The minefield of serious policy issues facing the Middle East is readily apparent to anyone who gives the newspapers even a cursory glance. The region is peppered with conflicts and disturbing long-term trends with implications for United States foreign policy aims. It is impossible to tackle all these issues at once. In order to deal in a rational fashion with a dozen simultaneous crises, we must prioritize. We have to differentiate between major existential issues and the relatively more minor skirmishes that do not threaten to spread. Only with such a list can we clear the hurdles one by one.
The dangerous Iranian regime currently in power has presented us with the overriding issue of the entire Middle East. Ahmadinejad and his theocratic cohorts are working to destabilize security globally with their nuclear weapons program. They are targeting Israel specifically through sponsorship of terror groups and – according to Tehran’s own claims – hundreds of missiles. The distinguished ranking member Ms. Ros-Lehtinen and I are co-sponsoring two bills to tighten sanctions on Iran and to create a fuel bank that would expose Iran’s intentions to build weapons with its supposedly peaceful nuclear program. This legislative package is just the beginning; we must apply and keep pressure on Tehran until its nuclear ambitions are terminated completely.
The Iranian regime’s ascent to power has occurred in tandem with the rise of Islamist fundamentalist terror throughout the region. The gravity of the threat from terror organizations and their state sponsors must be underestimated. They have cleverly exploited a series of inter-locking political and social problems plaguing the entire region: poor governance, lack of freedom, defective educational systems, decaying intellectual life, poverty, unemployment, the youth bulge, ethnic and sectarian nationalism, inter-state rivalries, and burgeoning populations of refugees. An effective and integrated U.S. foreign policy would address all of these interdependent social, economic, and political problems.
These issues manifest themselves in various national and regional conflicts that deserve a carefully crafted foreign policy. The weary nation of Lebanon is now tenuously sovereign after serving for so long as little more than a training ground for terrorists and a colony for Syria. Its army thus far has acquitted itself well in its ongoing fight against terrorists who are based in Palestinian refugee camps. We must help the Lebanese government maintain internal cohesion, fight off Hezbollah, and remain truly independent from Syria.
We must craft a policy toward Syria that prevents it from further disrupting stability across the region – in Iraq, in Lebanon, and in Israel – and that weans it from Iran’s sphere of influence. Bashar al-Asad should cease repression at home, end his regional subversion, and stop meddling in Lebanon once and for all.
Iran and Syria are among our top priorities, but not far behind is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
A realist peace agreement is indeed vital for the parties involved, but it is not the key to unlocking the whole Middle East, as many among the foreign-policy establishment argue. Their misguided theory that the region would be a completely harmonious, free, and well-governed haven if only peace could be reached between Israel and the Palestinians is absurd. But it is clear that an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, would not solve Syria and Iran, would not curtail Sunni and Shiite conflict raging in Iraq and across the region, and it would not bring peace to Lebanon.
That said, I certainly do not belittle the importance of the Israeli-Palestinian situation. For more than a half-century, a central pillar of our Middle East policy has been the monumental effort to achieve the security of the state of Israel. That will not come about unless the Palestinian issue is resolved. And of course, the Israeli-Palestinian matter has wide resonance in the Muslim community, particularly in the Arab world.
I am very cautiously encouraged by the decision of Palestinian Authority President Abbas to put an end to the Hamas government and to install in its place a government led by former World Bank official Salaam Fayyad, whom I know very well. I support the thrust of the President’s initiative to strengthen this new Fayyad government, although we await many of the details of the Administration’s plan, especially regarding assistance to Palestinian security forces.
So hovering over the peace effort is the question of whether Israel can undertake serious peace efforts – and whether we should push it to do so – with a Palestinian leader who controls only a divided population since the Hamas coup in Gaza last month. Abbas is well-known to all of us as a weak leader who refuses to reform Fatah by shaking up the corrupt old guard. The unity of the Palestinian people behind a strong, peaceful, effective, government will be a prerequisite for peace.
Any effort to make peace between Israel and the Palestinians would be a litmus test for two Arab nations above all others: Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Cairo must stop making excuses about the smuggling of weapons to Hamas and start cracking down in earnest. Cairo needs to use better intelligence and halt the arms trade by strangling it at its source in the Sinai, and not at the Gaza border.
As for Riyadh, the Saudis have talked a good game about peace but have done next to nothing to facilitate it. When the Speaker and I had a long session with the king of Saudi Arabia, it was clear that while he strongly advocates a Palestinian-Israeli peace, he’s unwilling meaningfully to participate in bringing it about. The Saudis need to support the Abbas-Fayyad government, whose annual budget amounts to the tiniest fraction of the windfall profits Saudi Arabia has reaped from the spike in oil prices in recent times. And the Saudis need – at long last – to engage directly with Israel, the state with which it claims to seek a regional peace.
This morning we will have an overview of the Middle East minefield. The list is daunting, and it is true that our country is preoccupied with Iraq as long as we are engaged in that conflict. But our preoccupation in Iraq must not prevent us from taking what the French call a tour d’horizon, a tour of the horizon, of all the Middle East issues, and we will have a uniquely qualified witness to help us make more sense of this region.