A New Middle East Strategy for the Age of Obama

Marc Gopin’s article on a new Middle East strategy which depends on what he calls “a psychological evolution of the American electorate” is well worth discussing, Gopin is the James H. Laue Professor of Religion, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution, and the Director of the Center on Religion, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University’s Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution -GLB.
gopinA New Middle East Strategy for the Age of Obama
By Marc Gopin for Syria Comment

The key to the future of the Middle East is a revolution in the Syrian/American relationship that will help to re-balance the American historical bias in favor of reactionary forces in Israel. The shift of Syria towards an alliance with the United States will signal a significant shift away from a geographical and religious divide between the Northern and Southern Belt of the Middle East, between Sunni and Shi’ite, and between pro-Western and anti-Western divides, that have all plagued the region for decades. It will also usher in the possibility for Iran to follow, especially now that Khatami, smelling the tea leaves from the Obama Administration, has thrown his hat into the presidential race.

Syria’s friendship with Turkey and its alliance with Hezbollah and Hamas also have the potential to usher in an era of Islamist empowerment that will be based for the first time not on force, threats, violence and revolution but on power sharing. From Turkey to Lebanon to Palestine the potential exists for the tolerant forms of Islam that are indigenous to Syria and Turkey to form the basis for a new approach to politics in the Middle East.

This sounds odd, considering the track record of Hamas and Hezbollah, but that track record of violence is largely related to the Arab/Israeli wars. That is precisely where Syria’s alliance with America could lead us in an utterly new direction. If the United States embraces Syria, then it will set the stage for a greater place of leverage for Syria to play in surrounding the Israeli leadership with states and movements that are unambiguously offering Israel full peace for full return of the occupied territories and full engagement in the establishment of a viable Palestinian state.

Not only should the United States remove permanently the threat of regime change in Syria, it should promote a strategic and military alliance with Syria and Turkey. This will have the effect of encouraging moderate nonviolent Islamic ideologies in the region, pulling it back from radicalization and splits along Sunni/Shiite and secular/extremist lines. Syria, Turkey and even Lebanon can be helpful in this regard. Syria has a history of deliberate religious pluralism and moderate, Sufi Islam, and it is the same with Turkey. The key is an ideological shift toward an economic and military alliance with the West.

If Syria moves in this direction it will make it that much harder for the Israeli hardliners to make the case in Washington that ‘there is no one to talk to’. This myth needs to be put to rest once and for all, but it cannot happen without significant efforts on the part of the new generation of excellent Syrian policy makers and their supporters. Let me explain.

The extremists in the pro-Israel camp will see a Syrian/American rapprochement as a setback for Israel. Not so. With America in the middle, guaranteeing everyone’s security, there is a far better chance of reaching a deal that includes Syria, Israel and Palestine, with Saudi, Egypt, and Jordan acquiescing to a Palestinian democracy that will surely include Islamists.

In this regard, Turkey is paving the way for the de-militarization of Islamism. With coaxing this may be the necessary transition for Egypt as well. Ironically enough the secular Syrian regime is leading the way to a new Middle East with Islamist parties like Hamas as part of the ruling elite. Religious commitments to nonviolence, such as are embodied in the philosophy of the Grand Mufti of Syria, are the key to these peaceful transitions. Islamist politics will be eliminated as an existential threat to all regimes, and will instead become just another Arab experiment with politics and governance, in a similar way that it is being handled by Jordan. The key is that Islamist political empowerment does not come through subterfuge, force and revolution, the terrible mistake of the Brotherhood in Syria over thirty years ago. Turkey is the key model, and it must lead to serious discussions on the demilitarization of Hezbollah or its nationalization.

The problem of demilitarization of Hamas and Hezbollah is that they are the key focal point to resistance of Israel and the continuation of a military approach to the Palestinian/Israeli conflict of almost a century. This can only be addressed through aggressive U.S. mediation and satisfaction of all parties, especially the full gamut of Palestinians, as to their needs and interests in developing an independent Palestinian state. And certainly a very tough negotiation will be Iran’s nuclear weapons program, but this too can be managed with full normalization of American/Iranian relations.

Here is the most important point. If all tracks are pursued vigorously and simultaneously then the nonviolent wagons of diplomacy will start to circle around Israel with the Arab Peace Plan in hand, with the United States, and the Quartet, at the helm.

Here is the big caveat, however. The American people, their agents in Congress, need to be on board with this process, or at least confused by it. They cannot be a fifth column, a stealth weapon of radical Republicans, to demonize the White House as anti-Semitic, a nightmare which would set the stage for a bitter battle in America over anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism; this will only benefit Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh and Karl Rove as they seek some raw issues that could divide America from the White House. And Netanyahu is not beneath stimulating a Lobby-induced war on the White House as antisemitic.

The United States is a far more pro-Jewish, philo-semitic country than the Arab world wants to face, for a variety of historical and ethical reasons. But it is also a country that likes to see itself standing for justice and freedom for all peoples.

An emotional war over anti-Semitism and Israel’s fate could be spawned in the United States, a war that will take down this President from his ambitious and idealistic agenda. That is why Mitchell and Obama will not move aggressively unless there is a counter-strategy in place that comes from outside the White House, a lobbying strategy that has yet to receive serious backing from the progressive or the Arab worlds.

In this regard there has emerged in the last few years a significant progressive Jewish strategy in Washington, which is dovetailed by an important resurgence of realist thinking of the variety of Brzezinski and Scowcroft. The Jewish community voted by over 83% for Obama, in addition to over 70% of them expressing a clear commitment to a two-state solution. The Jewish establishment and the Lobby do not represent these people and they have not had a voice until now. The same problem pertains among evangelicals. 50% agree with a two-state solution according to Pew polls, but their lobbyists will vote for or against whatever the so-called pro-Israel Lobby tells them to do.

J Street and Brit Tsedek are beginning to change this. They are still woefully underfunded by comparison to the Lobby, but they are setting a precedent for a contest with the Lobby for money and votes. Money and votes are the two elements of a Washington strategy. They are expressed by contributions, by promise of votes. But mostly it is about attention to congressional offices which is targeted, specific, and constant. Brit Tsedek now has 40,000 Jewish members and a thousand rabbis ( a third of American rabbis!), the largest ever number for Jewish progressive voices in Washington, and J Street’s favorite candidates won overwhelmingly on November 4. J Street has a mailing list of over 100,000, and more importantly they understand the Obama strategy of empowerment of average people through the technical wizardry of social networking and ‘click-friendly’ contributions. The central and contagious message of these groups is that they are pro-Israel and pro-Peace.
If they truly care about the Palestinians then the Arab world and the Muslim world, and Syria in particular, need to enter the fray in Washington with a level of investment never seen before.

There must emerge a parallel strategy between the progressive Jewish world embodied in J Street and Brit Tsedek, and the Arab world. Syria must play an essential world in this capture of the imagination of Americans, including Jews and evangelicals. This will take a concerted campaign with serious money, media, extensive international visits and exchanges of all sectors of the populations, and the coaxing of many Arab states into an allied strategy for the heart and soul of Washington and the American people.

It is essential for this public relations campaign to be accompanied by public and citizen diplomacy that will help more and more of the American electorate, including Jews and evangelicals, to envision the possibility of new Middle East. It would be enormously helpful if this public relations blitz included very highly publicized alliances and exchanges between serious Israeli peacemakers who the Syrians know are substantive–of which there are hundreds–and their Arab counterparts. This will be the real emotional glue that cements a new Jewish and American attitude to the region. The key with public relations is creating a compelling and utterly new vision of future possibility, but in this case the product is not a vacuum cleaner or a car, it is coexistence, tolerance, a region at peace, a region worth investing in and engaging, in the deepest sense.

All of this is in the long-term interests of Israel and the future state of Palestine. All parties may not know this yet, but this is the only way for them to live securely in the Middle East. They just don’t know that yet, and the hard line of Israel will wring everything they can from fear and violence at the ballot box. They have to be outfoxed politically by the Arab world, but not militarily, and the answer is in America. The race must begin for the soul of America.

Everything in this struggle is about persuasion, the persuasion of millions of people in the Middle East to take a chance on peace, but the most important constituency is in the United States. Most Jews and Arabs want a viable two state solution but their way of dealing with each other is presently out of control, especially these days from Israel’s side. But the real spoilers here are unwittingly the people of the United States. They have been conned, sold a ‘bill of goods’ as to what will keep Israel safe–force and violence. Shifting their opinions even slightly is what Obama, Mitchell and Clinton, need in order to finally be the honest brokers in this conflict. The more of the American public that is calling and visiting congressmen the bolder they can be. This is power. The Arab Peace Initiative should be plastered on every bus, in every journal, just as the environmental movement is doing now to finally create the necessary paradigm shift. Boycott and anti-apartheid paradigms are not the answer, media and congressional blitz is the answer, votes, contributions. This is how Washington works.

This is not undignified. This is not the Syrians or the Arab world proving that they are nice people. This is the way Washington changes, for better and for worse. The Obama election has proved the positive potential of this. The Chinese understand it, the Saudis understand it, the Indians understand it. Now it is time for there to be a clear Arab message in America that is not anti-Israel but pro-Palestinian, and pro-comprehensive peace.

This is the surest path to a prosperous Syria flooded by Western tourists, a Syria at peace, a Syria in a productive relationship with all its neighbors, including the new State of Palestine, a Syria in possession of the Golan, and under no more threats. The path to a new Syria lies in a psychological evolution of the American electorate, and there is no better time for such a change than right now.

Marc Gopin is the James H. Laue Professor of Religion, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution, and the Director of the Center on Religion, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University’s Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution.

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