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Stephen Walt: Barack Obama’s Challenges in the Middle East

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Stephen M. Walt is an influential neo-realist figure in International Affairs. He holds the Robert and Renee Belfer Professorship in International Affairs at the John F. Kennedy School of Government (Harvard University). He has recently co-authored (with John Mearsheimer) the bestseller «Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy». We interviewed Dr Walt on Barack Obama's Foreign Policy in the Middle East. Interview conducted by Aziz Enhaili for ®.

Aziz Enhaili: Professor Stephen Walt, thank You for granting us this interview. What are the U.S. national interests in the Middle East as a whole?

Stephen Walt: The United States has three main strategic interests in the Middle East: a) maintaining the flow of Persian Gulf oil to world markets, b) discouraging the spread of nuclear weapons, and c) countering anti-American terrorism. All three objectives can be advanced by altering certain aspects of current U.S. policy.
The United States needs to take a more evenhanded position toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and reduce its military “footprint” in the region.

Aziz Enhaili: What are Obama’s challenges in the Middle East?

Stephen Walt: Obama faces several obvious challenges. First, he has to try to achieve a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians, before it is too late. Second, he has to complete the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. Third, it is important to reach a modus vivendi with Iran, while reaffirming other commitments to important regional allies. Unfortunately, none of these goals will be easy to achieve.

Aziz Enhaili: What are the strategic objectives of Obama’s policy in the Af-Pak? Are they achievable in the context of the rising influence of the Taliban ? If so, at what cost ?

Stephen Walt: Obama’s stated goal is to prevent Afghanistan from again becoming a «safe haven» for Al Qaeda. This goal is misplaced, however, because Al Qaeda already has a safe haven in Pakistan and elsewhere. In fact, it does not matter very much if the United States wins or loses in Afghanistan, and his decision to continue (and probably expand) the war is a strategic mis-step. Even if we win, Al Qaeda will still have safe havens in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere and will still be able to organize attacks on the West. Yet if we lose, Al Qaeda will not get that much stronger, because the Taliban may not welcome them back in, and because we could still attack them even if they were back in Afghanistan in force. In other words, winning won’t make them much weaker, and losing won’t make them that much stronger.”

Aziz Enhaili: Regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, what are the principles guiding the Obama’s policy? Can he put enough pressure on Israel to make a final deal with the Palestinians? If not, why?

Stephen Walt: He has said he wants a two-state solution, but so far he has been unwilling or unable to put any pressure on Israel, largely because he is not willing to stand up to the Israel lobby here in the United States. The likely result will be a tragedy for all concerned: the two-state solution will soon become impossible, and this will be bad for the United States but also for Israel and the Palestinians alike.

Aziz Enhaili: What are the U.S. foreign policy options towards Iran? And what are the costs of each one of them?

Stephen Walt: The only option that has any chance of success is to take the threat of force off the table and try to reach a broader agreement with Iran. We cannot stop them from controlling the full nuclear fuel cycle, and a military attack will only give them more reason to want their own deterrent. We may be able to persuade them not to get nuclear weapons, however, but only if we stop threatening them.

Aziz Enhaili: What are the U.S. national interests in North Africa? What threats are they facing there? And how is the U.S. dealing with this situation ?

Stephen Walt: The United States does not have vital strategic interests in North Africa, but we do have a general interest in good relations with these regimes and we want to encourage them to cooperate with each other and with us.

Aziz Enhaili: Thank you very much, Dr. Walt.

Stephen M. Walt has been a Resident Associate of the Carnegie Endowment for Peace and a Guest Scholar at the Brookings Institution, and a consultant for the Institute of Defense Analyses, the Center for Naval Analyses, and the National Defense University. He serves on the editorial boards of several prestigious Journals of International Affairs. He was elected a Fellow in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in May 2005. 

Interview conducted by Aziz Enhaili for ®.

November 11, 2009.

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