Commentary

Obama Muddling Through in the Mideast

By Leon T. Hadar
This article appeared in the Huffington Post on February 18, 2010.

It’s quite possible that confounding the conventional wisdom, the Obama Administration has been conducting secret negotiations with Iran that could open the road to a diplomatic détente between the two governments while working behind the scenes with Israelis and Palestinians to create the conditions for bringing about a peace accord between these two peoples. It’s possible, but not so probable.

Even if something has been going on in that not-that-much-utilized sphere of “secret diplomacy” — and once upon a time, for better or for worse, diplomacy used to be secret and went “public” only after the deals had been made — one would expect in this era of 24/7 news coverage that opponents of American-Iranian dialogue in Washington and Tehran and Israeli and Palestinian “rejectionists” — not to mention American neocons — to successfully torpedo these initiatives through relentless media exposure.

Indeed, it is difficult to imagine President Richard Nixon and his national security advisor Henry Kissinger pulling off in our media saturated political environment the kind of secret diplomacy that had led to the U.S. opening to China. Their bureaucratic enemies would be leaking the story to Fox News and to the Drudge Report and The Weekly Standard would be demanding that Dr. K be fired before you could say chop suey or chow mein.

Indeed, it’s the politics, stupid! President Barack Obama has failed to turn his two major Mideast policy initiatives — engagement with Iran and Israeli-Palestinian peace — into reality because they were based on very weak political foundations. At time it seems as though Obama assumed that opponents of these initiatives would be overwhelmed by, if not crushed under the power of the new White House occupant’s personal charisma and media stardom. If his predecessor had fantasized that “hard power” in the form of U.S. military force doing “regime change” could help remake the Middle East into a zone of peace, democracy, and free markets, Obama seemed to be operating under the illusion that application of “soft power” — his historic addresses to the Muslim World in Istanbul and Cairo and his television interviews and YouTube appearances targeting Arab and Iranian audiences — would do the job.

While there is no doubt that Obama has been successful in improving the American brand name in the Middle East (which wasn’t such a difficult mission when you get to perform after W), he has yet to draw the outlines of coherent and realistic policy objectives in Iran and Israel/Palestine. The notion that Washington would be willing to negotiate with Tehran and to activate the “peace process” in the Holy Land may sound very forward-looking when contrasted with the approach embraced by Bush 43 (especially during his first term in office) but not when compared to the policies pursued by other U.S. presidents, including Bush 41. From that perspective, it was W who attempted to transform traditional American foreign policy in the Middle East in the aftermath of 9/11; Obama has been trying to rewind it back to first diplomatic principles of negotiating compromises and making peace.

In fact, previous U.S. presidents had negotiated and made deals with leaders and governments who under any moral yardstick would have been considered even more “evil” than the Ayatollahs in Tehran — and that includes Mao’s China; the U.S. had even formed a military alliance with Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union during World War II. And it has been partnering with Islamic fundamentalist regimes (Saudi Arabia) and groups (the mujahidin in Soviet-occupied Afghanistan) for quite a long time.

Nor did Obama’s demand that the Israeli government put a freeze on its building of Jewish settlements in Arab-occupied territories amount to such a radical change in U.S. policy. If anything, it did not even come close to the kind of statements and policies adopted by his predecessors in office, including Bush 41, who had threatened Jerusalem with sanctions when it resisted their pressure. Again, it was W who seemed to be overturning this U.S. policy by treating Israeli settlement policy with a modicum of benign neglect.

To put it in simple terms, all that Obama has been trying to do was to reverse W’s radical policies in the Middle East in the spirit of the more realist agendas advocated by such conservative figures as Brent Scowcroft, Bush 41’s national security advisor, who, very much like Obama during the 2008 presidential campaign, had been a harsh critic of the neoconservative foreign policy adopted by George W. Bush.

But after entering the White House and dispatching the respected former Senator George Mitchell to the Middle East, Obama was not able to put his policy where his mouth was during the campaign. One reason for that failure had to do with the legacy left to him by Bush. The ousting of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and other U.S. policies (having elections in the Palestinian territories; giving Israel a green light to attack Lebanon) helped strengthen the power of Iran and its regional satellites (Hamas and Hizbollah) while providing it with more incentives to develop a nuclear military capacity (and deter an American military attack). In short, Bush’s policies played into the hands of the more anti-American elements in Tehran while enhancing the bargaining power of the Iranians vis-à-vis Washington, making it likely that Iran would be less accommodative towards any initiative coming from what it perceived to be a militarily and economically damaged United States, even if the less belligerent Obama is calling now the shots in Washington.

At the same time, the U.S. policy under Bush helped accelerate a shift towards the political right in Israel. “Yet the Bush administration’s last foreign-policy decision — giving Israel a green light to launch a devastating assault on the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip — helped ignite ultra-nationalist and anti-Arab sentiments among the majority of Israelis,” I had written after last year’s Israeli election, predicting that Israeli new PM Benjamin Netanyahu would “activate his old neocon troops, led by Fox News and the Wall Street Journal editorial page and joined by Republicans on Capitol Hill” and ask them” to launch a major offensive against the ‘appeaser’ in the White House, hoping to bring political pressure first on the Democrats on Capitol Hill and then on President Obama to demonstrate that he has it in his ‘kishke’ when it comes to Israel.” Obama could have certainly surprised Netanyahu by proving that he does have it in his gut — by saying no to Netanyahu, a move that would have been a blessing to both Israel and the United States. But by counting on political support at home and in Washington, Netanyahu was able to resist the diplomatic pressure from Obama and to ensure that the U.S. president’s diplomatic initiative would reach a dead-end.

That Obama decided not to pursue a more confrontational approach towards Netanyahu could be explained in part by the economic and political constraints operating on him at home. “If the economic recession proves to be more manageable than expected, the Obama administration could embrace a more ambitious agenda in the Middle East,” I wrote last year. But I cautioned that “Obama and his aides would still have to contend with trying to broker a deal that requires concessions that neither the Israeli nor Palestinian leaders are willing to deliver any time soon. Resolving these wildly differing core existential issues “would be more difficult to achieve now than in 2000 (when Camp David II collapsed) considering the Israeli and Palestinian leadership seem more divided and radicalized after the second Intifadah and 9/11.”

Even under the best-case scenario, there would have been limits to the Obama Administration’s ability to bring about a Middle East peace and to reach a deal with Iran that would have required U.S. concessions. And there would always be the danger that by producing unrealistic expectations that cannot be fulfilled, Washington could end up stirring an anti-American backlash. Ironically, while Obama’s failure to get the peace process going angered Palestinians, his limited effort to do that has also antagonized many Israelis. Similarly, Obama’s initial resistance to the idea of the U.S. government interjecting itself into Iran’s political upheaval has alienated the members of pro-democracy opposition in Tehran, demonstrating once again that whenever the U.S. tries to “do something” in the Middle East, it ends up annoying some of the players and creates the conditions for an anti-American backlash.

In any case, a somewhat less than vigorous economic recovery coupled with Obama’s mounting domestic political problems as dramatized by the loss of the Democratic Senate seat in Massachusetts has made it even more difficult for Obama to pursue his Mideast initiatives now that he is even more dependent on support from conservative Democrats and Republicans who in some cases tend to be even more pro-Israeli than the average Israeli and who are pressing for tougher action against Iran.

Indeed, in many respects, raising the diplomatic and economic pressure on Iran may have become the path of least political resistance for Obama. It’s a policy that enjoys bipartisan support on Capitol Hill, gets the backing of Obama’s national security team and brings together the Saudis and the Israelis. Unlike his predecessor who had rushed into war in Iraq, Obama is probably not eager for a military confrontation with Iran. But with all the talk about that country’s nuclear military threat, the constant use of the Ahmadinejad-is-Hitler analogy, the calls for American support for a democratic Iran, and the anti-Iran mood on Capitol Hill, the media and the public, it’s not surprising that many in Washington are feeling a sense of déjà vu, that we’ve seen that movie, and that it, well, bombed.

Leon T. Hadar is a research fellow in foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, specializing in foreign policy, international trade, the Middle East, and South and East Asia. He is the author of Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East.