between the Israelis and the Egyptians from 1977 to 1979 that he ignored the danger of the Islamic Revolution in Iran and of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s rise to power until it was too late. The United States and moderate forces throughout the Middle East and the Muslim world are still paying big time for Mr. Carter’s bungles 30 years later.

Mr. Clinton won the kudos of the world for his enthusiastic and even obsessive support of the Oslo Peace Process from 1993 to 2000. But among the many Middle East issues and trends he and his policymakers ignored was the rise of al Qaeda as it prepared for the terrorist attacks that destroyed the World Trade Center towers in New York City, mauled the Pentagon and killed 3,000 Americans.

Al Qaeda already was attacking U.S. embassies in Africa and building up its capability to strike within the United States during Mr. Clinton’s presidency, but no one in the White House or at the top of the U.S. national security apparatus took it serious enough to heed the warnings they were given at the time by the likes of Richard Clarke and John O’Neill.

The new administration also will need to work hard to revive and maintain the old special relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia. This will fly in the face of a lot of left-wing and liberal Democratic prejudices about the Saudis, Wahhabis and the power of “big oil.”

But the Saudis are a wealthy, overwhelmingly middle-class, propertied society who want stability in the region. They cannot be ignored, and they are fearful of the consequences of an unchecked Iran.

Obama policymakers will need to engage the Saudis constructively and encourage them to keep some of their gigantic currency holdings in dollars, while working with them for a realistic, moderate oil price.

The Obama team will need to resist the temptation to endlessly preach to the Saudis on democracy and human rights or force them to democratize at a pace that could undermine their nation’s stability - a catastrophic mistake Mr. Carter made in his dealings with the Shah of Iran.

The Obama administration will take office filled with ambitious ideologues that are determined to do good in the Middle East: It will need to remember that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Martin Sieff is defense industry editor for United Press International. He has covered the Middle East professionally for more than 30 years and has received three Pulitzer Prize nominations for international reporting. His most recent book, published last year, is “The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Middle East.”

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