Is there an organizing principle for the Middle East? The question seems simplistic, even hopeless, what with war in three countries and a coming showdown over Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Yet it is the best question to ask before a meeting between President Obama and leaders from six Arab nations.
The gathering will be long in diplomatic time, over two days from May 13 to 14. And it will be unusually intimate, held both in Washington and at the presidential retreat of Camp David. These are signals from the United States that the region could be ripe for a grand vision of stability.
The six nations, dominated by Saudi Arabia, are members of the Gulf Cooperation Council. This group of Arab and Sunni-led monarchies are seeking more American help against Iran’s aggression on a number of fronts, from Yemen to Lebanon.
Yet Mr. Obama is also in talks with Iran to clinch a deal on its nuclear program and prevent a dangerous arms race in the region. And the United States military is indirectly working with Iran to roll back Islamic State militants in Iraq. Obama even hopes a nuclear deal with Iran will lead it to end its post-1979 revolutionary zeal and take a moderate path.
"It's possible that Iran, seeing the benefits of sanctions relief, starts focusing more on the economy and its people,” Obama told The New York Times.
Is the United States working both sides of the street, so to speak? In a way, yes, but not to equivocate, buy time, or keep the US from further war. Rather, the Obama strategy seems aimed at helping the Middle East find an equipoise of power relationships defined by mutual respect of each nation-state’s dignity.
For now, achieving such geopolitical equilibrium would be the best moral order for a region beset by those who insist on a conformity to their religious practices or who seek regional dominance based on past imperial glory or other reasons.
Regional stability would be better achieved if all Mideast nations were democratic, of course, especially if each could create a balance between political Islam and civic freedoms, as in Turkey and Tunisia. But that kind of constitutionalism is up against other isms, from monarchy to theocracy to ethnic nationalism. With those forces still destabilizing the region, simply having each country or militant group honor the sovereignty of the nation state would be a step up.
This US strategy requires difficult decisions on tactics. Should the US promise a nuclear shield for Saudi Arabia if Iran is bent on nuclear weapons? How much can Iran be trusted if a nuclear pact is signed? Will US combat troops be needed in Iraq to stop Islamic State? How much should the US condone Saudi-led warfare in Yemen?
To answer such questions, the US and its negotiating partners – whether Saudi or Iranian, whether Sunni or Shiite – need a common vision for the region. The best starting point is respect of each nation’s territory.