Foreign policy has not been a major focus of this election campaign, but whoever wins in November will have a messy inbox when it comes to the delicate tangle of issues in the Middle East.
For decades, the U.S. relied on authoritarian regimes to provide stability in the region. Now, it must deal with a new government in Egypt, an intensifying conflict in Syria, nervous allies in the Persian Gulf — and a major decision about Iran.
Jon Alterman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies describes the Middle East security situation as a mess. At the top of this mess is Iran and its suspect nuclear program.
"Iran is, I think, the central predictable issue," Alterman says. "The problem is in the Middle East, there are a whole range of unpredictable issues, and it's unclear both how they will unfold, and how they might relate to our security concerns with Iran."
Israel wants to see the U.S. set out clear red lines on Iran, while Iran, Alterman predicts, will try to be ambiguous about its nuclear program for as long as it can.
"I think there's a large school of thought that says when the Iranians get a capability, the first sign won't be a mushroom cloud," he says. "There will be a trickle of signs, and they will try to nurture that condition as long as they can. How do you respond to that? "
That's a question facing either a second-term President Obama or a Mitt Romney administration, says Iran expert Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
"At some point in the next four years," Sadjadpour says, "the United States may have to face a binary choice of whether to accept an Iranian nuclear weapons capability — not necessarily an Iranian nuclear weapon, but an Iranian nuclear weapons capability — or to take military action to prevent that likelihood."
Both President Obama and Republican candidate Romney say they won't accept a nuclear-armed Iran, but Sadjadpour says voters are tired of wars in the Middle East and want more focus on the U.S. economy.
"I think a majority of Americans, whether Democrat or Republican, would like to see more of a focus on nation-building at home, and they'd like to see a reduction of the U.S. footprint in the Middle East," he says. "That is going to be very difficult to do if we embark on some sort of military conflagration with Iran."
So Sadjadpour expects the U.S. — whether it's an Obama or Romney administration — to continue to pursue sanctions and diplomacy. Throughout the Middle East, the U.S. has had to recalibrate its policies. Martin Indyk writes in a new book, Bending History, that the U.S. was in a poor position to deal with all of the uprisings.
"We didn't go into the Arab awakenings in a good position," Indyk says, "partly because of the failure of the effort to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but mostly because Republican and Democratic presidents for the last five decades have supported the idea of the Middle East exception."
That is the idea that the U.S. backed authoritarian rulers to provide stability, largely ignoring human rights concerns and other issues. Those pillars are now shaking, Indyk says.
"We are facing a region in turmoil, in which we have to try to find a way to shore up our friends, take advantage of the opportunities that exist, find a way to get on the right side of the political change that is sweeping across the region, and we have to seek stability where we can find it," he says.
Jon Alterman, however, says the U.S. isn't in much of a position to shape the region.
"You can move the dials a little bit, but I think what we've come to appreciate over the last 18 months is [that] we are not in the driver's seat in any of these processes," Alterman says. "And while we can position where we want to be, we can't steer where the societies go."
The conflict in Syria will be yet another challenge, as it becomes more sectarian and threatens to engulf other countries in the region.
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