Last week, I looked at where America stands in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and how these costly conflicts might end. In this final column, I hazard my best guess at how President Obama will approach the other challenges in the Middle East, and whether he will have more success than President Bush in trying to manage that complex part of the world.
Present situation: This uncomfortable American ally is now an integral part of what was initially an Afghan problem. Al Qaeda's leadership has found a new home and Islamic militant supporters in the tribal borderlands that Pakistan's central government cannot control. The militants â€“ Taliban warriors from Afghanistan and local groups in cahoots with radical elements of the Pakistani army and intelligence service â€“ are spreading their tentacles throughout Pakistan; they have taken over the once peaceful Swat Valley closer to the capital, and have demonstrated their ability to strike targets in the heart of the country. Pakistan's economy and government are on the verge of collapse. And it possesses fully operational nuclear weapons. The Obama administration has recognized the gravity of the situation by appointing one of America's toughest negotiators, Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, as special envoy to both Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Prediction: Holbrooke will bang heads together and try to persuade the Pakistani army to spend more of the billions in military aid America has poured into the country since 9/11 on the fight against terrorism rather than on an arms race with Pakistan's rival, India. The Obama administration will also offer more economic aid to try to improve the miserable standard of living in rural Pakistan. Nation building may be a pipedream in Afghanistan, but it is technically feasible in Pakistan.
Prediction: The bad news is that Pakistan has been playing America for more money, making a show of looking for Osama bin Laden and fighting the Afghan and domestic militants without actually delivering results. The good news is that the weak civilian government is beginning to take the threat of insurgence seriously. And if the government collapses, the army, which has been running the country directly or indirectly since independence, will seize power once again. That might be considered good news in Washington, which has always found it easier to deal with Pakistan's military dictators and would find the army ready to cooperate if the Obama administration wants to make a deal with the more moderate elements of the Afghan Taliban (see last week's column).
Worst case prediction: If all else fails and Pakistan is taken over by nasty militants, the United States presumably has plans to send in CIA or special forces snatch squads to secure Pakistan's nukes and keep them out of the hands of the militants.
Present situation: Iran is involved in one way or another in most of America's Middle East problems â€“ Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That gives it leverage with the Obama administration, which is seeking negotiated settlements of the tangled problems in the region. For the moment, Iran is merely flexing its muscles (firing off the odd missile and firing up its experimental nuclear reactor) while waiting to size up the new American administration. Although Iran and America have been conducting back channel negotiations for years, no breakthrough is likely until the Iranian election in June, when Iran's loud-mouth President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will probably be replaced by a less extreme leader.
Prediction: The agreement, when it comes, will cover Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine and Iran's nuclear program. Iran will agree to be more cooperative in all of these conflict areas (for example, allowing supply convoys for NATO forces in Afghanistan to pass through Iranian territory) in return for American recognition of Iran's legitimate interests in the region. In practical terms that means Iran will help America extricate itself from Iraq and Afghanistan, and will rein in its militant allies in Lebanon and Gaza, while the United States stops trying to promote regime change in Iran and establishes normal diplomatic and trade relations with the Islamic Republic. The good news is that Iran will use its nuclear program as a bargaining chip and put it on hold. The bad news is that it will retain the capacity to go for the nuclear weapons option later, and is likely to end up with what amounts to a potential nuclear deterrent (a so-called screwdriver capability). That will make the Israelis very edgy.
Present situation: Syria would like to join the Arab mainstream, re-engage with the United States and open up its economy to Western trade and investment. To that end, it has been conducting indirect peace talks with Israel since last year.
Prediction: Syria will reach a peace agreement with a new, hardline Israeli government. It will promise to stop arming Hezbollah militants in Lebanon and stop supporting Hamas militants in Gaza. In return, Israel will give back the occupied Golan Heights (under conditions that would prevent Syria from using it as a springboard to attack Israel). Israel achieves peace with its most recalcitrant Arab neighbor. Syria gets rid of its status as an international pariah. It's a win-win deal for the two sides. The losers will be Hezbollah and Hamas, who will no longer have the support of Syria or Iran.
Present situation: The so-called Israeli-Palestinian peace process has reached a dead end. The Fatah Palestinians of the occupied West Bank are at odds with the Hamas Palestinians of the Gaza Strip. Hamas won't recognize Israel. Israel won't talk to Hamas, and the next prime minister of Israel, â€œBibiâ€ Netanyahu, rejects the idea of a Palestinian state and offers only â€œeconomic peaceâ€ with the Palestinians. Militants in the Gaza Strip continue to fire their homemade rockets into southern Israeli towns. The Palestinians of Gaza continue to live in misery. Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak wants to break the deadlock. The Saudis make helpful sounds. But all sides believe only the United States has the power to move the process forward.
Hopeful sign: President Obama has been fast out of the starting gate, sending both a high-powered special envoy, George Mitchell, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to the scene. His predecessors were much slower. President Clinton waited until his second term to push for peace. President Bush waited until the dying days of his administration and did not really try. By starting early, Mr. Obama will have four (or perhaps eight) years to try where others have failed.
Prediction: Common sense tells me that Mr. Obama will be reluctant to spend a lot of precious political capital on a 60 (or 100) year-old problem when he faces the immediate problem of collapsing banks and a crumbling economy. He will urge Israel to ease conditions for Gaza and for the Palestinians in general, but my 40 years of experience in the Middle East compel me to conclude that there will be no final Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement in the foreseeable future, perhaps not in my lifetime. For all the usual reasons.
Of course, I could be wrong. Experience has also taught me that the Middle East can surprise you. Maybe the two Palestinian factions will kiss and make up. Maybe Hamas will recognize Israel. Maybe Netanyahu will tear down the wall between Israel and the Palestinians. Maybe.
A final note. This is my last column for The World. You can contact me in the future at email@example.com.