The impact of the presidential elections on America’s Middle East policy – a panel discussion

APN intern Aparna Clarke attended a June 30, 2016 panel discussion on America’s future Middle East policy, following November’s presidential elections. Following is her report:

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What kind of Middle East policy is the next U.S. administration expected to adopt?

The Arab Center Washington DC (ACW) brought together on Wednesday, June 29th four leading Washington scholars on Middle East Policy to consider this question. The panelists were Ellen Laipson, Distinguished Fellow and President Emeritus of the Stimson Center, Aaron David Miller, Vice President for New Initiatives and Distinguished Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Manal Omar, Associate Vice President for the Middle East and Africa at the United States Institute of Peace, and Shibley Telhami, Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland and non-resident senior fellow at the Brooking Institute’s Center for Middle East Policy. The discussion was moderated by ACW’s Executive Director, Khalil Jahshan. 

All four panelists acknowledged the volatile and troubling current climate of the Middle East, emphasizing both the challenges that the next President will face and the necessity for him or her to exercise prudence with regards to policy implementation.

Aaron David Miller explained that, having observed US foreign policy over the past decades, he sees more continuity than change. Despite their differences, he believes that Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump in fact have much in common with regards to Middle East policy: both have an aversion to nation building and are reticent to send large numbers of troops into the region. Miller asserted that the next administration would have to find a balance between risk readiness and risk aversion, something that hasn’t yet been achieved. This, however, will be wholly determined by how risk ready the US public is, because ultimately, it will be American citizens who will influence the new President’s implementation of foreign policy changes.

Iran expert Ellen Laipson examined the potential for a new US-Iran relationship given the partial lifting of international sanctions on Teheran following the signing of the Iran nuclear agreement. Laipson said that the incoming president would quickly realize that there is limited authority to renegotiate the agreement, but will most probably be much less tolerant of Iran’s nuclear activities than the current administration is. Laipson concluded that a new administration would commit to maintaining a relationship with Iran but not necessarily to transforming it.

Manal Omar began by stating that current developments and trends in the Middle East are no longer containable to the region; what we are witnessing is a global crisis emanating from the region, she said. Omar referred to the tensions between short-term and long-term Middle East policy and said that above all, before the new president can influence or implement any policy changes, the US must start investing in prevention rather than waiting to respond post-conflict.

Shibley Telhami tackled the very important question of how the two frontrunners in the presidential elections would be received in the Middle East. Clinton is seen as a more muscular version of Obama among people in the region. People seem to believe, he said, that under her presidency there is the possibility of US military intervention in Syria. Given his troubling statements about Islam and Muslims, people in the Middle East are understandably anxious about Trump’s possible leadership and for others, the principal source of discomfort comes from the unpredictability of his presidency due to Trump’s lack of political experience in this field.

When a member of the audience at the discussion raised the issue of foreign policy on Israel-Palestine, Telhami responded with some extremely interesting points. Having carried out a survey on millennials’ views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he noted that half the Democrats questioned supported sanctions or other punitive measures against Israeli settlements and that more and more seem to be shifting their support from a two-state solution to a so-called “one-state solution,” where Arabs and Jews have equal rights. Miller suggested that unless there is a new development in the conflict, it is unlikely that either candidate will advance a new initiative, as it is not a priority for them. As with other Middle East issues, until the conflict profoundly impacts the younger generation of this country, it does not constitute a vital interest for the US, he said.

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