Departing as Ambassador, Michael Oren Is Still Working To Bridge Obama-Bibi Gap
As Washington looks for a diplomatic solution with Iran, Israel’s American-born interlocutor translates for Jerusalem
Oren said he understands why Americans are tired and frustrated with the Middle East. As a historian, he is not surprised by the resurgence of America’s tendency toward isolationism—an inclination that also seems to be at work among both Democrats and Republicans in Washington these days. “This strain of isolationism is the exception, not the rule,” Oren explained. “It occurs during times of economic stress.”
In Oren’s view, another difference between the two countries is that Americans are demoralized right now, as a result of difficult and inconclusive wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. “I opposed the Iraq war,” said Oren, who in 2003 was a fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem. “I said Americans should not get involved in state-building in a region where states are only held together by savage central power. America would become that power, and Americans are not savage.” While the Bush-era notion of transforming Arab states into functional democracies was a beautiful theory, said Oren, the reality of the region has proved to be much more complex. “With WWII, two totalitarian regimes become strong democracies. If Iraq and Afghanistan were shining democracies it might be different, but because the United States fell short, it was very demoralizing. It was a blow to U.S. morale.”
In his view, then, the United States has come up against its own limits—limits that challenged the country’s founding ideals concerning life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The reality is that some men, as Hassan Nasrallah likes to say, prefer death to life, slavery—others’ or even their own—to freedom, and darkness to light. And there’s nothing Americans can do to change it. Nor can Israelis, which is why they doubt that Rouhani will bring peace to the region. Nonetheless, if a deal bringing Iran’s nuclear problem to a halt is possible, said Oren, that would suit Israel’s interests just fine. “There is no country in the world more in favor of a diplomatic solution—a real solution,” he insisted.
But, according to Oren, what’s not clear is precisely whether the Iranians genuinely want a deal. After a week of rumors about a possible chance encounter on the sidelines of the General Assembly meeting, the Iranians decided to snub Obama. Tuesday afternoon, senior administration officials explained that the White House had suggested “an encounter” between the two world leaders, but the Iranians told Obama aides that it is “too complicated for Iranians to do at this point.”
All of which had to come as something of a shock to Obama—but perhaps not to Oren, stuck explaining a Washington that is just as confused about Iran as it was when he first walked into his office at the embassy.
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