by Elena Marda
The discussion at the Brussels office of the German Marshall Fund of the US resembled more to a talk show than to an ordinary think-tank discussion. In the seat of the ‘journalist’ was Ian Lesser, Executive Director of the Brussels Office and Senior Director for Foreign and Security Policy at the German Marshall Fund, and in the position of the ‘interviewee’ was Robert Wexler, President of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace. The discussion was focused on the ‘US Perspective on the Middle East’ and touched upon a variety of issues that concern the American strategy – or lack of it – in the hot region.
Ian Lesser opened the discussion by asking ‘What areas reflect the US priorities in foreign policy?’
Robert Wexler, having a political orientation, linked the strength of the US President to form a bold foreign policy in the Middle East to the developments of domestic affairs, such as the healthcare reform or the unemployment rate and prioritized the following issues that need to be addressed:
1) Gun control
If the above mentioned issues progress well enough, President Obama may be ready in 16 months from now to take courageous decisions regarding US foreign policy, without the risk to suffer politically. Acknowledging the criticism on the US posture regarding the Middle East process, he underlined that even if everything went according to plan, the likelihood of success would not exceed 8-10%. Thus, there is no advantage for the Obama administration to be more engaged in finding a solution, or the basis of a solution, that the primary actors will reject. To this, he expressed his frustration over the European position for not being sufficiently supportive to the American efforts and requested ‘Stop being Europeans on this, be Americans’.
‘So what are the issues that are not optional for the US foreign policy, what is in essence unavoidable?’ continued Ian Lesser.
Robert Wexler was very clear: Firstly, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have to come to an end in the least negative way for the US, as the Americans -regardless of their political affiliation – have lost their patience. These negative experiences also work against a possible involvement in Syria about which the public opinion is extremely disoriented and has trouble to disentangle the different non-state actors implicated. Secondly, Obama’s policy of prevention against Iran has to continue. At this point, he gave credit to the EU for standing by the US in applying, almost totally, the three preconditions relating to Hamas and implementing the most comprehensive set of sanctions.
Moving to the next issue Ian Lesser asked ‘and how about Egypt?’
On this point, Robert Wexler warned that the US needs to be cautious to pressure for stability and minimize casualties. It will also need to insist with the military leaders on a quicker all inclusive civilian process which will not criminalize political structures and procedures. He rejected the argument for upholding US funding in Egypt as this would probably have contrary results. If the US backs down from its leadership role, then this position will be filled by others who are at complete odds to their values.
Lastly, Ian Lesser turned to Turkey by stating that, arguably ‘Erdogan has accomplished a great deal for Turkey in the last two years’ and asked ‘where does Turkey stand now?’.
Robert Wexler agreed that the Turkish Prime Minister has a remarkable record of achievements, but his legacy is threatened by the mismanagement of the emerged Istanbul protest movement. Referring to the proposed legislation to tighten alcohol rules, he wondered ‘why pass a legislation that turns apolitical people to angry political activists?’ and underlined that the internationalization of the clashes with the demonstrators is unwanted and problematic. He identified the potential for the Obama administration to exert power from the personal relation of the President with PM Erdogan in order to shift the situation smoothly and ‘beat with kindness and generosity the movement’.