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Tracking militarists’ efforts to influence U.S. foreign policy

For the Middle East, It’s the Center for American Regress

If one is looking for new thinking about improving U.S.-Iran relations, they are not going to find it at the Center for American Progress (CAP) if its latest report on Middle East policy is any indication.

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Last week, I featured a new Atlantic Council report by former Stimson Center president Ellen Laipson in which she argued that the nuclear deal with Iran—and the opportunities for future cooperation with Tehran that it opened up—required “national security officials …to shed old thinking about the near permanence of U.S.-Iran enmity. It will take courage, imagination and perseverance,” she went on, “to seize opportunities even as US national security institutions continue their work to respond to the many challenges Iran poses.”

Well, if she’s looking for new thinking about ties between the two countries, let alone courage and imagination in pursuing new opportunities with Tehran, she’s not going to find it at the Center for American Progress (CAP) if its latest report on Middle East policy is any indication. The 40-plus-page report, “Leveraging U.S. Power in the Middle East: A Blueprint for Strengthening Regional Partnerships,” depicts Iran as an intrinsically bad actor whose “destabilizing influence” across the region should be countered at every turn, “especially in partnership” with “long-standing” allies, such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Israel, and Egypt.

Iran continues to pose a threat to U.S. interests and values in the Middle East and around the world. Tehran aids, abets, and engages in terrorism, prolongs civil wars across the region through support for proxies, works to subvert regional governments, and promulgates regressive norms and values worldwide. Until and unless Iranian behavior and attitudes change, relations between the United States and Iran will likely remain antagonistic.

Defining Iran’s Role

Now, to be fair, the report, whose chief author, Brian Katulis, served in the Clinton administration and is no doubt angling for a senior Mideast policy position under Hillary, praises the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) for showing “that pragmatic cooperation to address specific issues with Iran may at times be possible with strenuous and unprecedented effort.” But, on the security side of the report, the main emphasis—aside from the priority of defeating the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) and al-Qaeda—is on reassuring and fostering ever-greater cooperation among and between Washington’s “closest partners” in the region, notably those in the Gulf, like Saudi Arabia, that have largely been guilty of the same charges as those CAP levels against Tehran.

One long-term goal, according to the report, which (ironically) advises the next administration to “avoid defining American engagement in the Middle East in religious or sectarian terms,” is to forge “a more cohesive regional security architecture,” that, among other things, would include a “Middle East stabilization force” to which the militaries of the Sunni-led monarchies (including Morocco) plus Egypt would contribute. And although the report laudably calls on Washington to use its leverage with those same partners to “de-escalate internal conflicts” in which they may be involved, at no point does it state that Iran should be included in such de-escalation efforts, let alone the new regional security architecture. (By contrast, in the case of Syria—where it recommends that Washington “be prepared to use air power to protect U.S. partners and civilians”—the report explicitly recognizes that Russia will have to be involved in any “long-term political solution.”) In other words, “old thinking about the near permanence of U.S.-Iran enmity” is alive and well at CAP, just as it appears to be at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), another think tank close to Hillary, whose report, “Extending American Power: Strategies to Expand U.S. Engagement in a Competitive World Order,” was so hawkish toward Iran that, as I previously noted, it could have been written by the foreign ministries of Saudi Arabia and Israel.

Not that those foreign ministries would entirely disapprove of the CAP report, which highlights the need for Washington to “provide reassurance to its regional partners that it shares their concerns regarding aggression and terrorism by Iran in places such as Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, the Palestinian territories, and Yemen.” It cites with some sympathy the latter’s numerous complaints of recent years: “the varying U.S. responses to the 2011 Arab uprisings; differences over the role and response to political Islam, the U.S. posture on Syria’s civil war; and concerns that the 2015 Iran nuclear deal was an attempt to build a new partnership with Iran.”

It also implicitly praises Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s efforts to reform the kingdom’s economy. “Although the program’s objectives and those of others like it may ultimately prove unrealistic,” according to the report, “they represent a welcome willingness of regional governments to look beyond the present moment in the region and think about their long-term needs and prospects.” A particularly remarkable passage applauds Riyadh’s and the GCC’s “increasingly assertive actions to perceived immediate threats,” adding, “The increased initiative of America’s long-standing regional partners, while destabilizing in some instances, also offers a strategic opportunity for the United States to encourage these partners to take on more responsibility for their own region.” Talk about putting lipstick on pigs.

To its credit (and in contrast to the CNAS task force), the report does voice concern about some of those destabilizing initiatives, suggesting that “[t]he next administration should also be prepared to develop a more effective, coordinated strategy for stability [in Yemen] that links American support to Saudi respect for the laws and norms of law.” Similarly, it suggests conditioning arms sales and other cooperation “with countries such as Saudi Arabia as leverage to help resolve conflicts” across the region.

Dealing with the Kingdom

All that is clearly desirable, but, given the central role Riyadh would play in CAP’s long-term regional security agenda—not to mention the political power of the Pentagon and U.S. arms exporters—one wonders how responsive the kingdom will be. Personally, I would think that Obama’s policy of seeking a greater “equilibrium” between “Sunni and Shia, Saudi and Iran” could be as or more effective in persuading Riyadh to deescalate and resolve regional conflicts in the medium to long term. (The report’s recommendations are supposed to guide U.S. policy through 2025.) But CAP apparently doesn’t see that as a desirable alternative. In fact, in an implicit criticism of Obama’s words, the report effectively buries that possibility, noting that the JCPOA “did not produce a stable equilibrium that would allow for strategic competition free of the proxy battles and sectarian bloodshed that have ravaged the region.” So we can give up on that idea and cozy up more to the Saudis.

If the CAP report is willing to at least entertain the idea of conditionality on supporting Saudi Arabia in its regional conflicts through arms sales or other kinds of assistance, the same doesn’t apply to Israel in its conflict with the Palestinians.

“Today, the outlook for negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority remains bleak,” the report observes.

Therefore, the next U.S. administration should take steps to sustain a two-state solution until a resumption of talks becomes politically feasible. Key security, governance, and economic challenges must be addressed to keep that window open. Specifically, the next administration should take steps to strengthen Palestinian security institutions and improve the Palestinian economy—both essential ingredients of a two-state solution…. Palestinian economic growth is not a substitute for political progress but instead part of an effort to give Palestinians the tangible opportunity to take charge of their own livelihoods and thereby sustain their aspirations of statehood.

Nothing in that passage would cause Bibi heartburn.

Foreign Policy Debate

This report came to my attention only because it was mentioned in passing in a Washington Post article by Greg Jaffe published last Friday headlined “Foreign Policy Elite Makes Case for Less Restraint Post-Obama.” It begins:

In the rarefied world of the Washington foreign policy establishment, President Obama’s departure from the White House—and the possible return of a more conventional and hawkish Hillary Clinton—is being met with quiet relief.

The Republicans and Democrats who make up the foreign policy elite are laying the groundwork for a more assertive American foreign policy, via a flurry of reports shaped by officials who are likely to play senior roles in a potential Clinton White House.

The article cites CAP’s backing for U.S.-patrolled safe zones over Syria as one example among a number of more hawkish reports being produced in advance of a new presidency, including one by a bipartisan task force on U.S. Mideast strategy convened by the Atlantic Council. Its work is overseen by two masters of “old thinking”—former secretary of state Madeleine Albright, whose eagerness to use U.S. military power, according to Colin Powell, almost gave him an aneurysm, and George W. Bush’s national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, who played a not-insignificant role in manipulating the intelligence leading to the Iraq invasion and was reportedly a key supporter of Israel’s wars against Lebanon in 2006 and Gaza in 2008-9. Both co-chairs support a stronger U.S. military action in Syria. In June 2015, Hadley also signed a letter issued by the pro-Israel Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP) complaining about the alleged weakness of the JCPOA and calling for the president and Congress to “go on the record now that it is committed to using all means necessary, including military force [to prevent] Iran from producing sufficient fissile material for a nuclear weapon.”

“There’s a lot of common ground among these studies,” Katulis told Jaffe. “The dynamic is totally different from what I saw a decade ago,” when the foreign policy establishment was divided over the Iraq invasion. “Today, the focus among the foreign policy elite is on rebuilding a more muscular and more centrist internationalism.”

As noted in the Post article, officials in the Obama White House sometimes refer to the “foreign policy establishment” as “the Blob.” Obama himself has more charitably called its hawkish and interventionist instincts the “Washington playbook.” Either way, the kind of “courage” and “imagination” that Laipson called for, at least as concerns Iran, is sorely lacking.

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