Robert McFarlane: Mideast Peace, One Brick at a Time

Roundup: Media's Take

[Mr. McFarlane served as President Reagan's national security adviser and is currently a member of the Leadership Council at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.]

President Obama is reportedly considering a new Middle East strategy; a family of policies aimed not only at resolving the Israeli-Palestinian dispute but also at creating a new regional security architecture to take on the challenges posed by Iran and other threats to American interests.

It is a praiseworthy and ambitious undertaking. However, history cautions that few presidents achieve more than one significant reorientation in American foreign and domestic policy per term. Before committing to the enormous amount of time, resources and political capital needed to achieve goals of this magnitude, it is prudent to consider whether conditions on the ground warrant such an investment. If not, the president may wish to stake out interim goals so as to lay a foundation for a comprehensive settlement in the future.

The experience of the Reagan administration is instructive. In 1982, President Ronald Reagan tasked me and other members of his administration to analyze America's top foreign challenges and propose a long-term national strategy for them while concurrently launching a vigorous advocacy campaign for liberty, democracy and human rights throughout the world. President Reagan specifically asked us to lay out priorities, refrain from investing American power frivolously and, if a near-term solution was not tenable, solve a piece of each problem so that we could build later upon the initial successes. As policies, resources and diplomacy were applied, progress would create momentum that would lead toward concrete achievements over time.

During his first four years, President Reagan concentrated mainly on rebuilding U.S. military strength. Yet when he left office, Reagan had accelerated the end of the Cold War and achieved the first reduction of nuclear weapons in history. The lesson: Don't rush to tackle a problem until you've prepared the ground, minimized risk, and have reasonable prospects for success.

Fast forward to today, and President Obama has laid out a sweeping agenda of change for the Middle East with at most seven years to achieve it. For the president to succeed, he will require a sober assessment of his obstacles. For example, Hamas—the dominant power in Gaza—insists that Israel must be destroyed and negotiation is out of the question. This is likely an intractable position. How does this impact the president's vision for the region?..

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