By Brian Katulis
I want to thank Foreign Policy.com and Marc for inviting me to post on my trip to the Gulf. While I was in Kuwait, a prominent American scholar on the Middle East mentioned that he thought Abu Aardvark was the best Middle East policy-oriented blog in business, and I wholeheartedly agree, and not just because Marc's my friend.
There are several must-read blogs out there - the COIN nerds have some interesting insights, but let's face it, their musings tend to be a bit blinkered by self-referential navel gazing with an overemphasis on the U.S. military and what U.S. boots on the ground do. That's a limited perspective and doesn't lend itself to a complete analysis of the political, social, and economic trends happening out in the real world. Juan Cole's Informed Comment is great, but sometimes doesn't provide the widespread coverage of the region that Abu Aardvark does. And as a progressive, of course I'd be remiss in not mentioning the POMED blog (because democracy and human rights should still matter in U.S. policy) and my own organization's family of Think Progress blogs for a view on all that is just and righteous.
I posted several times on several topics on my Gulf trip here - on the role of the Gulf on many fronts of U.S. policy, the military arms spending spree in the region, the regional movement towards nuclear energy, and views on Afghanistan in Muslim-majority countries -- but the one overriding question that inquiring minds wanted to know the answer to on our trip was: what is the Obama administration's strategy for the Middle East and South Asia?
The administration has been in office for a little over two months now, and the president's had his hands full, of course, dealing with the worst economic mess since the Great Depression. But as I argued in this piece last week, the Obama administration has hit the ground running -- building an impressive team from day one and sending the right signals to the region, such as President Obama's first television interview with Al-Arabiya.
Multiple policy reviews are underway - teams are working hard to craft strategies on the Arab-Israeli front, Iran, and Iraq. On Iraq, President Obama presented his administration's new strategy last month, and just this morning he unveiled the results of a comprehensive review on Afghanistan and Pakistan in a speech that I attended at the White House.
So the pieces are in place but now the really tough part is about to begin -- making the strategies operational and starting to implement new policies in a part of the world where it is necessary to expect the unexpected, and of course prepare for the expected. In effect, the time for review and study is rapidly coming to a close, and the administration will be faced with some tough choices.
For now, President Obama and his top officials have largely relied on broad statements outlining general directions; a great example of this came this past Tuesday night, in President Obama's prime time news conference, when he was asked about Arab-Israeli issues and the prospects for a two-state solution. Obama launched into a vague response, a fine but broad statement of intent.
But on the Arab-Israeli front, and other key pieces of Middle East and South Asia policy, some tough choices loom on the horizon -- ones that will require the administration to stake out an actual policy. Here are just a few:
1. Israeli settlements - There are strong signs that the new Israeli government may be moving towards new settlement expansions. This is problematic, because as my CAP colleague Moran Banai points out, any such movement towards more settlements would amount to going back on pledges and commitments made in an effort to advance the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The back-and-forth between Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Jerusalem mayor Nir Barakat over demolitions of Arab houses in Jerusalem could be the opening salvo in a broader debate between a new U.S. administration and a new Israeli government that may not see eye-to-eye on issues like settlements.
2. Coordinating Iran and Iraq policies. Though the policy review on Iran is not yet complete, it seems that the Obama administration will move in the direction of tough diplomatic engagement combined with continued efforts to isolate Iran economically and diplomatically.
As I've pointed out before, trying to isolate Iran economically as a means to gain greater leverage diplomatically -- probably a wise approach by itself in my view - is easier said than done when one looks at Iran's extensive economic ties with all of its neighbors. The strategic framework agreement that the United States and Iraq signed -- a separate agreement from the status of forces agreement -- envisions deep ties between the United States and Iraq, a country that itself has deep and growing ties with its Iranian neighbor. Iraqi leaders have repeatedly said that they do not want to get caught in the middle between a broader U.S.-Iran fight. Coordinating a new Iran policy while implementing a new Iraq strategy also falls in the category of easier said than done.
3. How to deal with the questions of Hezbollah and Hamas engagement. The June elections in Lebanon and the continued talk of a possible Palestinian unity government both could present new policies challenges for the Obama administration -- if Hezbollah does strongly in the Lebanese elections, how will the Obama administration respond? How will the administration adapt its policies to support Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority if Hamas, a foreign terrorist organization, joins a unity government?
4. Actually developing an operational policy on Pakistan. Finally, today the Obama administration took a much-needed step in the right direction on the Pakistan piece of its policy. Increasing support for the democratically-elected civilian government and massively increasing development assistance to the country are steps that many think tanks have been calling for - including mine, in this report that I coauthored last year. But saying we will increase development assistance is one thing -- getting Congress to approve it is another, and even more difficult is actually developing programs that make sure that the money has some impact and isn't lost to the corruption that's endemic in Pakistan also falls into the "easier said than done" category.
Those are just four challenges that one can easily envision coming to down the pike in the next few months. In developing operational policies on these and other fronts - and in moving beyond the general strategy statements (which are necessary to set the framework) -- the Obama administration will demonstrate how far it is willing to go to push for fundamental changes in the Middle East and South Asia.
One story in the Middle East that hasn't gotten much attention is the move by many countries in the region to develop their nuclear energy production capacities - an important shift that should impact any analyses that examine broader regional dynamics. Our delegation to the Gulf heard a good bit about this civilian nuclear energy push in the Emirates, and it seems inevitable that the Obama administration will preside over a new expansion of nuclear energy in the Middle East -- even in the oil-rich parts.
Everyone knows about the Iranian nuclear program and the widespread concerns about it - Sandy Spector, a nonproliferation expert who was on the Gulf trip and currently is deputy director of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, wrote this excellent piece on Obama's emerging strategy towards Iran and its nuclear program. Clearly, the Iranian nuclear program is one of the leading challenges facing the new administration.
Beyond Iran, there's been a race between the United States, Russia, France, and China to sign nuclear cooperation deals with countries in the Middle East, and all of these efforts could represent important steps to shaping the broader regional economic, political, and security architecture in the region. The history of nuclear programs in the Middle East is a long and complicated one -- much too long for a blog post, and it involves things like President Eisenhower's "Atoms for Peace" program that supported early Iranian efforts to develop its civilian nuclear industry.
The past three years has seen a renewed push for civilian nuclear energy in several corners of the Middle East. A few noteworthy moves and announcements include:
What's the impetus behind this effort to go nuclear and do it legit? Obviously, the Iranian nuclear program is a key motivation. Countries in the Middle East and in the West are wary of the Iranian nuclear program, and they want to send a signal that pursuing peaceful nuclear energy under the framework of international safeguards is the way to go. There is also the possibility that these states want to develop the technical expertise necessary to develop a nuclear weapon if they perceive it to be necessary.
Second, there are real energy development needs in the medium to long term for many Middle Eastern countries, particularly those like Egypt that have a growing population and few or dwindling oil and gas resources. Even the oil-rich countries in the GCC are concerned about providing for their energy needs - a lot of power is expended to power air conditioning, desalination plants, and, yes, even indoor ski slopes in the desert. Just this week, the Emirates announced it would join a GCC-wide electricity grid, which is the type of cooperative regional venture U.S. policy should look to support. Still, members of Congress like Rep. Edward Markey wonder why these countries need nuclear power specifically to meet there energy needs when other options like solar power exist.
For the Obama administration, these civilian nuclear programs present both opportunities and risks. The opportunity is to further deepen some alliances with key countries in the region, and do it in a way that shows Iran that there are positive rewards available for operating civil nuclear power under tight international safeguards. The risks are obvious -- many countries (like Pakistan and India) have used civil nuclear assistance as a stepping stone to nuclear weapons programs. And the more fissile material that exists anywhere, the greater the chance there is for it to leak into the hands of terrorist groups, organized crime, or other malicious entities.
President Obama has repeatedly stated a vision for his Middle East policy as one that is integrated -- most recently in his speech last month on Iraq: "...we can no longer deal with regional challenges in isolation - we need a smarter, more sustainable and comprehensive approach." These civilian nuclear cooperation efforts in the Middle East are one piece of the broader puzzles of both non-proliferation policy and regional strategy, and will require careful management.
By Brian Katulis
“Af-Pak” (or “Pak-Af,” depending on your perspective) has topped the two-month old Obama administration’s national security agenda. This part of the world is bound to get more media attention in the coming weeks with the conclusion of the administration’s policy review and the NATO summit early next month.
In the big debates about U.S. policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan, one set of questions that shouldn’t be ignored is how to get others around the world to support efforts to stabilize Afghanistan. The effort to stabilize Afghanistan, after all, is not just about U.S. security - it is about global security. And as I argued in this article for the Middle East Bulletin last week, the countries of the Arab Gulf play a pivotal role in many of the economic, political, and security linkages between the Middle East and South Asia.
With the Obama administration gearing up for a rollout of a new strategy on Afghanistan and Pakistan, one related question to the issue of broader global support seems important: Why don’t other Muslim-majority countries play more of a role in Afghanistan? It’s not that Muslim-majority countries aren’t doing anything at all - but it seems to me that there is room for more to be done, particularly as the effort to stabilize Afghanistan is close to a geographic center of the so-called Muslim world - a bridge between the parts of the Middle East and Asia where the vast majority of Muslims live.
One briefing on my trip to the Emirates that stands out is the session the delegation had with the Special Operations Command in the Emirates. Respecting the ground rules of that briefing - clarified at the outset of the meeting by our hosts as on background (meaning I can use the facts but can’t quote the officials) - here’s what I can say about the small Emirati Special Forces units that have operated on the ground in Afghanistan.
• A couple hundred Emirati Special Forces have operated inside of Afghanistan since 2003, and their role wasn’t publicly acknowledged until the spring of 2008, allegedly catching even the Saudis by surprise.
• These Emirati forces are the only Arab troops on the ground with a full combat mission in Afghanistan - at least publicly acknowledged - and the Emirati forces have seen combat in the volatile south; they also provide support for counterinsurgency activities such as health and education. (Small numbers of Jordanian forces have played a role in Afghanistan, deploying in 2001 and helping with things such as establishing medical services).
• The number one operational challenge is getting intelligence out of U.S. forces, according to one of our briefers - the Australian forces were much better at sharing intel. There were also complaints voiced that the missions received by this unit as not being as serious as they are capable of conducting. (“Pissant” was the phrase used by one).
• Outside of Afghanistan, Emirati forces have also been engaged in Kuwait in 1990-1991, Somalia in 1993, Kosovo in 1999, and in Lebanon and Iraq in diplomatic protection missions, including an effort to offer protection to the president of Iraq’s interim government.
This Emirati presence in Afghanistan is really minor in the larger picture of the foreign troop presence in the country (representing far less than 1 percent of the total foreign troop presence). But these forces have some useful language and cultural sensitivity skills that Western troops lack. And the symbolism is important - and publicly admitting a role in Afghanistan seems like a brave thing to do, especially when one considers other Muslim-majority countries and their stance on Afghanistan.
Besides the Emirates, Turkey seems to be the only Muslim-majority country with large numbers of troops on the ground. A NATO ally, Turkey has hundreds of troops operating as part of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). Of course, having a military presence on the ground isn’t the only way for countries to support the effort to stabilize Afghanistan - although one wonders why countries like Egypt, with nearly half a million active duty military personnel, a country whose regime was the target of some of the same Islamist extremist groups that operate in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and has been the recipient of billions of dollars of U.S. military assistance for the past three decades, doesn’t contribute more to the effort in Afghanistan.
Part of the answer may lie in public attitudes towards the war in Afghanistan in some of these countries - the effort to stabilize Afghanistan may be deeply unpopular, particularly if it has an American face on it. This World Public Opinion.org poll published in February of this year found that 83 percent of Egyptians supported attacks against U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Support for such attacks was varied in other countries (61 percent in Morocco, 29 percent in Pakistan, and 21 percent in Indonesia).
So sending troops may not be an option for some Muslim-majority countries - the question then should be asked, what more can they do to help contribute to political and economic stability in Afghanistan? And will more countries be willing to break the taboo against supporting such efforts?
At the very least, perhaps more countries can help cut off the financial links that sustain terrorist networks that operate in Afghanistan and Pakistan. There are several instances in which the United States froze the assets of organizations it alleges to have evidence of ties to financing terror networks - such as the Kuwaiti Revival of Islamic Heritage Society - but close allies like Kuwait deny the allegations, and the cases remain unresolved. Cutting off these financial links that support extremist networks could be a key to stability in Afghanistan - when the full history of what happened in Iraq in 2007-2008, it will likely reveal the important role in cutting off the financial ties of insurgent and terrorist groups as a key to greater stability. But doing so in Afghanistan and Pakistan will require more cooperation from more countries around the world - including key Muslim-majority countries. As the United States commits more resources to stabilize Afghanistan and Pakistan, it should ask its friends if they are willing to do the same.
The Afghanistan war isn’t the Iraq war, of course - the war in Afghanistan enjoyed greater international legitimacy. And if the Obama administration is committed to using the full range of power - including political and economic power - at America’s disposal - it should ask its friends what they might be willing to do to help another Muslim-majority country seek greater stability and a decent life for their people. If the small Emirati military can contribute forces to the fight, countries with larger budgets and militaries, as well as leverage to cut off ties to terrorist networks, should be able to do more.
By Brian Katulis
In less than three years, the United Arab Emirates has achieved a remarkable turnaround in its image in the United States. After seeing a proposed 2006 deal that would have given operational control of several U.S. ports to a Dubai-based firm get killed in the face of strong public opposition, the Emirates embarked on a full court press inside the Beltway to change its image. As a result, when Emirati investors bought a stake in the NASDAQ stock exchange and invested $7.5 billion in the troubled Citigroup in 2007, hardly anyone took notice.
In our discussions on this trip, a common talking point we’ve heard is that the UAE is now the single largest export market for U.S. goods in the Arab world. One lesser known fact is that good bit of this U.S. export growth to the Emirates comes from rapidly expanding military sales.
The Emirates is a small country about the size of Maine, and it has a total population of nearly 5 million people - about 15 to 20 percent are actually citizens (the rest are guest workers from places like Pakistan, India, and Egypt). The country's small size hasn't prevented it from embarking on a tremendous military buying spree that rivals much larger countries in the region.
Though the actual numbers are difficult pin down, according to this Congressional Research Service report, the Emirates purchased a total of $11.5 billion in defense sales and services from the United States from 2000-2007. A good chunk of this went to the purchase of the F-16s I discussed in yesterday’s post -- the 80 F-16s along with the more than 60 Mirage 2000 fighters give the Emirates more advanced fighter planes than Iran.
Egypt, a country with a population of about 80 million, purchased slightly more than the UAE during the same time period, $11. 9 billion. The Emirates purchased more than Israel and Saudi Arabia, which both came in at a little above $9 billion.
The flow of arms to the country and the region as a whole continues. In the summer of 2007, President Bush announced a series of arms deals in the region totaling at least $20 billion. In late 2008, just before Bush left office, the Emirates announced that it would purchase a $3.3 billion Patriot missile defense system. Last month, the Emirates announced more defense purchases at the IDEX 2009 arms show in Abu Dhabi.
No doubt, the increase in military sales in large part is motivated by regional threat perceptions about Iran. But it is fair to ask in the early months of a new administration the question: how do these increased arms sales to the Emirates and other Middle Eastern countries, combined with what has essentially been a 10-fold increase in the U.S. military presence in the broader Middle East and South Asia since early 2001, add up to a comprehensive strategy for this part of the world? Do all of the pieces fit together?
My discussions on this trip leave me with the distinct impression that there’s a long road ahead in the effort to develop an integrated, coherent regional strategy. As the Obama administration concludes its multiple policy reviews, including an examination of Iran policy and an “Af-Pak” review that is concluding shortly, it has a tough task in making sure all of the different elements of a strategy fit together in this complicated part of the world.
By Brian Katulis
Thanks to Foreign Policy and my friend Marc for inviting me to guest-blog during my current trip to the Arab Gulf.
I'm in the United Arab Emirates as part of a delegation organized by the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), directed by Jon Alterman (check out the program's excellent reports and note here. The U.S. delegation is in the U.A.E. and Kuwait this week to see how people here are thinking about the global economic meltdown, Iran's evolving role in the region, and the increasing emphasis in U.S. policy on Pakistan and Afghanistan (discussed in that order out here).We're also hearing a good bit on the usual mix of Middle East issues like the Arab-Israeli conflict and Iraq.
Relative to Iraq and the Arab-Israeli conflict and other things Marc usually writes about on this blog, the U.A.E. is somewhat of a humdrum place to visit from a U.S. foreign policy standpoint. Headlines in local newspapers talk more about other countries in the neighborhood, rather than events at home.
The day of our arrival, the front page of Khaleej Times, which claims to be the number 1 English language daily here, had the following headlines - "Zardari Pondering Way Out of Crisis" (Pakistan), "Sanctions Childish: Iran" (Iran), "Mega-rich Indians Feel the Pain" (India), and "Under Pressure, Switzerland Opens up on Bank Secrecy" (essentially a global finance story), all right above a large color McDonald's print ad for a 14 dirham value meals (Prompting one to wonder: What exactly is the cost-benefit equation of front-page color ads for fast food restaurants?) The big story seems to be the economy and all of the talk of the "Dubai" model for progress.
But beneath the surface view of the glitz and glammor of the economic talk lurk some of the most complicated security and economic challenges in the world. By virtue of geography and the country's unique role as a financial, trade, and economic powerhouse and go-between, the UAE finds itself at the center of three top-tier national security concerns for the new Obama administration:
1. Iran. The Persian shadow looms large in the Emirates, with many shades of grey in the bilateral relationship between Iran and the U.A.E. At least 100,000 Iranians live in the U.A.E. - with some estimates ranging two to three times larger than that, and the commercial links between the two countries are substantial.
Yet at the same time, the ruling elite quite clearly expresses a wariness about possible U.S. engagement of Iran shared by other Arab Gulf countries. The U.A.E. maintains no fewer than 80 U.S.-supplied F-16 fighters and receives ongoing training and support from the U.S. Air Force at Al Dhafra Air Base in Abu Dhabi (where we received briefings earlier today, more about that later this week). The U.A.E. is also the beneficiary of a massive explosion of U.S. foreign military sales, which accelerated in 2007 with the Bush administration's announcement of more arms transfers to the region.
2. "Pak-Af." The hottest topic in U.S. foreign-policy circles in the opening weeks of the Obama administration has been the so-called "Af-Pak" basket of issues - Afghanistan and Pakistan. People here say the U.S. has it backwards and talk about it in reverse order - putting Pakistan in front of Afghanistan as a concern. It makes sense - Pakistan has nuclear weapons and about six times as many people as Afghanistan.
And for the U.A.E., it's only natural to think of it as "Pak-Af," given that hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis live and work in the U.A.E., sending money back to Pakistan in remittances that dwarf any amount the United States might be willing to give to Pakistan in bilateral development assistance. The ruling family in the Emirates has had long-standing ties with the late Pakistani leader Benazir Bhutto and her husband, current President Asif Ali Zardari, and the U.A.E. has become ever more dependent on agriculture in Pakistan for its own food security. Not that Afghanistan doesn't also matter - the U.A.E. is actually the only Arab country with combat forces on the ground in Afghanistan.
Also prior to 9/11, the U.A.E. was one of the few countries in the world with close ties to the Taliban regime, so presumably those contacts might be useful in any proposed dialogue with Taliban insurgents. Hopefully, the Obama administration team that is reviewing the policy on Pakistan and Afghanistan are talking to people in the Emirates.
3. The global economic meltdown. Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair highlighted the global economic crisis as a national security concern in his "Annual Threat Assessment" testimony to Congress last month, and even oil-rich Abu Dhabi and the financial metropolis of Dubai have been impacted negatively on these dynamics.
With a local population smaller than some neighborhoods in Cairo and Karachi, the U.A.E may not matter hugely on its own, but the perspective it brings from its role in these thress issues could help the new U.S. administration develop an integrated strategy that accounts for the many security, political, and economic linkages that exist between the Middle East and South Asia.
Brian Katulis is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, where his work focuses on U.S. national security policy with an emphasis on the Middle East, Iraq, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and Pakistan.
Photo: RABIH MOGHRABI/AFP/Getty Images
Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.