The new administration has an opportunity to place U.S. policy in the Middle East on a new plateau, a position that will contribute to greater long-term peace and stability as well as serve the national interest. Critical issues that affect both short and long-term U.S. interests are the Arab-Israeli conflict/peace process, democratization in the Middle East, and U.S. understanding of Islam in Muslim politics and society.
Both foreign and domestic political and social realities make greater awareness and sensitivity to Muslim sensibilities strategically important. The 1.2 billion Muslims of the world make Islam the second-largest religion globally and second or third largest in Europe and America. From the vantage point of domestic politics, Islam is the third largest and soon to be second largest religion in America. While the American Muslim community will not in the foreseeable future have the same resources and political clout as the American Jewish community, its presence and potential impact on local and Congressional politics will increasingly be significant.
Despite lofty American statements of intention, too often previous administrations, whether Democratic or Republican, have been more content with policy statements that remain platitudes rather than principles for implementation. Though the U.S. speaks of its even-handed approach to peace in Israel/Palestine, its U.N. voting record--as well as its abstentions, even when the vast majority of the Security Council has voted otherwise--have consistently and uncritically supported Israeli interests.
Similarly, overwhelming Congressional support for moving the American embassy to Jerusalem--and statements by President Bill Clinton that depart from his earlier objections--despite U.N. resolutions regarding the return of lands seized by Israel in the 1967 war, further erodes U.S. credibility as an honest broker. The U.S. cannot afford to put itself beyond the world community or the U.N. without jeopardizing its political as well as moral leadership.
As your administration appoints key officials to address major areas of concern, your credibility will hinge on perception as well as reality. Thus, in contrast to the second Clinton term and team, you can avoid a serious pitfall. The United States cannot afford to have an overwhelming number of its key players in the National Security Council and the State Department who handle the Arab-Israeli conflict or other critical Middle East crises that come from an American-Jewish background--any more than it would be appropriate for them to be overwhelmingly Arab-American or American Muslim in background. One would be stunned to find any government in Europe or America appointing a preponderant number of its officials handling Greek-Turkish or Pakistani-Indian relations with descendants from one of the very communities involved.
Islam remains a powerful political symbol and ideology throughout much of the Muslim world. The failure or impotence of Arab nationalism and other secular ideologies has enhanced the continued vitality of religion in Muslim politics. If political Islam--the implementation of Islam from above by governments in Islamic Republics such as Afghanistan and Sudan--has failed, recent presidential and parliamentary elections in Iran show significant progress, a process that should be encouraged despite the current political backlash from more militant factions.