Posted by on October 17, 2013 in Blog

By Marc Sabbagh
Fall Intern, 2013

Throughout the past sixteen days of the U.S. government shutdown, numerous articles decried the negative impact of the country’s impasse over government funding and the debt ceiling on U.S. foreign policy. President Obama was forced to send Secretary of State John Kerry to Asia on his behalf, undermining the oft-repeated “pivot to Asia” strategy. Vladimir Putin and Bashar al-Assad pondered over their Nobel Peace Prize chances while fresh attacks took place in Syria. Markets in Europe took a negative hit. The Council on Foreign Relations’ Richard Haass said the shutdown created concerns about “American predictability and reliability, which are qualities that are vital to an effective great power.”

Now, with DC coming back to life, people returning to their daily Metro commute, and shutdown clocks removed from every major media outlet’s screen, what could the media and U.S. politicians possibly focus on now?

President Obama already highlighted his three priorities in the aftermath of the government shutdown: a budget deal that focus on the deficit, immigration reform, and a farm bill. It is not too surprising that the president decided to focus on important domestic issues and Congress has shown a similar aversion to foreign policy issues recently. But whether the United States liked it or not, the world kept spinning during the government shutdown, and will continue to do so. There’s no limit to the issues playing out across the globe that require U.S. attention, especially in the broader Middle East. Here’s what needs to stay on the agenda – and on the news.

The Two Genevas

Political settlements to both the Syrian crisis as well as Iran’s nuclear program are the focus of talks to take place or currently taking place in Geneva, Switzerland. As the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, this year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner, begins its difficult mission in Damascus, a Syrian official said plans to bring the regime of President Assad and the opposition together at peace talks next month were underway. Deputy Prime Minister Qadri Jamil indicated the so-called Geneva II talks could take place around November 23 or 24, a statement Russia immediately questioned. While it’s uncertain how much of the talks will be directed by the United Nations versus individual countries like the United States, getting to a political solution in Syria undoubtedly remains a top foreign policy priority.

At the same time, negotiations in Geneva began between Iran and other nations over its nuclear program. Iran’s deputy foreign minister, Abbas Araqchi, recently met U.S. Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman in Geneva, indicating that diplomacy continued to move forward despite the U.S. government shutdown. Whether these talks will solely focus on confidence-building measures or actually create a foreseeable path to a comprehensive solution over the Iranian nuclear issue is unclear.

Transitioned Arab Countries

Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy said on Wednesday that relations between the United States and Egypt were in jeopardy given the recent move by the United States to suspend some military aid. This is just one impact of Washington’s failure to devise a comprehensive strategy for the transitioned Arab countries – Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and Yemen. The shutdown distraction may not have directly jeapordized U.S. policy in these countries, but the budget crisis relegated the discussion of what America’s role should be in the region to the backburner.

Meanwhile, Tunisia’s opposition has called for nationwide protests on October 23, accusing the ruling Islamists of preventing negotiations and delaying the formation of a new government. As the recent Zogby Research Services poll shows, ongoing tensions between Ennahda and Tunisia’s opposition groups still plague the country as the second anniversary of the election of the National Constitution Assembly, which has so far failed to draft a constitution, draws near.

Days after the United States captured terror suspect Abu Anas al-Libi during a raid in Libya, the country’s prime minister, Ali Zeidan, was kidnapped by militia gunmen and released hours later. Direct connections between the U.S. raid and the kidnapping were underplayed but it is nevertheless apparent that Libya, as well as the other transitioned Arab countries, continues to face turbulent times. With the shutdown resolved for now, it is necessary for the United States to call for renewed international pressure on constitution making, inclusiveness, free and fair elections and economic programs that can positively impact these transitioning nations in the long run.

Israeli-Palestinian Peace Talks

The Israeli-Palestinian talks appear to be progressing, albeit slowly and quietly. Discussions began under Secretary Kerry under the requirement that they remain confidential, but there have been some positive developments recently. U.S. envoy Martin Indyk, who served as U.S. ambassador to Israel and Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs during the Clinton Administration, recently expanded his negotiation team, signaling an intensified U.S. role in the peace process. President Obama and Secretary Kerry should be prepared to act on any positive momentum Indyk can create.

While success may be based on timing, luck, and persistence, continued effort and attention by the United States show seriousness for peace and can prevent any escalation in tensions between Israelis and Palestinians as regional events play out in Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon.

Again, a focus on domestic affairs by the President and Congress is understandable given the pressing issues facing the United States. Still, these foreign policy issues deserve attention and reexamination so they do not escalate into greater national security concerns. But don’t forget: the United States will likely be finding itself in another showdown situation during the holiday season. Until then.

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