If I am correct that the United States has once again fallen into a quagmire in the Middle East, one with some of the same features that marked the Vietnam War, then—just as in Vietnam—the appropriate next step is a strategy for extrication and new thinking. I propose six paths to that strategy.
First, pursuing conditions for a just peace between Israel and Palestine. At a minimum, a just peace should include an end to Israel’s building of settlements in disputed territory, a dramatic increase in international development aid to the Palestinian Authority, shared jurisdiction in Jerusalem with assured access to all religions, and exchanges of security assurances.
Second, putting Pakistan on notice that unless its intelligence apparatus ends its interference in Afghanistan, US military ties will terminate and diplomatic relations with Pakistan will be downgraded.
Third, setting an irreversible timetable for US withdrawal of all troops and advisers from Iraq and Afghanistan by mid-2015.
Fourth, settling the nuclear issue with Iran, normalizing US-Iran relations, and seeking Iran’s cooperation in the fight against ISIS.
Fifth, deciding that the primary role in dealing with ISIS should rest with the governments and peoples in the region. Consequently, US ground and air operations against ISIS positions should be gradually reduced and should end by mid-2015. The US should focus on urging and, where desired, brokering political settlements—between Turks and Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites, and even between the Assad regime and insurgents in Syria—as the best way to undermine the appeal of ISIS.
Sixth, making nonmilitary assistance the centerpiece of US Middle East policy. US aid should focus on protecting and enhancing water supplies, education, job-producing projects, and refugee relief.
Will these six paths “resolve” the Middle East problems? Of course not; any resolution depends on local actors. Without their will to change, the US can do little of lasting value. The purpose of my ideas is to remove the US from the central role in the region’s affairs. No longer will any country—not Israel, not Pakistan, not Saudi Arabia—be allowed to veto US policies. Local governments, armies, and militias will no longer be able to operate on the expectation that the US will bail them out of financial, political, or military trouble. These new realities may well compel US allies to think seriously, and really for the first time, about new approaches to peace and security. And if they don’t, they will suffer the consequences of their limited vision and incompetence.
Who will support these frankly audacious ideas? To be honest, I think both the left and the right would have plenty of objections, and in the US Congress, I would be surprised if a single member would stand behind my agenda even if he or she agreed that US policy has failed. Any politician who suggests a radical reappraisal of Middle East policy would risk being called an appeaser, or worse. Thus, my hope lies with nongovernmental groups in each Middle East country as well as in the US—groups devoted to human rights, peace, engagement, environmental protection, the empowerment of women—to persist in promoting conflict prevention and social justice. I can think of no more effective way to move the Middle East conflicts away from total destruction and endless violence.