A grand bargain for the Middle East

For all their hype, the 79 recommendations made by the Iraq Study Group (ISG) last week amount to a middle-of-the-road stance instead of a bold new direction. The panel paid lip service to the idea of broader diplomacy, even calling for a regional conference. But its thinking is still too narrow and US-centric.

US foreign policy in the Middle East can – and must – do better. It can begin by looking at a bigger map. The violence in Iraq is situated within – and partly connected to – broader tensions endemic to the massive crescent that stretches from Turkey in the northwest, to Sudan and Somalia in the southwest, and to India in the east.

This arc poses major risks to international peace and stability. Yet America's piece-by-piece strategy that sees each crisis in isolation has failed to bring stability or clarity to this regional puzzle. The inability of US policy to recognize the interrelatedness of issues affecting the region has actually fanned the flames of violence there, creating a world profoundly less secure than the one that existed even 10 years ago.

To its credit, the ISG acknowledged that it is impossible to look at Iraq without looking at the broader region. But it did not grapple sufficiently with the question of "why" other regional actors should get involved with helping Iraq. Nor did it tackle squarely the failures of current US regional policy.

On Iraq, for instance, the debate has been about whether the US stays or leaves; on Lebanon, the focus is on disarming Hizbullah; on Iran, it is nuclear technology; in Somalia, it is whether US-backed warlords can get the upper hand over Islamist militias. Confronting these problems individually, as if they could be compartmentalized, won't produce the desired outcome – and it will create new challenges elsewhere. The Iraq war is a prime example.

These conflicts are connected, not just geographically, but also economically, politically, and demographically. That's why a holistic approach is so urgently needed. Specifically, it's time for the US to craft a "grand bargain" for this region. Such a bargain would comprise a comprehensive agreement or set of agreements with all nations in this arc. It will require an unprecedented multilateral approach. And the US will need to work more closely with key partners outside and inside the region.

Dealmaking on this scale requires tremendous political will, something that can come only from understanding that a grand bargain isn't an abstract exercise in diplomacy, but a practical recognition of how violence is linked across the arc.

Most observers around the world, for example (except in Washington) are convinced that the failure to provide for a Palestinian state alongside a safe and secure Israel has fueled anti-American sentiment across the region. Less well known is how instability in Pakistan, partly as a result of the dispute with India over Kashmir, has fueled a hard-line version of Sunni Islam that has destabilized Pakistan and Afghanistan, and provided a safe haven for Al Qaeda. The connections are sometimes gross and sometimes subtle. But they must be dealt with to move US policy beyond simplistic "war on terror" thinking that obscures regional realities in a "with us or with them" dichotomy.

The arc is stressed by shared conflicts, but it is also stitched together by common threads that tend toward peace. A grand bargain could build on many shared interests, collectively addressing the demographic, economic, and security challenges within the region itself and with its external neighbors. This would promote a unique partnership modeled more on the US-European relationship than on past colonial methodologies.

By way of illustration, the Afghanistan component of a grand bargain would require at least three steps: 1) The US must allay Iranian fears of a military sortie by US forces in Afghanistan; 2) Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf must rein in the Pakistani intelligence corps and those Taliban in Pakistan who have been undermining security in Afghanistan; and 3) the US must urge India to be more open to multilateral dialogue on Kashmir, partly to bolster Mr. Musharraf.

America's diplomatic structure must be beefed up to secure this sweeping set of interrelated agreements. It's an investment that would pay substantial dividends. All the countries in the arc – not to mention the US – would benefit from a change in the status quo and would therefore be willing to compromise to gain real security. A radical course correction led by the US could secure lasting, peaceful change throughout the Near East and Africa.

Raj Purohit is a senior fellow at Citizens for Global Solutions. Amjad Atallah is the founder and president of Strategic Assessments.

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