Opinion: A policy, please, for the Mideast

No matter what the ultimate decision is on a U.S. strike against Syria, an evaluation of our goals and interests might be in order before we start doing big things in the Middle East.


A few facts should be noted.

First, in this post-9/11 world, our strategic interests in the region are determined not by concerns about Israel’s security, but by concerns about our own.

This, to be clear, is not to suggest that Israel’s security is irrelevant. But our nation’s most significant threat comes in the shape of the potential use of weapons of mass destruction on our homeland by an Islamic fundamentalist terrorist group.

The groups that might use such weapons are most likely to be in the Middle East. That region is also the most likely one from which those weapons would be acquired. Although Israel may face the same threat in even more immediate terms, this threat is now directed at us, in the United States, and is real.

Second, the “Arab spring” is a misnomer, and it can be placed atop the large pile of misnamed events of history such as the “cultural revolution.” What we are seeing is nations that have no sense or history or culture of democracy move from being governed by strong men and dictatorial regimes to becoming theocracies, where the intolerance of fundamentalists is the dominant value.

This does not bode well for American or western interests in the region.

These theocracies not only dislike the freedoms western democracies represent; they reject them. They see them as a threat to the true purpose of the State, which is to be subservient to the doctrine of Islam, as they interpret it.

Third, we have potentially more oil reserves in North Dakota than Saudi Arabia, and more oil reserves in Texas than we have in North Dakota. Oil is no longer a driving motive for our involvement in the Middle East.

It does, of course, still play a huge role in the influence and importance of the region. But as we transition toward becoming an energy-exporting nation, our playing cards have changed fundamentally, as should our approach to the region.

Fourth, Israel is a mature state. It is strong, vibrant and has the capability to stand up to any threats from its neighbors. It is also moving away from American influence and has been for some time, as its politics have become dominated by its own fundamentalist parties.

Israel is our ally, friend and a true democracy. But it does not need us the way it did in its more formative years.

At the policy level, we should approach this relationship with an understanding of the change that has occurred. In light of these shifts in the politics and realities of the Middle East, what should our policies be and how should we pursue them?

To begin with, we need a definable policy. At the beginning of the Cold War, George Kennan laid out in his famous memorandum the policy that essentially guided the U.S. approach to the Soviet Union over the next 30 years, and ultimately led to our winning that confrontation.

Since our largest threat today is the use of a weapon of mass destruction by an Islamic fundamentalist group — or even a Middle East nation — it would be helpful if we had a clear approach as to how to run this threat to ground.

This does not appear to be the approach of this administration. Instead, it lurches about from one press conference to the next, stumbling into its decisions on how to deal with Syria.

The right strategy, however, is not that far from the one set forth by Kennan.

Fundamentalism, though based on religion, cannot outlast human nature if it contradicts the basic impulses for freedom and a better lifestyle. This is especially true when it leaves the safety of mosques or churches or synagogues and has to deliver on lifestyle by taking on the role of governing.

Our policy, although subject to a great deal of nuance, should be based on the ideas of containment, communication and targeted action against potential threats. This involves containing the nation states that move to Islamic fundamentalism; challenging those states with communications revealing the better life of people who are not living under theocracies; and, through robust intelligence-gathering, finding and eliminating those who would do us harm.

Under the terms of this policy, Syria is of no significant strategic interest to us, except for its cache of chemical weapons. Whoever ends up in control there will undoubtedly not be a friend or ally of ours, whether or not we intervene. It is a place we can wait out.

Our only interest there is to destroy or control the chemical weapons. Ironically, the Russian proposal may allow us to accomplish this outcome.

This has been a jumbled process that may turn out well. However, it should establish beyond any question that what we really need now is for President Obama to set a definable policy that gives us a clear path forward in dealing with the Middle East.

Judd Gregg is a former governor and three-term senator from New Hampshire who served as chairman and ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee. He is the CEO of SIFMA, a financial industry lobbying group.