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The Futility of Presidential Policy Recommendations

[US Air Force F-15E Eagle fighter aircraft of the 4th Tactical Fighter Wing, Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, N.C., are parked on an air field during Operation Desert Shield. Image by Phan Chad Vann via Wikimedia Common] [US Air Force F-15E Eagle fighter aircraft of the 4th Tactical Fighter Wing, Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, N.C., are parked on an air field during Operation Desert Shield. Image by Phan Chad Vann via Wikimedia Common]

Providing recommendations on Middle East policy to US decision-makers or the president-elect is a bit of a delusional act if one considers the different metrics some of us proceed from. Despite an abundance of good minds, US policy over the past five-to-six decades has been devastating for the people of the region, though pretty good for Arab autocrats and economic elites, as well as the Apartheid state of Israel. The policy inputs are not likely to change soon, and in this election, might not even budge, or worse yet, might worsen given the choice between a neo-conservatives' poster child war-hawk and—what can one say anymore about Trump, really—a candidate who often scares his allies more than his enemies.

Despite the apparent futility of offering any advice, this is both a critical domestic election, as well as the first time a new administration will be voted in amidst (a) the post-euphoric phase of the Arab uprisings, (b) a more assertive and involved Russia, and (b) three simultaneous Middle East wars in which the United States is heavily involved or leading from behind (i.e., Iraq, Syria, and Yemen).

US foreign policy is usually a balancing act determined by opportunities and risks in both the domestic and international arenas. As critical as the international and Mideast scenes might be for some voters, this election turns on domestic issues. In the minds of most citizens and pundits the Syrian war is limited to a debate about whether the US should be doing “less or more,” presumably to save lives and fight terrorism. Policy-makers may however have this as a by-product concern not a point of departure for calculating risk across available  options. As to the war on ISIS in Iraq’s Mosul and beyond, the concerns are subsiding as perceptions of a degraded ISIS proliferate, even as the actual risks are being taken by non-US foot-soldiers and notwithstanding the anticipated backlash in the region and beyond by ISIS and ISIS-inspired actors. As to the Saudi-led war in Yemen, being prosecuted with direct US support, judging from mainstream media coverage and government (non-) pronouncements, it is for most voters all but non-existent.

President Obama is wrongfully accused of doing too little. In truth the United States can do a lot more, but in the direction of international law and human rights rather than drones and arms sales. While this might sound naive, the time is approaching when the realpolitik considerations that drive US support for unsavory actors and processes in the Middle East are becoming incompatible even with the best interests of many US elites. Yet before any serious change in US Middle East policy can be attained, there is much to do here at home to reclaim democracy, by making US policy-makers responsive to citizens’ concerns, first and foremost at the domestic level.

[This post was written prior to the presidential election, and was first published on Al Jazeera English.]

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