Atlantic Council Event: Changing America’s Approach to Middle East Security

Yesterday’s Panelists at the Atlantic Council photo credit

Yesterday, the Atlantic Council held an event concerning the post Iran nuclear ‘deal’ or ‘no deal’ Middle East. In addition, the panel focused on a set of US foreign policy issues that needed to change in order to produce a more robust US strategy for the Middle East. The chief aim of the event was to launch a new report from the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security entitled, “The New Containment: Changing America’s Approach to Middle East Security,” by Bilal Y. Saab. The panel consisted of Bilal Y. Saab, a Resident Senior Fellow for Middle East Security at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security — The Atlantic Council, Barry Posen, the Director of the Security Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Richard Haass, the President of the Council on Foreign Relations. Moderating the event was Barbara Starr, a Pentagon Correspondent from CNN. Bilal Saab began the panel discussion with an outline of his newly published report, by first stating the Middle East is burning, and a ‘deal’ or ‘no deal’ means the hard-work in the relationship with Iran is just beginning. The U.S., Bilal goes on to say, needs to develop a more comprehensive strategy for the Middle East. However, it is important to understand the U.S. cannot fix the problems in the Middle East, because the root problems need to be addressed first. Essentially, the Middle East needs real political and economic development. More importantly, Bilal posited, the U.S. is not the vehicle for change in the Middle East, change must come from within the region. If the U.S. continues to try and change the Middle East, as opposed to helping the process, it may de-legitimize the process of reform. One of the main problems in the Middle East at the present moment is the fact security is the chief concern for governments as opposed to government reforms. Thus, the smartest move for the U.S. is to help regional partners with the least amount of violence. This led to Bilal’s six key policy reforms needed in U.S. policy, which are beyond the current strategy of the Obama administration’s “Stay the Course” and the “Freedom Process” of the Bush era. Simply put, the “Freedom Process” put a special emphasis on military intervention and the introduction of ‘democratic elections’ over political and economic development. However, Bilal offered the six pillars for security, he felt was necessary for building a more robust strategy for the US in the Middle East. That is the prevention of Iranian nukes, deterrence of large scale conflict, try to stop escalation between Israel — Hamas and Hezbollah, degrade violent extremist groups — defeat is up to the Arabs, reduce the size and scope of civil wars — prevent spillover and limit Iran’s influence that destabilizes the region. Interestingly enough the response to the outlined security pillars by Bilal was countered by Barry Posen. Instead of seeing the Iran deal as one obstacle to be navigated through to alleviate one of the problems in the Middle East, instead, it only provides a narrow solution to the wider problems in the region relating to imperial Iran. A deal, essentially raises the status of Iran, they get to maintain some of their nuclear capacity, and they get a huge increase in resources to further their regional ambitions. A deal does not get rid of the nuclear threat completely, it merely delays it 10 or 15 years. In a sense, managing Iran’s nuclear program becomes a long-term part of the U.S.’s statecraft and foreign policy, regardless of a deal or not. If there is no deal, a lot of the outcomes rest on who is at fault with the breakdown of talks. If it is Iran, Europe will have no problem keeping the sanctions in place. However, if it is the U.S., then it will be far more difficult to maintain the sanctions regime. Similarly, Richard Haass noted the difficulty in a failed deal would result in increased difficulty to maintain the sanctions indefinitely, and it would become a serous chore for future presidents. If there is a deal, then the focus shifts from short-term concerns to the long-term. However, many of the U.S.’s regional allies are more comfortable having the U.S. and Iran at odds with each other. Essentially, a deal with Iran brings with it the reality that one day the U.S. and Iran may have better relations. At least from the point of view of regional allies. On the issue of ISIS as a threat to the region, the panelists were generally in agreement. Especially, when juxtaposed next to the ambitions of Iran. Moreover, they all generally agreed that ISIS does not pose a direct threat to the U.S. domestically at the present moment. One of the interesting points came from Bilal, when he stated ISIS is just another manifestation of the region’s core problems. The Middle East needs to start the long process of rooting out the organization, but first, they must degrade the organization. This is a problem, because this is something the Middle East is currently incapable of doing. However, Richard Haass noted the U.S. should only attempt to manage ISIS, and should not attempt to degrade or destroy. This sets the stage for another U.S. failure in the Middle East. The reason being, ISIS is resilient, because it is state like, and operates like a network. Instead, the U.S. should do things like supporting countries with large refugee and IDP populations. In addition, to supporting our regional allies and managing ISIS is the need to be friends with groups fighting against ISIS, according to Barry Posen. In addition, the U.S. should stick to spying and containment.

Originally published at on July 9, 2015.

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