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The Journal Gazette

  • Samuel Hoffman | The Journal Gazette Middle East scholar Stephen Walt of Harvard University speaks Thursday at Plymouth Congregational Church.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016 10:14 pm

Do less in Mideast, scholar urges US

Brian Francisco | Washington editor

A Harvard University professor has the solution for ongoing U.S. policy failures in the Middle East: a time machine.

Stephen Walt would set the dial for the period between 1945 and 1990, before what he calls "a parade of failures" by the three most recent American presidents – trying to contain Iran and Iraq, favoring Israel and Saudi Arabia, supporting regime changes in various countries and maintaining a huge U.S. military presence in the region.

"Overactive American involvement does more harm than good," Walt said Thursday evening. "So my first recommendation is we actually ought to do less. We don’t know how to fix the Middle East, and if that’s the case, it would be foolish to try because we are as likely to make things worse as to make things better."

Walt, an international affairs professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, spoke to more than 100 people at Plymouth Congregational Church. His visit was arranged by the Indiana Center for Middle East Peace.

"The good news here is that if you step back a little bit, our overarching strategic goal is making sure that nobody dominates the entire region, and the Middle East has never been harder to dominate than it is today," he said.

"Our interests, I think, are best served by a regional balance of power. And maintaining that balance, or doing what we can to maintain that balance, requires a certain degree of flexibility on our part," said Walt, the author of four books, including "Taming American Power: The Global Response to U.S. Primacy."

"We should strive for cordial ties with all states in the region instead of having special relations with some and ostracizing others," he said. "To be blunt about it, there are no states in the region sufficiently important to us or sufficiently compatible with American values and interests to warrant a special relationship any longer."

Such a policy would "encourage other countries throughout the Middle East to do a bit more to make us happy, to do a bit more to win our support, to maintain our support instead of taking it for granted," he said.

It would be something of a return to what Walt termed America’s role as "an offshore balancer" from 1945 to 1990.

"This policy was not perfect, but on the whole it worked pretty well," he said.

Walt also has taught at Princeton University and the University of Chicago, and he has been a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution. He is among 73 Middle East and international relations scholars who signed a recent letter supporting the Iran nuclear agreement with six world powers, including the U.S.

Walt insisted Thursday that the pact, pending before Congress, will restrict Iran’s nuclear weapon ambitions by dramatically reducing its atomic fuel capacity and placing "an unprecedented level of safeguards and monitoring so that we’ll know if they’re trying to cheat at all."

He also pointed out that U.N. economic sanctions would resume against Iran if any of the agreement partners believes Iran is violating terms of the accord.

Walt said opponents of the agreement are misguided for thinking a better deal could be negotiated if the U.S. imposed heavier sanctions and made greater demands of Iran.

"The idea that Iran is going to be making a deal that gives us everything we want and gives Iran nothing that it wants, like the lifting of sanctions, is nuts," he said.

"If you impose a completely one-sided, nothing-in-it-for-them deal, their incentive to try and find a way to get around it goes up," he said. "If on the other hand, it’s a deal that has a lot in it that we like but some things in it that they like, then they have reasons to abide by the deal (and) we can actually be more confident they will live up to it."

The agreement might even improve relations between Iran and the U.S., Walt said.

"I don’t think it guarantees it, but this deal does at least open the door, create the possibility of a more constructive relationship with Iran, and there are some issues where our interests are aligned," he said.

"They don’t like ISIS anymore than we do. They’re not real fond of the Taliban, either," he said about Islamic State and Taliban militants. "These are issues where we ought to be at least talking to Iran, where we may be able to help each other, and this (agreement) makes that become something of a possibility as well.

"So I’m a big fan of the deal," he said. "I think it will go through, and I think historians looking back in 20 or 30 years will say that this is a critical moment where things actually did take a positive turn," Walt said.

Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., and Rep. Marlin Stutzman, R-3rd, have said they oppose the agreement. Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., has said he favors it.

bfrancisco@jg.net