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Fought: How can the U.S. measure success in the Middle East?


Tuesday, June 09, 2009

'Success" in foreign policy is usually measured in terms of satisfying national "interests." The United States has two interests in the Middle East:

* Access to oil (at a reasonable price).

* Survival of the state of Israel.

Both interests can be satisfied by keeping the Arabs divided. Fortunately, that has proved to be very easy. Unfortunately, that policy leads nowhere.

The Carter administration thought "peace" in the Middle East, followed by progress, might be a better policy.

One popular axiom about the Middle East is that you cannot make war without Egypt and you cannot make peace without Syria. When Carter brought Egypt into the Camp David Accords, he took war off the table a noble step. "Making Peace," by bringing in Syria, was left to future presidents.

The hope of many was that Syria could be brought in once President Hafez al-Assad died, adding his son, Bashar (a Western-educated ophthalmologist), to the equation. Those hopes proved wrong, but they linger. Syria not Iraq or Iran remains the key to peace.

One measure of President Barack Obama's performance is how well he incorporates Syria into ongoing "peace processes."

Why has Islam, which once dominated the world in terms of trade, scientific discovery and law, become so economically poor, so scientifically irrelevant and so legally hidebound? Bernard Lewis, a well-known Middle East scholar, says the answer is twofold.

First, the world of Islam has had difficulty separating religion from science or other affairs of state. Scientific advancement was stymied because questions were addressed or dismissed on the basis of compatibility with religion rather than evidence.

Second, women were excluded from economic and political activity as well as formal education. This deprived the Islamic world of the intellectual capabilities of 50 percent of its population; it then assigned the role of bringing up and educating its children to those it refused to educate.

Lewis argues that the Islamic world will not move toward modernity until it is inclusive of women and it redefines the role of Sharia law in civil life. The degree to which Obama can open the door for scientific advancement, economic ventures, university exchanges or even to the Arab media like broadcast giant al-Jazeera may be appropriate as a crude measure of his performance.

President George W. Bush put democracy on the table in Iraq. In theory, democracy would be simultaneously inclusive as well as be less threatening to its neighbors but that's still in theory. Nonetheless, Obama's performance should be evaluated in terms of its effectiveness in producing stability in Iraq.

Finally, Islamic countries have large, young, male populations and are plagued with rampant unemployment. When young men have nothing productive to do, they fight. Obama's performance must be measured against how well it provides social and economic mobility to this collection of Muslim youth.

"Peace" and progress in the Middle East will not come without missteps. It will be at least as difficult as our attempts to define that which our founders held to be self-evident that "all men are created equal." We spilled blood over every word.

But the process must be started. This is too important to be left to chance. Here are four reasonable measures for the evaluation of Obama's performance:

* Has he expanded productive, permanent contact between the modern, industrialized, scientific world and the Islamic world?

* Has that contact led to economic progress, redefinition of Sharia law in civil society and/or inclusion of women in society?

* Has he brought Syria into regional discussions?

* Has he brought political and economic stability to Iraq?

Fought, who lives in Georgetown, holds a doctorate from Brown Unviversity's Thomas Waton Center for Foreign Policy Development and the A. Alfred Talbmann Center for Pu Policy.

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