Paradoxically, the 2016 U.S. presidential election has thus far featured frequent affirmations of the importance of foreign policy, yet also an inability of most candidates and pundits to talk about foreign policy meaningfully. Especially with respect to the Middle East, the discourse has consisted largely of rather simple statements about how the next president might use (or not use) the American military in reaction to ISIS. But more drone strikes to kill terrorists, or more U.S. troops to stop ISIS, are not strategies, they are tactics—tactics that are counterproductive if they are not part of a broader vision and strategy, globally and regionally.
With this understanding, and advised by traditional and non-traditional experts, the next president should focus on the “mega-crisis” in Iraq-Syria through a process that, at every opportunity, explicitly and implicitly affirms and builds the capacity for people to live with their deepest political and theological differences. Put differently, never has a nuanced approach to integrating religious freedom been more needed in American foreign policy.
In particular, the president should seek a “buffer zone area” that balances and buttresses the confluence of competing interests. The president should:
- Convene an ongoing summit that re-considers the international boundaries of, at a minimum, Iraq-Syria;
- Invest personally in the Syrian Peace Process; and,
- Encourage the establishment of a new regional security structure, which would include a “Marshall Center” for teaching governance and citizenship (rooted in religious freedom’s requirement to live with and respect our deepest differences) to governmental and grassroots leaders alike, including faith communities and businesses.
Given that these goals are quite big, and (perhaps) long-term, the president, in consultation with friends and allies, should in the near term also take the strategically significant but small step of creating a safe haven on the Nineveh Plain. Such a step would allow for a slower pace for the above actions, while helping to: protect those who have fled ISIS; stem the refugee flow to Turkey and Europe; delegitimize ISIS; demonstrate the mutual respect and mutual reliance required of good governance and citizenship; and, routinize working relationships that could contribute to a new regional security structure.
Finally, the above should be rooted in a Sunni-led defeat—militarily and theologically—of ISIS, followed by a Sunni-led and Sunni-funded (with international support) “Marshall Plan” for the region.
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