Beware partisan punditry on the Middle East

Beware partisan punditry on the Middle East

Joel Rubin
Joel Rubin

WASHINGTON — Syria is in revolt. Negotiations with Iran are complicated. Egypt’s political future is up for grabs. The United States has a significant stake in the outcome of these Middle Eastern challenges.

Yet unfortunately, these dynamic changes are happening at precisely the least serious time of our national conversation — the presidential campaign season.

So while the American people deserve to have a debate about the future of the Middle East, pundits and partisans are obscuring the hard choices our country faces in favor of political posturing.

The pundit playbook is simple: State that president is not doing enough regarding a particular country, then argue that only the most aggressive option will suffice. The most egregious users of this playbook have applied it to U.S. policy toward Syria, Iran and Egypt.

First, take Syria.  The bloodshed there is horrific.  More must be done.  But instead of promoting ideas that the American people support — sanctions and pressure against the Assad regime — President Barack Obama’s critics, such as Sen. John McCain, argue that Obama is doing nothing if he’s not launching a war.   

None of our international partners — either our regional allies or the Syrian opposition — are calling for direct American military intervention.  They are calling for an active American response, including through diplomatic and economic pressure, and that is what the administration is doing.  

But when it comes to political point scoring, it is always easier to claim that one isn’t doing enough if they aren’t sending in the troops.

Then there’s Iran. Our nuclear negotiations with Iran are difficult. This should not surprise anyone. We don’t see eye to eye with Iran on its nuclear program. That is why we are putting pressure on the Iranian regime to change their behavior and demonstrate that they are not working to make a bomb. After three decades of confrontation, of course Iran is going to be a tough negotiating partner.  

Yet time is on our side. An Iranian nuclear bomb is neither imminent nor inevitable.  The current dual track policy of sanctions and diplomacy is having an effect — the Iranian economy is in free fall, the nuclear program is under intense scrutiny, sanctions remain in place, and Iran is back at the table. But some partisans — such as pundit Bill Kristol and the Emergency Committee for Israel — are drawing from the pundit playbook to undercut the smart, strategic policy the administration has in place.

For example, only days after Congress unanimously passed legislation opposing the use of military force against Iran, Kristol loudly urged the president to seek congressional authorization for bombing Iran. That’s despite warnings this week from Israeli Vice Prime Minister Shaul Mofaz, a former chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, that military force is not a panacea, and that one should ask, “How long will we delay the Iranian program” and “What will happen the day after in the Middle East?”

This political point scoring is straight from the pundit playbook. Unfortunately, if acted upon, such calls for military action are the surest way to expedite an Iranian nuclear weapon and drag the United States into a disastrous war.

Lastly, take Egypt.  The Muslim Brotherhood has done well in free and fair elections there.  At the same time, the Egyptian generals are pushing back against the Brotherhood, attempting to cut a political deal so that it will maintain its extensive power and patronage network.  

The United States is not the central player in this Egyptian transition, nor should it be.  But the United States can stay on top of this by being in touch with all the relevant players — the Brotherhood, military and liberal revolutionary youth.  Doing so will help us to shape a peaceful democratic transition that benefits both the Egyptian people and our relationship with them.

Instead, some, such as The Washington Post are criticizing the Obama administration for not taking the harsh step of suspending American aid to that country.  While such a move may make us feel like we are doing something, it would further marginalize us from those who are making the decisions in Cairo. We must resist the temptation to do something that feels good today at the expense of undercutting our influence — however uncertain it may be — tomorrow.

Again, this comes straight from the pundit playbook, which argues that we’re not doing enough until we’re doing too much.

Fortunately, in each of these cases, there is a broad consensus among national security experts about the types of strategies that our future commander-in-chief can use to deal with the Middle East.

On Syria, it’s to continue to ratchet up the pressure on Assad.  On Iran, it’s to be tough negotiators and keep the pressure on, while avoiding missteps through military action.  And on Egypt, it’s to be patient and work with all the parties in the country, rather than isolating ourselves from whichever new structure takes hold there.

Let’s have a real debate and listen to the experts.  But beware the partisans these days.  Their advice during this presidential campaign season may be more about who gets elected in November than about how we advance our interests in the Middle East.

(Joel Rubin, director of policy and government affairs at Ploughshares Fund in Washington, D.C., and a Pittsburgh native, can be reached at His views are his own and not necessarily those of Ploughshares Fund.)