[The following is one of thirty "memos" written by American specialists on the Middle East, all of them one page long and published in the same issue of Middle East Insight.]
This is, as usual, an exciting time in the Middle East, and the region once again presents a disproportionate share of problems for the United States. Here's a quick run-down of the issues with some policy suggestions:
The Arab-Israeli conflict. Although the current round of negotiations - optimistically called the "peace process" - have been underway since late 1991, nearly a decade of concessions-both actual and offered-by Israel have not won the expected change of heart by its Palestinian, Syrian, and other opponents. Instead, the Israeli willingness to make unilateral concessions has led to a greater sense of ambition among its enemies. The last two administrations made the mistake of pushing the Israelis to make more concessions; your obligation - a more counter-intuitive one - is to urge them to go slow and watch for their security. Otherwise, we will be called in to pick up the pieces.
Islamism. The most vibrant extremist ideology in the world today, a threat to our interests not just in the Middle East but from West Africa to Southeast Asia, and even here in the United States. Islamists hate us for who we are, not what we do. There is no hope of achieving a modus vivendi with them. You need to show them early and often that they cannot push this country around.
Iraq. Saddam Hussein remains an aggressive tyrant intent on making his mark on the world stage through either weapons of mass destruction or his control of the oil market. We are not usually in the business of regime change; here is the exception. The best vehicle for this are the opposition groups desperate for US backing.
Iran. Though widely criticized, our sanctions policy toward Iran has worked. The economy - and therefore the military threat - is much diminished thanks to our efforts to keep investors at bay. The regime is slowly crumbling spiritually; the process has a ways to go and things could get much nastier before they get better.
Turkey. Turkey may not be in the US government's definition of the Middle East but it is nonetheless in the region. We have long had a queasy attitude toward the military's role in the political arena; that's a valid concern but we should not forget that the military is protecting the country from the threat of Islamism, and so view it with some tolerance.
Oil and gas. To general surprise, the price of petrocarbons has rocketed up, not so much through actions by oil exporters as by large-scale mistakes of the major oil corporations. It's time for them to stop buying each other's assets and drilling for oil and gas again. We can encourage this through changes in the tax laws. In the meantime, increased revenues to the exporters means that some of our friends like Saudi Arabia get a break, but so do several of our opponents such as Libya, Sudan, Iraq, Iran. This could be a real problem.
Democracy. Looking beyond the immediate brushfires, it is important to develop a policy that will help the Middle East extricate itself from the current demons of extremist ideology, autocratic politics, and impoverishment. There is only one long-term solution: making governments accountable to their citizens through the rule of law, guaranteed freedoms, and elections. It won't be easy to push in this direction because we have a lot warmer relationship with the existing rulers than with those likely to be freely elected (think Saudi Arabia), but the process needs to be started and you have the vision and courage to do so.