Scholars predict tough road ahead in Mideast

Painting a pessimistic portrait of current U.S.-Middle East relations, scholars at last week’s “Engaging the Middle East: After the Cairo Speech” conference urged the United States to act with restraint as it plans its future moves in the region.

The two-day gathering, sponsored by the Fares Center for Eastern Mediterranean Studies, asked Middle East experts from around the world to evaluate the current state of U.S. affairs in the region. The conference took place around 16 months after President Barack Obama’s speech in Cairo, in which he pledged a new beginning with the Muslim world.

Leslie Gelb (A ’59), president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, delivered the conference’s keynote address on Thursday in Cabot Auditorium.

“The U.S. has had impulses, impressions — impulses to deal with the oil situation, to solve problems that go beyond diplomacy with military force … to democratize the region in our name, in our likeness,” Gelb said. “This is the foreign policy hot-button, and that button gets pushed inside every administration, not to the benefit of good foreign policy.”

Gelb said that the United States today has “worse than no strategy” in the Middle East, a region where issues often appear insurmountable.

“Why is it so hard to have a strategy?” Gelb said before a packed crowd. “It is far and away the most difficult and most complicated part of the world imaginable.”

Moving forward, he said, the United States should act with more restraint in the region.

“Become much more modest about what your interests are and the power you have,” he said. “I don’t think the U.S. has vital interests throughout the region.”

Gelb recommended that the United States consider forming a closer relationship with Iran. He said U.S. interests are closer to Iran’s than to those of any other country in the region and added that the American and Iranian people share a “basic reservoir” of good feelings with each other.

A closer relationship still characterized by strong deterrence could stunt the growth of Iran’s nuclear enrichment program and improve relations, Gelb said.

“That’s the best partnership that can evolve in that part of the world,” he said. “I know that’s a stunning, crazy idea. But think about it.”

In a panel on Friday on Afghanistan and Pakistan, C. Christine Fair, an assistant professor at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, called for improved relations with Pakistan, a country which Gelb the day before had called “far beyond” American power to control.

Fair said U.S. officials must better understand what drives Pakistan’s behavior and its perceptions of threat.

“If we simply want to dismiss Pakistan’s security concerns, we do this at our peril,” Fair said. “It becomes ever more urgent that we put on our Pakistan goggles and try to see the world as they see it.”

U.S. prospects for turning back the tide of al-Qaida-sponsored terrorism in Afghanistan are grim, Fair said. Until resources are diverted away from counterinsurgency efforts in Afghanistan, she said, the United States will struggle to improve relations with Islamabad.

“I can think of nothing more squandering of our resources … than continuing to pursue a counterinsurgency that doesn’t seem realistic by any measure,” she said. “We need to be in a place where we can engage Pakistan, not rely on them to support the insurgency.”

Thursday’s panel on the Arab-Israeli conflict featured disagreement among panelists on the best approach to negotiations. Still, panelists generally agreed that despite Obama’s efforts, the United States faces steep challenges in the region.

Rami Khouri, editor-at-large of Beirut’s The Daily Star, said that the United States’ first priority should be to re-establish its credibility in the region.

“Through its own bias, incompetence and naiveté, the United States has emasculated itself in the Middle East to the point where it could only use military force,” Khouri, who is also director of the Issam Fares Institute of Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, said. “The U.S., when Obama took office, was neither respected nor feared in the region.”

University Provost and Senior Vice President Jamshed Bharucha called the conference a very important educational event given the tensions between the United States and the Muslim world today.

“It seems to me there’s a race on between education on the one hand and conflict and conflagration on the other hand,” Bharucha said in his introductory remarks on Thursday. “We have a responsibility today like we’ve never had before to prepare our students to be the kinds of leaders who will move to bridge these divides rather than further exacerbate these divides.”