Top Ten Middle East Policy Challenges for the US in 2008
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10. Helping broker a deal in Lebanon between the March 14 Movement and the Shiites so that a new president can be elected and a national unity government can be formed.
Lebanon's economy was badly damaged by the Israeli war on the poor little country in summer of 2006. Tourism is a big part of that economy, and is being hurt by the continued political instability. Given historically high oil prices, Iran will probably make $56 billion from petroleum sales this year. That gives it lots of carrots to hand out in Lebanon. If the Lebanese were better off, foreign oil money would not be as important to them. Likewise, the country's poverty breeds social ills. Hizbullah militiamen might be harder to find if there was well-paying work for young men in the south. The dire poverty of Palestinians in camps such as Nahr al-Bared near Tripoli has made them open to predations by Mafia-like groups linked to al-Qaeda. Just a couple of weeks ago, Lebanese security broke up a plot to blow up churches in Zahle on the part of a small group of jihadis. An economically flourishing Lebanon would be less likely to be beset by these ills. The Levant is not that far away from the US or its major interests, and it is very unwise to allow the pathological situation in Lebanon to fester. A prosperous, healthy Lebanon is good for US security and is less likely to become the cat's paw of regional powers hostile to US interests.
9. The US should exercise its good offices to encourage continued dialogue between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The capture of Baghdad by the Shiites and the ethnic cleansing of most Sunnis from it have set the stage for a big Sunni- Shiite battle for the capital as soon as the US troops get out of the way. It is absolutely essential to Gulf security, and to American energy security, that Saudi Arabia and Iran not be drawn into a proxy Sunni-Shiite war in Iraq. Keeping in close contact with each other and with Iraqis of the other sect is the best way for them to avoid a replay of the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s. Those in the Bush administration who dream of an Israeli-Saudi alliance against Iran are playing with fire, a fire that is likely to boomerang on the US. If the Persian Gulf goes up any further in flames, the resulting unprecedentedly high petroleum prices will likely finally produce a bad impact on the US economy. Instead, the US should be attempting to bring Iran in from the cold, now that the NIE has absolved it of nuclear-weapons ambitions.
8. Congress should expand funding for, and guarantee the future of, the Combatting Terrorism Center at West Point. Its researchers do among the very best jobs of analyzing the writings and activities of the Salafi Jihadis, and so of combatting them. Few government institutions are as effective. If the US government were serious about the threat of terrorism, I would not even have to make this plea. Of course, if Bush and Cheney had really cared about the threat of al-Qaeda, they would have gone after it and gotten Bin Laden and al-Zawahiri rather than rushing off on a fool's errand in Iraq.
Juan Cole teaches Middle Eastern and South Asian history at the University of Michigan and is author of the forthcoming "Napoleon's Egypt: Invading the Middle East."