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Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations and former Bush administration official, argues in the Financial Times that the American era of unprecedented influence and freedom to act in the Middle East has ended.

Has the American era in the Middle East ended? Are new US policies needed in a time of reduced influence? Mr Haass answers your questions. For more background.

In the March/April 2006 issue of Foreign Affairs, Keir Lieber and Daryl Press argued that the balance of nuclear power has been disrupted and that an era of US nuclear primacy has begun. Do you agree with their view, and, if so, do you believe that US nuclear primacy will further destabilise the non-proliferation regime and engender an arms race? Is this an underlying cause for the development of nuclear capabilities in North Korea and Iran?
Frank Kelleher

Richard Haass: We may be moving toward a world of american nuclear primacy -- indeed, we have been in one for some time -- but the more significant prospect is that we are moving toward a world of a greater number of states possessing nuclear materials and weapons. This is the real threat to global stability. I do not think american advantages in this realm account for the nuclear ambitions or programs of others. More likely is that they are motivated by a desire to deter American conventional military interventions (such as Iraq experienced). There may also be a number of internal political dynamics that make nuclear programs attractive.

The 22-member Arab League in 2002 voted unanimously at the Beirut summit for Saudi Arabia’s comprehensive peace plan offering Israel lasting peace if it accepts the 1967 UN resolutions and returns to the borders in effect before that year’s Arab-Israeli war. The Sharon and Olmert governments have yet to respond to this initiative. Most Palestinians are ready to coexist with Israel in a two-state solution. A recent poll in Israel found that nearly half of Israelis were ready for dialogue even with Hamas. We all know that for decades only the US has had the influence on Israel to urge it to come to terms with its Muslim neighbors. But as you say, America appears to have forfeited much of its standing as an honest broker in the Middle East during the current administration. Are you saying, therefore, that the main problem to reaching an equitable peace for the Middle East lies in Washington rather than in that troubled region?
Victor W. Mason, Mamaroneck, NY, US

Richard Haass: There are multiple explanations for the lack of progress in resolving the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. All such disputes require local actors that are both able and willing to make peace. it is not clear to me that such a Palestinian partner exists at the moment. The United States can help develop one, though. I would suggest the United States spell out in some detail what it believes a Palestinian state would look like, i.e., based on the 1967 lines with territorial adjustments made to reflect Israeli security and demographic needs but with territorial compensation for such adjustments. Also, the United States could express what it would do to make such a state viable, including making generous economic assistance available. In return, the Palestinians would have to give up any use of force or terror and would have to agree to end the state of war with Israel. The leaders of Hamas should have to explain to the Palestinian people why they were refusing to accept such an agreement, one that would clearly improve the lives of palestinians.

To what extent do you think the passion for the imposition of a western democracy (legitimately or otherwise) hinders the goal of a peaceful resolution to the conflicts in the Middle East?
Hamza, London

Richard Haass: There is a good deal of research suggesting that fully democratic states make for more peaceful international citizens. But transforming a country into a mature democracy is not something that can be done by outsiders or done quickly. Elections are only a small part of what is required and, if they come too early in the process, can actually hinder the goal of bringing about a full democracy. I would think the focus should be on conflict resolution between states and on promoting order, developing civil society, and promoting economic reform within them.

Based on how the modern political boundaries were drawn in Iraq and the history of sectarian turmoil, is the prospect of a confederacy, loosely based on the Swiss model, feasible in Iraq?
Greg, Washington DC

Richard Haass: The idea of bringing about an Iraq with a weak central government and highly autonomous provinces that share political power and oil wealth is in principle a good one. The problem is in devising a plan that would be broadly acceptable to kurds, sunnis, and shia alike. So far, this has proved impossible, and I am not confident it will become possible to devise a formula that enjoys broad support so that the sectarian strife would mostly go away. Creating three separate countries, which is a different but related idea, risks leading to conflict that draws in Iraq’s neighbours and again would be highly unlikely to gain the support of most Iraqis.

Empasizing diplomacy, including with Iran, requires give and take. How much can we give on the nuclear question. Is deterrence an option in the Iranian case and if so at what cost?
Ronald E Woods, Seattle

Richard Haass: Deterrence is an option in principle, but not an attractive one to say the least when it comes to either Iran or North Korea. To the contrary, deterrence is highly risky given that nuclear weapons might be used or transferred to some terrorist group for ideological or financial reasons. Also, more proliferation is likely to lead to even more proliferation, all of which increases the odds that nuclear weapons will be used or wind up in the wrong hands or both. Thus the goal should be in the case of Iran to make clear the benefits that would reach the Iranian people if Iran were not to enrich significant amounts of uranium or develop nuclear weapons... and the costs that Iran and its people would pay if it did. Also, one cannot and should not rule out using military force against an Iranian nuclear program.

Our great allies in Israel, a beacon of freedom and justice in the Middle East, have warned that Iran poses an existential threat to them. Mahmoud Ahmedinejad has said he wishes to wipe Israel off the map with his terrorism, and he is now becoming a nuclear terrorist as we do nothing but use empty threats through the ineffective United Nations. Must not we do something as soon as possible to defend freedom and justice from terrorists, as we did, and continue to do, in Afghanistan and Iraq?
Peter Hurst

Richard Haass: The United States and the entire international community must take steps to deal with terror. As regards existing terrorists, the focus needs to be on stopping them before they act (a task for intelligence and law enforcement and the military) and, even more important, on discouraging young people from becoming terrorists in the first place. This is only partly a challenge for outsiders who may want to adjust certain policies. It is largely a task for leaders of Arab and muslim societies who need to de-legitimise terrorism of any sort and who need to reform their societies and their schools so that young people see opportunity to change things without resorting to such methods.

You are now allegedly concerned about the use of military force - is this consistent with your statement in September 2002 when you said of Iraq ‘ In these extreme circumstances, a strong case can be made for preventive military action’. ISS lecture 13 sep 2002 - please explain the lack of consistency.
John Rhodes

Richard Haass: Sometimes foreign policy does not have the luxury of pure consistency. Each situation needs to be judged on its particular merits. That said, I still believe that preventive military action ought to be extremely rare lest the practice dilute the international norm against the use of military force except in such circumstances as self-defense or stopping of genocide.

If Matt Simmons and his Peak Oil theories are correct, the Middle East will likely be of significantly less strategic interest to the US in the next 10-15 years. How would you expect US policy would evolve as a result.
Jay, Houston

Richard Haass: History teaches us to be careful about long-term predictions regarding energy. There are always new finds and new technologies that come along. Regardless, i would think it is safe to say that the Middle East will remain vital to the world for oil and gas supplies. Global demand is rising, in large part because of India and China, and the Middle East will remain significant. What is more, the region will remain significant for other reasons as well, including the threats it poses related to the proliferation of nuclear materials and weapons and terrorism. There is also great concern with the security of Israel and the development of the Arab world. All this suggests to me some continuity in american policy as regards the area’s importance. What will continue to change, though, is what the United States actually does to promote and protect its interests. I would think, eg, that we are on the cusp of a major debate about how much and how the United States ought to be promoting democratic reform.

How long do you expect the civil war in Iraq to continue? What must be done to speed up the withdrawal of US troops? If the war in Afghanistan is eased through the successful offensive of the Nato soldiers, should most American servicemen be shifted to Iraq next year?
Osamu Kawana, Germany

Richard Haass: Right now we are seeing intense sectarian strife, which may be close to being a civil war. The danger is that it will both continue and get worse. the same holds for ethnic cleansing. the dilemma facing the United States is that withdrawing american troops is likely to make matters worse but staying is not at all sure to make things better. Indeed, recent history suggests not. I believe the United States should move to convene a regional forum involving Iraq and its neighbours (including Iran and Syria) and other relevant states to try to develop at least some co-ordinated policies that would be designed to improve matters within Iraq.

Do you think the foreign policy specialists who advised the US/Britain to invade Iraq looked at the real effects of this kind of war; Generations having their lives destabilised and having to endure an obviously lower quality of life; Kids deprived of decent childhood and probably faced with a bleek future; Rebuilding that requires billions of dollars judging by the billions that the likes of Qatar are investing in building their economies; And will the re-building really be funded by outsiders or merely from Iraq resources? When I look at these things it is not hard to see why the US madness has to end as some of your papers predict. Indeed how many civilised people even in the so called free world are willing to pay the price of these mad wars?
Johny Foxx

Richard Haass: :Iraq was a classic “war of choice.” Clearly, the advocates of the conflict in both the United States and the UK were far too optimistic in what it might achieve and badly underestimated the costs (be they human, military, economic, political, what have you) of the intervention. The challenge now is to figure out a way to limit further deterioration within Iraq and to limit the regional and global consequences of what has taken place there and what might still take place.

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“The Middle East will remain a troubled region for decades to come”, argues Mr Haass, “the challenge will be to contain the effects and to hasten the arrival of something better.”

“The US will continue to enjoy more influence than any outside power”, writes Mr Haass, “but its influence will be reduced. Washington will be challenged by other outsiders, including the European Union, China and Russia. More important, though, will be the challenges from local states and radical groups.”

Mr Haass believes that that the US should:

• Avoid an over-reliance on military force

• Reform schools, promote economic liberalisation and encourage Arab and Muslim authorities to speak out in ways that delegitimise terrorism and shame its supporters

• Establish a regional forum for Iraq’s neighbours to help manage events there akin to that used for Afghanistan.

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