Goodbye, Hillary — Hello, John; the Middle East Awaits You

by Charles Naas

On the Washington Post’s front page February 2 there is a photo of Mrs. Clinton departing the State Department surrounded by admiring staff members with a big smile on her face. She already looks five years younger. And why not? The burden of the Secretary of State is exhausting, generally thankless and terribly complex; each day a new challenge arises or one that you hoped had been put on the back burner reappears. Secretary Kerry, may you age well.

Yet Secretary Kerry’s problems are enhanced by the continued absence of a consensus among prominent politicians on what the United States’ role in a vastly changing world should be. Some are desperately defending actions and policies of the Bush period, many others view “bipartisanship” as a dirty word or a call for surrender of their views and values. Others are locked into one issue, which prevents them from seeing larger schemes of interrelationships — and then we have our neo-isolationists. “Leading from behind” is an implicit recognition of the grave, perhaps insurmountable, problems we face abroad as well as on the Hill. Added to all this, despite President Obama’s sweeping electoral victory, some want to make sure that he fails in whatever he does to ensure that he will be the only black president.

During his first term, Obama tried to pivot US policy and recognize the increasing importance of China and its surrounding countries in East Asia, as well as address new tensions with Russia and the muscular Vladimir Putin who is enjoying his return to preeminence. But, no matter how much Kerry might like to spend more time on the these issues and respond to the urgings of important lobby groups on Africa, Latin America, or even Europe, the Middle East will intrude each day. I Promise. Let’s take a brief overview.

Recently, India and Pakistan were engaging in talks to see what could be done to reduce tensions and look to future relations, but, it seems that every time they get to that point — with US encouragement — something fouls the nest. This time firing across the line of control in Kashmir has been as usual followed by instant charges of blame and perfidy from politicians of both sides. However, even when local peace is regained, the tensions of 55 years and three wars and terrorist actions are almost certain to prevent significant cooperation. Both nations have extreme religious movements and each has substantial nuclear arms with multiple delivery systems. Afghanistan poses an area of special importance for both. Pakistan has posited that Afghanistan is its defense in the event of a war in which India’s superior-sized forces sweeped eastern Pakistan and nuclear war was to be avoided. Both countries are looking ahead to the American departure and trying in advance to out-influence the other. India has opened consulates in important Afghan cities, has increased trade, and offered considerable training and aid.

Afghanistan is looking ahead with both trepidation and hope. The rulers from the heights of Kabul realize that many Afghans are simply weary of the American presence, but are not yet ready to take on the Taliban and strong tribal raiding forces that span the border with Pakistan. Al Qaida may have remaining influence but much of that organization’s appeal has shifted to the Yemen and east and North Africa. Our deadline for ending combat presence is December 2014 but we have continuing huge responsibilities to retire, having done every task possible to give the Afghans a chance to survive as a unified nation with a degree of stability. Talks in Qatar to test possible political detente between the Taliban, Kabul and the US have apparently died on the vine. Iran has strong security and historical interests in whatever happens in western Afghanistan as do the former Soviet nations in the north.

What is there to say about us and Iran? The hostage taking 34 years ago and the victory of the conservative clerics in the post-Shah struggle for control, the chanting even today of Marg ba Amrica (“Death to America”) have left strong negative feelings about that country. From the Iranian point of view, the tenacious beliefs that the US was responsible for the Shah’s every action and that our policy aim is the overthrow of the regime and the institution of a “green” movement in power has made some degree of normality impossible. Israel’s expressed fear of Iran’s nuclear power program reverberates powerfully in a Congress that has imposed rigorous economic and financial sanctions. The so-called P5+1 negotiating team — the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany — is scheduled for another negotiation early in Kerry’s term to ascertain whether extended talks are possible to begin to resolve the great differences that divide us. Any success until after Iran’s elections later this year is highly unlikely and looking further into the future is probably beyond hope unless Israel lowers its concerns and even then Kerry would have to gain a Congressional consensus and untangle the sanctions. The threat of conflict hangs over us.

We will find out some time in the future whether our invasion of Iraq was a great military/political success or a serious strategic mistake. That question remains a very bitter one on the Hill as we have seen in the nasty and contentious interrogation of Chuck Hagel. It will remain a continuing sore between the Republicans and the Obama security team. We were lucky when the Iraqi government would not sign a Status of Forces Agreement with us that would have given American troops legal immunity. A continuing military presence would have made our non-involvement in the on-going Sunni-Shi’a conflict near impossible. As a result of Nouri al Maliki’s decision, we could with honor pull out our forces and let the Iraqis address their problems without us. However, the civil conflict flows over the Kurdish questions, control of petroleum seeps into Iranian Kurdistan, affects substantial Iranian trade, Iranian sympathy for the Shi’a government, and concern over travel to the key religious shrines.

No one is very sure what the US should be doing in Syria. The tens of thousands who are fighting the Assad regime are a collection of secular, democratically-inclined young people perhaps inspired by the Arab spring. Also very much engaged are extreme Salafis, remnants of al Qaida, Sunni fighters from all the neighboring Sunni countries intent on overthrowing Syria’s quasi-Shi’a government, thugs and just about every thing else. Kerry will be under increasing pressure from leading liberal, pro-Israel media, neo-con intellectuals and even a number in his own party “to do something”. Do what is proving to be argumentative and we are nowhere near domestic political agreement. The fighting could spread to Turkey, various Kurdish groups, Jordan and Israel

US and Israeli relations are about as intimate as two nations can have. Disagreements, sure, but usually cleared up quickly. We share ideals and convictions on the need for Israel to be superior militarily and certain of its regional security. The problem for Kerry and past Secretaries is that this very closeness affects one way or another every relationship in the region.

Finally, Egypt again. Tahrir Square is aflame, significant deaths are occurring, the army is probably warming the tanks, and questioning where their loyalties lie. A year or so ago, we were disturbed by the prospect of an elected Muslim Brotherhood, but wisely accepted the decision of the Egyptian people and tried to get along. Mohamed Morsi’s overreach for greater powers than the law permits reopened the fears of the large secular democratic parties and we are now in the middle of a counter reaction and the extensive use of force. We have depleted influence in the country but the importance of Egypt will make our efforts to calm matters inevitable.

So, good morning, Mr. Secretary, good luck and God speed. You assume office at a time that is described by historians as post-Cold War, or post-Colonial, or perhaps post-Ottoman or, simply, the next stage in continuing tension between West and East. Take your pick.

Charles Naas

Charles Naas was Deputy Ambassador and Charge d'Affairs in Tehran during the initial stages of Iran's revolution. Preceding that he was Director of Iranian Affairs and served also in Pakistan, India, Turkey, Afghanistan, as the ME advisor at the US's UN delegation, and retired from The Policy Planning Staff.