With the Iraq War recently ended, the Afghanistan War winding down, and a standoff over Iran’s nuclear program raising the prospect of a third U.S. military intervention in the Middle East this century, what should the next president do?
Veteran Middle East observers Nicholas Burns and Stephen Kinzer weigh in.
Nicholas Burns is professor of the practice of diplomacy and international politics at the Harvard Kennedy School. He served 27 years in the U.S. Foreign Service and was under secretary of state for political affairs from 2005 to 2008.
The next president will face the most daunting set of foreign policy challenges since World War II. Because the United States remains — economically, politically, militarily and culturally — the most powerful nation on earth, it must continue to be willing to lead in confronting those challenges. We must avoid the temptations at either extreme to act unilaterally or alternatively, to retreat into isolationism.
Iran is, in my view, the number one national security concern the U.S. faces in 2013. A nuclear-armed Iran that continues as the leading state sponsor of terrorism in the world is a grave danger not only to the U.S. but to Israel and our Arab allies in the Middle East.
However it makes no sense to go to war without first making every attempt at direct negotiations aimed at stopping Iran short of a nuclear weapon. The U. S. and Iranian governments have not had a sustained, strategic discussion for 32 years. I would advise the president to pursue diplomacy in 2013 while preserving the right to use force to thwart Iran’s nuclear ambitions as a last resort. We should also close ranks with Israel and achieve a common strategy with the Israeli government.
In Afghanistan, it is critical to continue negotiating an end to the war with the Afghan and Pakistani governments, the Taliban and other interested parties towards a cessation of hostilities. While most of the U.S. forces will depart in 2014, we will need to preserve a modest force to combat al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups. Our goal should be to support the continuation of the Afghan government and no return of the Taliban.
The Arab Revolutions that began in Tunisia and Egypt 20 months ago represent the beginning of a process that could continue transforming the Middle East for a generation. There is no single formula for how the U.S. should respond as this process unfolds. However, we — and the world — will be best served if we remain engaged, work closely with our allies to support reform-minded governments and those who advocate peaceful, democratic change. We need to continue to oppose violent extremism and must reinforce security for our embassies and consulates in the region.
Stephen Kinzer is professor of international relations at Boston University. A long-time foreign correspondent for The Boston Globe and The New York Times, his most recent book is “Reset: Iran, Turkey and America’s Future.”
U.S. military intervention around the world has unanticipated consequences and almost always ends badly. We see this clearly in the Middle East.
The U.S. and Iran have the most dysfunctional international relationship in the world. Had we not overthrown the democratically elected, constitutional government of Iran in 1953, and then spent 24 years propping up a brutal dictator, we might at least have diplomatic relations with the nation that sits in the heart of the Middle East.
In Afghanistan, our “original sin” was arming and training jihadis to fight the Soviet Union in the 1980s. Without our efforts then, the Taliban as we know them today would not exist.
Last year’s overthrow of Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi has resulted in the destabilization of neighboring Mali, as elite ethnic Touareg fighters from the Libyan Army fled with their heavy weapons from the new U.S.-backed regime. Now al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has established control over a broad swath of northern Mali — an area the size of Texas.
Long-term, the greatest foreign policy challenges the U.S. faces are in East Asia. But currently, because such so much of our military and diplomatic resources are tied down in the Middle East, we are unable to look forward and devote sufficient attention to the rest of Asia.
In Afghanistan and Iraq, the next president will have to resist the temptation to get militarily sucked back into the problems those countries will inevitably suffer through in their post-war periods. The president will also have to resist the initial tendency to drift from the increasingly brutal economic sanctions imposed on Iran to outright warfare with that country. Precisely because we are so powerful, the U.S. desperately needs a more humble attitude as we consider how and whether to intervene around the world.
- WATCH video of these lectures — plus a Q & A with Nicholas Burns and Stephen Kinzer — here.
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