The last session of the second annual conference of Arab Center Washington DC, held on October 26, 2017, concentrated on policy recommendations for the future. Panelists discussed current conditions in the Arab world and offered policy recommendations for the Trump Administration on how best to deal with the Arab world in general and how to address individual Arab states. The panelists also offered specific recommendations for countries in the Middle East and for the international community.
I. Assessments of Current Realities and Recommendations for the Trump Administration
President Donald Trump’s administration sees value in disruption and in following an unpredictable path: Rather than coming up with a long-term overarching strategy, the Trump Administration is likely to respond by a more ad-hoc approach. Hence Arab countries should adjust their expectations accordingly and capitalize on areas of productive cooperation that are presented to them.
Three areas of focus: The administration is likely to continue its focus on narrowly defined short- and medium-term goals in the areas of countering militancy, solidifying security cooperation, and increasing economic ties.
Adopt a structural outlook to unpack Arab dysfunctional governance: The political crises unfolding in the region today are in large part the result of decades of dysfunctional governance that served elites and excluded ordinary citizens.
Socioeconomic conditions: The Arab region comprises almost 400 million people, half of whom are low-income, marginalized, and desperate. As the 2016 Arab Opinion Index poll shows, 78 percent of Arab respondents said they are “living in hardship or in need.” There are massive structural problems that led to the collapse of a legitimate social contract between citizens and their states, and this continues to produce low trust in government.
Arab agency: The Arab world is not a passive victim of the regional and global proxy wars playing out on its soil. It is important to affirm the agency, responsibility, and voice of Arab citizens who continue to deal with complex political realities, while also recognizing the role of spoiler external actors and holding them accountable.
Citizens beyond the realm of the state: A growing percentage of Arab citizens (perhaps around 10 percent) are living beyond the realm of the state. Civil wars and the absence of basic services have led millions of Arab citizens to emigrate abroad. Others are outside the realm of the state because they have re-asserted their tribal origins or joined subnational groups or militant entities.
There is no military solution for the “war on terror”: The security-centric approach that the US government and many of its partners have adopted in dealing with terrorist groups has proven counterproductive. Without addressing the political, economic, and social causes of extremist violence, militant groups will simply reemerge in a different form.
It is important not to mistake defeating the Islamic State (IS) for defeating the phenomenon of terrorism. As long as the underlying root causes of militant violence persist in the region, then the defeat of one group will simply be followed by the rise of another. An illustrative example was the defeat of al-Jama’a al-Islamiya in Egypt, only to have al-Qaeda rise and expand after their demise; and when everyone thought al-Qaeda was defeated, IS appeared and grew. In all three cases, the response to these groups was strictly a securitized one, and in all three cases such an approach only yielded short-term results.
Seek political solutions for stabilization: Governments are advised to shift from a security-centric to a more comprehensive approach that addresses political vacuums and the social and economic conditions that allow violence to thrive in the first place. Moreover, if al-Qaeda was an unexpected result of the Cold War, and IS was in large part blowback from the invasion of Iraq, then US, regional, and international partners should prepare a strategy and contingency plan for a potential backlash from current anti-IS operations. Such efforts should be centered on supporting legitimate and credible governance in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere.
Invest in the diplomatic capabilities of the United States: Military action cannot be an end in itself, but a means for political and diplomatic solutions to crises. To that end, the US government should reconsider its decision to cut 30 percent of the Department of State’s (DoS) budget; this budget cut will surely curtail US diplomatic capabilities in the short and long term.
Interagency cooperation is crucial when devising and implementing US foreign policy. Placed at the center of such efforts, the DoS can bring comprehensive perspectives and approaches to the region’s most critical issues, including human rights and political, social, and economic development.
II. Country-specific Recommendations
Invest in a credible political process owned by Syrians: The United States can help de-escalate the influence of regional actors —such as Russia and Iran —and facilitate a more credible political process led and owned by Syrians.
Support an inclusive political process in Iraq to resolve the Kurdish crisis: This will also prevent rising ethnic tensions in Iraq, which are likely to be exacerbated by external actors. Simultaneously, care should be taken regarding Russian, Iranian, and Turkish manipulation of local politics to increase their regional influence.
The United States needs to reevaluate its role in the Saudi/UAE-led war in Yemen: The war’s humanitarian toll continues to rise, and the longer the military campaign continues, the harder it will be to reach a political solution to the conflict.
Freezing the expansion of illegal Israeli settlements is the least the US government can push for: The United States has been successful in the past at persuading the Israeli government to freeze settlements, and the Trump Administration should promote this approach at a minimum.
Restore US assistance to Tunisia: Supporting Tunisia’s democratic transition is a low-cost, high-benefit investment, and an easy “win” that the Trump Administration could pursue. Washington should reconsider slashing aid to Tunisia at this critical time in the country’s transition.
Support a diplomatic solution to the current Gulf crisis: The boycott campaign against Qatar, led by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt, is destabilizing the region and causing adverse political, economic, and social effects. Furthermore, the rift is negatively affecting US-Gulf security and political cooperation.
Reevaluate the US approach to curtailing Iran’s destabilizing activities: While President Trump has adopted a strong anti-Iran stance, the United States should be careful not to take counterproductive measures that only create more vacuums for Iran to exploit.
Indeed, Iran is good at capitalizing on political vacuums to increase its influence, which was the case in Iraq and Syria. The question now is: What is the next vacuum in the region? The current GCC crisis may have increased Iran’s ties in the region as a result of Qatar’s expanded diplomatic and economic engagement after the crisis began.
In Iraq, countering Iran means finding a political solution to the Kurdish crisis and supporting a credible and legitimate government for all Iraqis.
III. Recommendations for the International Community
Reevaluate the price of inaction: The United States and many other western countries did not see Syria as a “core strategic interest” in 2011 or 2012, but years later it proved to be so. In an era of globalized conflicts, spillover from local and regional conflicts can be easily internationalized.
Find legitimate ways for international cooperation between Arabs and regional and international actors: The international community can explore the model of a “Marshall plan” for the Middle East and North Africa region to support sustainable stabilization and post-conflict reconstruction efforts. It is also important to support civil society as not all power resides in the nation-state. It is also critical to buttress local grassroots organizations that address local concerns and grievances.