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The Middle East

Iran

Iran is one of the more difficult international challenges today, and none of the recent U.S. presidents have handled it properly.

President George W. Bush missed an opportunity to use the war in Iraq as a catalyst for improving life for both Iranians and Iraqis. We could have made Iran an offer: improve your human rights policies, help us pacify the Shia areas of Iraq, and we’ll arrange a referendum to allow the citizens of those territories to join Iran if they want. Bush’s refusal to consider redrawing national boundaries was one of his greatest failures in the Middle East, where today’s boundaries are mostly post-colonial anachronisms.

President Barack Obama wanted to improve the situation with Iran by unilateral rapprochement…we gave them money and loosened the sanctions, but asked for almost nothing in return except a short-term slow-down of their nuclear weapons programs. Obama had good intentions, I’m sure, but seems to have been completely out of his depth in dealing with Iran.

President Donald Trump seems to be going back to Bush’s hard line, which is probably preferable to Obama’s complete capitulation, but is still very unlikely to actually improve anything in the long run.

We need to negotiate with Iran. They don’t want the international isolation they have been subject to. We have a lot to offer them, and, if they have any sense, they’ll be willing to strike a deal. But the deal must include real concessions, especially when it comes to Iran’s nuclear program…not a short-term slow-down, but real progress.

We can keep the sanctions going as long as we need to. But we shouldn’t want to. We shouldn’t revel in the suffering of the Iranian people. We should use every tool at our disposal to improve things for them, and to pressure their government to change its behavior and reengage with the world community.

Israel

Israel is a key ally, and the only free republic in the middle east. Although we must oppose them when they act unjustly, such as when they establish settlements in Palestinian territory, our general policy must be pro-Israel and anti-terror.

I am amazed by the fact that there are now anti-Israel, antisemitic members of Congress. Even a cursory study of the history of the Middle East reveals that the Israelis, while imperfect, are the ‘good guys’ and the Palestinians are the ‘bad guys.’ I mean, all you need to do is look at the methods they use when they attack one other. The Palestinians — led by Hamas and Fatah — lob rockets indiscriminately into neighborhoods, set bombs on public buses, and use their own children as shields. The Israelis carefully target valid military targets and go to incredible lengths — farther than any other country — to avoid civilian casualties.

It’s obvious which side we should be on. To be neutral — or, worse, to support Hamas and Fatah — is to support depravity, terror, and evil.

That does not mean that Israel is beyond reproach. It isn’t. Since the Israeli government has formally endorsed a two state solution, it must stop establishing settlements in Palestinian territory, and must immediately dismantle those that already exist. And the United States government should demand that future sales of military equipment be tied to the dismantling of the settlements and a more clear acknowledgement of the human rights of the Palestinian people, including their right to self-determination.

But, in the end, Israel has a right to exist, Israel generally complies with natural and international law, and the Israeli people have the most valid historical claim to the land in question. Likewise, Israel has the most valid claim to the city of Jerusalem, and has the right to claim Jerusalem as its capital. I commend President Trump for finally acknowledging that Jerusalem is the legitimate capital of Israel.

While I have sympathy for the suffering of the Palestinian people, it is difficult to take any steps toward supporting their cause as long as they voluntarily elect terrorists and madmen to lead them. I support a two-state solution (although it might be better to retrocede the Palestinian territories to Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Egypt). But I cannot actually do much to move us in that direction as long as one of those states is led by the terrorists of Hamas and Fatah.

Syria

The Syrian civil war continues to fester.

The Ba’athist government of Syria, led by Bashar Al-Assad, came about amid the same regional upheavals that put a fellow Ba’athist — Saddam Hussein — in charge of neighboring Iraq. Al-Assad is a dictator. Under his command, Syria did a lot of the same things that Iraq did…ruthlessly oppressing its own people while investing in huge military buildups, including the development of chemical weapons and other weapons of mass destruction.

President Barack Obama was correct to oppose the Al-Assad regime. He was also correct to lay out a ‘red line’ that would bring about international military intervention: the use of chemical weapons. But what he did from there was woefully misguided. His efforts to support Al-Assad’s enemies ended up arming the Islamic State, an enemy of both Al-Assad and human rights. And his ‘red line’ threat, right in principle, turned out to be quite empty. When Al-Assad did use chemical weapons against his enemy, we did…nothing.

President Trump has done a better job…because he has done basically nothing. We have engaged our military forces to defeat the Islamic State, which has been probably the greatest accomplishment of the Trump administration, but otherwise we’ve pretty much stayed out of it. But, as with Iran, being “better than Obama” is, at best, very faint praise.

The people of Syria deserve a government that respects their human rights. So it is clear that we are right to oppose Al-Assad. What is less clear, however, is who we should support. The enemy of my enemy is not always my friend. I would call Al-Assad our enemy, but that does not make the Islamic State our friend, even though it, too, opposes Al-Assad.

With regard to Syria, the world community should stand united in opposition to the current regime. To do this, we must first identify an organization that legitimately represents the will of the Syrian people. No such organization has yet emerged, but I am certain that one exists. We need to find it, and then support it with whatever it needs to depose the dictator and establish a free Syrian republic.

Turkey

Not long ago, Turkey was the leading example of liberal republicanism in the Middle East. It was the only majority Muslim country with a stable, functioning, free government that generally respected the human rights of its citizens.

Since 1952, it has been a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Since 2005 it has been in negotiations to join the European Union.

Under Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey has rapidly shifted from a free republic to a borderline dictatorship. For example, he has persecuted Muhammed Fethullah Gülen, falsely branding the nonviolent and politically moderate Gülen movement an “armed terrorist group” and blaming them for a failed coup attempt. Erdoğan appears to be shifting Turkey in a much more Islamist direction.

These developments raise serious questions about Turkey’s commitments to the United Nations, to NATO, and to the world community generally. And we have failed to take appropriate steps to encourage Turkey to fulfill its obligations to the world and to its own citizens.

If Erdoğan continues down this road, we may need to consider expelling Turkey from the NATO alliance…which would present legal difficulties, since the NATO treaty does not have clear provisions for expulsion (although countries may leave the alliance voluntarily). We may also need to consider whether economic sanctions against the current Turkish government are necessary.