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Obama in the Mideast

Part 2 of 2: Ramin Ahmadi, Lokman Slim, Martin Kramer, and Jacob Weisberg consider the president’s policies in the region.

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(Photocollage: Tablet Magazine; photos, from top: Stringer/Getty Images, Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images, Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images, Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)
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Obama in the Mideast

Part 1 of 2: Elliott Abrams, Robert Malley, Dore Gold, and Andrew Exum consider the president’s policies in the region.

Tablet Magazine invited experts from the foreign policy community—policymakers, diplomats, activists, and analysts from both Washington and the Middle East—to offer their assessments of President Barack Obama’s Middle East policy. A year and a half into one of the most celebrated presidencies in recent memory—celebrated not just here but throughout much of the world—has Obama managed to hit the reset button in a part of the planet that the George W. Bush Administration had almost willfully alienated and enraged? Or has the new commander in chief misread notoriously tricky ground, empowering U.S. enemies and weakening Washington’s traditional allies?

We asked where the White House had succeeded or failed—on questions from the state of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the Iranian nuclear program, from U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to the region’s rising powers, like Turkey and Qatar.

Here’s the second batch. Read more—including Elliott Abrams and Robert Malley—in yesterday’s post.

‘Cairo: Part II’
Lokman Slim
is a Lebanese publisher, filmmaker, and activist:

For those who benefited unequivocally from the previous administration’s Middle East policy, the ripples of uncertainty created by Obama’s pledges of a messianic “new start” were felt well before his inauguration, and even before his election to office. The dilemma President Obama would face was clear: how to prioritize salvaging the successes versus creating a changed image of America in the Muslim world. Although the Cairo speech of June 4 last year showed all the willingness to favor the second, it’s not clear that the speech’s recipients reacted to it as was expected. This lack of enthusiasm draws, partially, the limits of the all-out engagement policy.

Despite great sacrifices and numerous blunders made by the United States under his predecessor, Obama must face squarely the reality that from Lebanon to Iraq to Afghanistan a return to the status quo ante is neither possible nor desirable. Obama too eagerly lowered the flag of democracy in order to raise the flag of engagement. And while the former may have become viewed as a euphemism for military intervention, the latter has quickly become a euphemism for giving up. At the level of policy and diplomacy, this confusion must be erased—especially vis-à-vis those who continue to struggle for change.

We heard rumors in Beirut that a follow-up address focusing on political reform was in the pipeline—but this was never delivered. It’s high time for a Cairo: Part II.

‘A Zero-Sum Game’
Martin Kramer is the Wexler-Fromer fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a senior fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem:

“Power is no longer a zero-sum game. No one nation can or should try to dominate another nation. No world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will succeed. No balance of power among nations will hold.” Thus spoke Barack Obama to the U.N. General Assembly last September. This must rank with George W. Bush’s “bring ’em on” as an invitation to America’s adversaries to defy it. Bush later expressed regret that he said his words, noting that “in certain parts of the world they were misinterpreted.” Obama likewise may rue having spoken his.

In the Middle East, power is a zero-sum game, domination by a benevolent hegemon creates order, and the regional balance of power is the foundation of peace. It’s the pax Americana, and while it may be stressful to uphold it, the alternative is more stressful still. And as the impression of American power wanes, we are getting a foretaste of “post-American” disorder. A struggle has begun among the middle powers—Iran, Turkey, and Israel—to fill the vacuum. Iran floods Lebanon with rockets, Turkey sends a flotilla to Gaza, Israel sends an assassination squad to Dubai—these are all the signs of an accelerating regional cold war. Each middle power seeks to demonstrate its reach, around, above, and behind the fading superpower.

The response in Washington is to huff and puff, imposing settlement “freezes” and “crippling” sanctions. This is the illusion of power, not its substance. The Obama Administration is bringing the United States out of the Middle East, to a position from which it believes it can “contain” threats with diplomacy, deterrence, and drones. As the United States decamps, its allies will feel insecure, its enemies emboldened. The Middle East’s stress test has begun.

‘Less Political Capital’
Jacob Weisberg
is the chairman of the Slate Group and the author of The Bush Tragedy:

Obama made the classic mistake of being optimistic about the Arab-Israeli conflict. He assumed that his predecessors hadn’t tried hard enough, or had gotten it wrong, and that his personal intervention could make the difference. What Obama failed to appreciate is how much the odds are stacked against any U.S. president changing the fundamental realities of the Middle East. If the conflict can’t be resolved—and for the time being, I don’t think it can be—it’s wise to avoid investing political capital in the issue.

Presidents have a tendency to do the opposite of what their predecessors do. Because George W. Bush had stepped away from the peace process, Obama was inclined to step into it. American presidents do need to keep up a certain level of pressure on both sides, both as a show of good faith throughout the region and because someday there may be a deal to be had. But my sense is that Obama let his enthusiasm about reversing Bush’s broken policies delude him into thinking he could fix something he couldn’t.

Sadly, the Arab-Israeli conflict has seldom looked more intractable. I think Obama has been very frustrated with the Netanyahu government, as are most sensible people. He has not been able to get significant concessions from Netanyahu on the settlements, an issue where he is completely right and the right is completely wrong. On the Arab side, Obama has also been unable to get any meaningful concessions from Syria, Saudi Arabia, Hamas, or Hezbollah. He can’t even get the conversation started, let alone broker a deal.

Obama quickly developed a reputation for being unfriendly to Israel, which is wrong and unfair. Israelis make assumptions about Obama’s political views that aren’t correct—that because he has Muslim family connections he must be instinctively anti-Israel. Or they associated him with the views of other African-American politicians, like Jesse Jackson. That view gets transmitted to American Jews, some of whom share the same prejudices. The perception that he’s not an instinctive friend of Israel has hurt him politically, and it’s hard to undo. In fact, I think Obama holds mainstream Democratic Party views about Israel—he is a reflexive friend and ally who is hostile to Netanyahu because Netanhayu doesn’t truly accept the idea of a two-state solution.

While I don’t think Obama is likely to walk away from the peace process or give up, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him de-prioritize it. If he could point to a success and say, for instance, that he got a settlement freeze from Netanyahu, he might be more willing to take additional political risk. As it is, he got nothing and made himself look bad with a very important political constituency, American Jews. Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod certainly appreciate this. If he learned anything from his initial experience with the issue, the president will invest less political capital in it going forward. (As told to Lee Smith.)

‘Grand Bargain’
Ramin Ahmadi
is a founder of the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center and has trained young Iranians in nonviolence workshops for a decade:

The debate over Obama’s Iran policy is between those on one hand who insist that the president has not given enough support to the Green Revolution and, on the other hand, those, mostly affiliated with Washington’s Iran lobby, who have blamed the president for not moving fast enough to normalize relations and secure a Grand Bargain. This argument reflects the fact that the Obama Administration lacks a coherent Iran policy.

In its early days, the administration appeared convinced that the Iranian regime was stable and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had the support of a majority of Iranians. Therefore, the only rational approach would be to pursue a Grand Bargain, involving a nuclear compromise in return for economic assistance and legitimacy for the thugs in Tehran. But if Washington’s Iran lobby had worked so hard on formulating this Grand Bargain, how was it then that Tehran seemed mostly uninterested?

Then came the thunder. The White House never saw Iran as a country on the verge of a great democratic upsurge, and Iran’s nonviolent Green Revolution shook the administration in Washington even more than the regime in Tehran. The Obama team had to reassess its understanding of the country. The administration had looked at Iran’s democratic revolution as an inconvenience, and yet it didn’t seem wise to make concessions to an appalling regime that was falling apart. The Green Revolution is a powerful display of “people’s power,” and yet it has not toppled the regime after a full year, effectively putting all the possible rapprochement initiatives on hold. It exposed the brutality and corruption of the regime in Tehran and the lack of a cohesive Iran policy here in Washington. It took Obama some time to voice any support for the Green Revolution and when he finally did, it was too little too late.

This is the second in a two-part series. Read part one.

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MaxS says:

Let’s face it in the middle east Obama is viewed as a weakling who can’t get anything done. He gives the impression that he has no idea what he is doing. He abandons democracy in Iran and Lebanon turns a could shoulder to Israel and tries to cozy up to countries like Syria who openly mock him.

Marc R says:

Jacob Weisberg is no dummy, but he’s foolish to ascribe Israeli skepticism about Obama wholly (or even significantly) to Obama’s heritage.

Also, Obama has done little to no damage to his standing among American Jews. They still support him, and his Israeli policy, in far, far greater numbers than other white constituencies.

george kennan says:

Great point by Marc R. Obama is still popular among Jews, moreso than just about any other group aside from blacks.

And even if he did lose support among Jews, who cares? Jews are les sthan 2% of the population and less than 2% of the vote. They only even matter in a few states like NY, NJ and FL. If the Jewish vote starts to matter for Obama in NY or NJ, he has much bigger problems than Israel to worry about. And Bush won FL twice without doing all that great among Jews. The Jewish vote is much more irrelevant than certain people make it out to be. It’s never really mattered at the Presidential level.(and will only matter less as the Jewish population continues to shrink)

As for Obama, is anyone really surprised by a guy who spent 20 yrs in Wright’s church, referred to Wright as his mentor and one of his closest influences and friends. Wright, who published Hamas op-eds in his church news letter and said what he said. A guy who was close with someone like Khalidi. Who was seated at the same table and right next to Edward Said at an Arab Affairs banquet in Chicago. Who up until he joined the Senate and started running for President had absolutely zero track record of doing anything or saying anything that showed support for Israel. Who went to Pakistan over a spring break and had numerous Muslim friends and family members. Who was endorsed and supported by numerous anti-Israel figures and groups. Eveyone should have known what they were getting with Obama.

Israelis haven’t made assumptions. They’ve judged him based on his actions. I don’t think Obama is necessarily anti-Israel. At best he’s neutral. Israel holds no special meaning for him. He has no connection to it. I’d guess that if you got him alone or if someone had spoke with him at any time before 2003, he’d have been more on the side of the Arabs.

Martin Gray says:

No matter how Democrat flacks promote Obama’s affinity to Israel, the Israeli audience isn’t buying. And contrary to some of the comments in Part 2 about the insignificant political impact of American Jews and their continued support of Obama, the poll numbers tell a much different story. Whether the impact of American Jews on elections is significant or not, there’s another large American constituency know as the Evangelical Christian movement which follows this narrative closely and votes overwhelmingly for candidates who are pro-Israel. Various estimates have put their numbers between 60 – 70 million constituents. And they all vote in large numbers – Christians and Jews. The November 10, 2010 elections will represent a real inflection point. It matters little if Obama is liked or held in contempt by foreign governments, they don’t vote in U.S. elections. The U.S. election process is where the real power lies. If Obama takes a significant hit in this Fall’s election, then he will be further constrained in executing what clearly appears to be a fundamental shift in U.S. policy in the Middle East.

steve says:

Jacob Weisberg’s comments are are nothing short of arrogant. If you oppose Obama’s policies, especially those toward Israel,it’s because you are a rascist (toward Arabs and African/Americans)? And he comes by this as an expert on the prejudices of Israelis? It’s absurd. I know many Israelis and their concern about Obama has nothing to do with this. Maybe it’s about his Cairo speech where he claimed a Jewish state was a sop to Jews for the Holocaust? Or that he has never publicly disavowed the vicious anti-semitic (which are also directed toward millions of Jewish Americans)rants of Arab, Turkish and Persian leaders and their press. Or perhaps it’s the coziness of Obama with The Saudi king whose “peace plan” would essentially kill a Jewish state with indefensible borders from without and within.Or perhaps it’s because many american Jews are shocked at his attitude toward Jews and Judaism.

If Weisberg is so confident of his beliefs perhaps he could list all of the positive actions Obama has taken toward Israel and regional peace. Until then he should stop claiming anyone who disagrees with him is a rascist.

Hershl says:

In yet another sign of his true loyalties, President Obama has just betrayed Israel in an effort to appease the Arabs. He showed the Israelis a draft copy of the nuclear nonproliferation treaty which, as usual, did not contain any reference to Israel, as per the 62+ year policy of America. Then, behind their backs, he had a reference to Israel needing to disarm inserted in the treaty.

Has he no interest in getting the Jewish vote in November?

http://jewishdailyreport.wordpress.com/2010/07/04/obama-betrays-israel-changes-us-policy/

Moshe says:

You know the old expression “with friends like these, who needs enemies”… Weisburg would be better-suited to discuss domestic issues and keep his falling-over-himself beliefs vis-a-vis Israel to himself. I consider myself a very ‘sensible’ person, and with a child out in the ocean protecting our Jewish State. Perhaps Weisburg would come to his senses if he had the same haunts and fears as do the average Israeli citizen.
On a similar note, it was that average Israeli who democratically voted in the right-leaning government. Hamastan (Gaza), on the hand, may have once been coerced to vote for the current Hamas leadership, but they’ll never get another chance.

Shalom Freedman says:

Jacob Weisberg is right in one way. It was foolish of President Obama to think that he could magically do what other Presidents had tried very hard to do i.e. put an end to the Arab -Israeli conflict.
Weisberg is sadly mistaken in his analysis of who is to blame. He does not mention the Palestinian Authority under Abbas. It has used the U.S. pressure on Israel not as path to compromise but rather to greater intransigence. The knee- jerk accusations against Prime Minister Netanyahu are totally unfair. Above all Weisberg does not seem to understand the fundamental truth of the conflict i.e. Israelis so much want peace that they are willing to make painful sacrifices for it. The Arabs on the other hand do not want to live in peace with Israel they wish to undermine it.

Ken Besig Israel says:

There is a joke which posits that an Islamic radical is the one who threatens to kill you, while an Islamic moderate is the one who explains to you why you deserve to die.
In a sense Jacob Weisberg assumes the role of the Islamic moderate in the he claims that Prime Minister Netanyahu and his government are responsible for the failure of the Palestinian Israeli peace process or that Jewish settlements somehow get in the way of the peace negotiations. Mr. Weisberg has explained like his pal President Barack Obama, the Jews are guilty.
How Mr. Weisberg can hold this position after Prime Minsters Ehud Barak, Ehud Olmert, and even Ariel Sharon presented the Palestinians with plans that met 99% of their territorial demands including a division of Jerusalem, the resettlement or financial compensation of Palestinian refugees, and the destruction of some Israeli settlements, and the Palestinians did not even bother to respond to the offers. Indeed, PM Sharon actually destroyed the settlements, homes, and businesses of thousands of Jews in the Gaza Strip, and the Palestinians only responded with unprovoked rocket and missile attacks from Gaza on Israel towns in the Negev. This radical and twisted act of Israeli appeasement and self destruction brought no positive Palestinian response at all.
And yet with all this background, Mr. Weisberg seems almost desperately misinformed and seems to lack any understanding at all about the Palestinian strategy in their negotiations with Israel and like the Islamic moderate, explains why Israel is guilty. By now most realists and Middle East experts realize that the Palestinians see the negotiations as a front in their war to exterminate Israel and replace Israel with a Judenrein Palestinian state. This is their view of a peace settlement with Israel, which is why they do not negotiate Israeli offers or offer any detailed peace plan of their own.

Danny Black says:

Mr Weisberg, you are completely and utterly wrong about why Israelis don’t trust Obama. I know it would be nice if somehow Israelis were just being blindly prejudiced because he black, or because he has a muslim middle name or because he is trying to be nice to arabs or any of the other lies he or his supporters has put forth but the real reason is the same reason other allies don’t trust him – in foreign policy, he is weak and incompetent. He is a bully to allies and a coward to enemies.

Why would the Palestinians want to negotiate now? They are under no pressure, life is relatively good in the West Bank and life is great – if you are Hamas, sucks otherwise – in Gaza. Israel is almost certainly going to capitulate under international pressure on the already ineffective “blockade” and if Obama can’t show support to a ROK after the DPRK has sunk one of their ships in an unprovoked attack then how is Israel meant to get the warm and fuzzy feeling.

If Obama actually dealt with why his foreign policy is an utter failure rather than implicitly calling his opponents racist, he might get better results.

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Obama in the Mideast

Part 2 of 2: Ramin Ahmadi, Lokman Slim, Martin Kramer, and Jacob Weisberg consider the president’s policies in the region.

More on Tablet:

John Kerry Has Hamas’ Back: So, Who Has Israel’s?

By Lee Smith — AIPAC, the so-called Jewish Lobby, has no influence in the White House and is scared to speak out