OWLS HEAD, Maine — This past weekend, on Fareed Zakaria's Sunday talk show, the suggestion was made to depart from the endless cycle of reacting to North Korea's provocative behavior with further sanctions, which seems to provoke worse behavior from the world's most sanctioned and isolated country.
Maybe, instead, offering a few carrots, like the prospect of a more normal relationship with the United States and some of North Korea's neighbors, would work better.
Opponents would see this, of course, as rewarding spectacularly bad behavior, compromising our principles, giving into blackmail, even encouraging Iran and other rogue nations to be more aggressive and less cooperative in the future.
But as part of an overall international strategy — a total reworking, as it were, of our approach to difficult parts of the world — it's worth considering. After all, what have years of isolation and sanctions gotten us in North Korea: an even more aggressive and more failed state, now armed with nuclear weapons.
We are facing a similar situation now with Iran. More of the same — more sanctions, more isolation — is highly unlikely to change Iran's behavior. Things are moving rapidly in the rest of the Middle East as well, and not at all in a way to the advantage of the US.
The most serious situation is in Syria where the anti-Assad forces are led increasingly by radical Islamists. But it's not just Syria or Iran where the situation is deteriorating.
We should be preparing for a Middle East that could look like this in a year or two:
Iran yet closer to developing a nuclear weapon or provoking an Israeli attack that would be devastating to US interests; a post-Assad Syria in a free-for-all between well-armed and well-organized Sunni extremists and opponents often supported by Hezbollah and Iran; a disintegrating Lebanon; an increasingly unstable Jordan; the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt becoming more dictatorial as it grows less popular and less stable.
Even Saudi Arabia could be at risk: The Sa'ud royal family, whose demise has long been prematurely predicted, is facing a serious succession crisis as a result of its inability to agree on who in the younger generation should be crowned prince, the sons of dynasty founder Abd al-Aziz having finally died off.
Iraq, ironically, will seem an oasis of stability, though its relationship with Iran having grown ever tighter, its stability will be of little comfort to the US.
President Barack Obama's Middle Eastern foreign policy in his first term might charitably be termed as passive. Having early on been rudely upbraided by Israel's Prime Minister Netanyahu, Obama abandoned any role in resolving the Palestinian problem.
His initial reluctance to get involved in Syria, certainly the right approach at the time, has now deteriorated into a do-nothing policy regardless of the likely negative outcome. His approach to Iran's nuclear ambitions, like his (and to be sure his predecessors') policy towards North Korea, is one-dimensional and not working.
With John Kerry as his new secretary of state, one hopes Obama is developing a new strategy for the Middle East. What should it look like?
On the Israeli-Palestinian situation, where any hope of a negotiated two-state solution is dead, the White House should publicly announce what it, and its partners, consider a fair settlement.
The US must say it is ready to implement such a deal when the two sides are on board, but that negotiations about the deal itself are no longer acceptable. And then sit back and wait.
The Netanyahu government would be furious, as would its hard-line US supporters, but more moderate Israelis would welcome such an ultimatum.
More significantly, it would be a popular move in the Arab World, helping to offset the anti-American spillover from the current Arab turmoil. And Israel would eventually come around, given a choice limited to a perpetual apartheid-style occupation of what's left of Palestine and growing international isolation as a result of opting for the US-sponsored deal on Palestine.
At the same time, the US would encourage Hamas and Fatah, the Palestinian Authority, to cooperate, announcing that we would recognize a unity government that accepted our two-state proposal. Critics would go ballistic, citing the long-standing US position on Hamas as a terrorist organization. But so, in our eyes, was the PLO and its leader Yasser Arafat until we both moved forward.
On Iran, we should privately indicate that we are willing to lift some sanctions in a gesture of good faith once we get into serious bilateral negotiations; and that if serious negotiations evolve, we would be ready to recognize Iran and exchange low-level diplomatic representatives.
Publicly, we would be less forthcoming but we would state clearly that our interest with regard to Iran is in controlling the spread of nuclear weapons and not in regime change, and that we welcome bilateral talks without pre-conditions. Iran, like the US, has its own internal politics to consider, but with Ahmadinejad on his way out, the coming months could be an ideal time for a new approach.
The Middle East, post-Arab Spring, is going to be a decidedly more complicated and less US-friendly place than at any other time in modern history.
Our "pivot" to China — oops, I mean Asia — notwithstanding, an increasingly destabilized region stretching from Libya to Iran (and onward through Afghanistan and Pakistan), if continued to be handled by a reactive, passive approach, will grow ever more antagonistic to US interests, with the potential for a decidedly negative fall-out for the international economy.
Shiites and Sunnis will be at each other's throats, but neither will be siding with us. Terrorism will grow. Israel will be under greater perceived threat, and thus more likely to react militarily — not to mention all that entails for regional instability and further deterioration of US standing and influence in the area.
We can continue to sit back, watching as US interests are further undermined. Or we can proactively develop a new and effective strategy in response to a new and threatening reality.
Mac Deford is retired after a career as a foreign service officer, an international banker, and a museum director. He lives at Owls Head, Maine, and still travels frequently to the Middle East.