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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.

Lee Smith
June 30, 2010
(Photocollage: Tablet Magazine; photos, from left: Alex Wong/Getty Images, Mark Wilson/Getty Images, Yuri Gripas/AFP/Getty Images, Stringer/Getty Images, Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images, Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images, Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images, Pete Souza/White House, Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images, Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images)
(Photocollage: Tablet Magazine; photos, from left: Alex Wong/Getty Images, Mark Wilson/Getty Images, Yuri Gripas/AFP/Getty Images, Stringer/Getty Images, Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images, Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images, Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images, Pete Souza/White House, Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images, Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images)

As Independence Day approaches, Tablet Magazine invited experts from the foreign policy community—policymakers, diplomats, activists, and analysts from both Washington and the Middle East, and across the political spectrum—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. We looked for the premises on which the Nobel Peace Prize-winning president based his regional policy. And we wanted to know what the future looks like for the United States and the Middle East—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 first batch. Read more—including Jacob Weisberg and Martin Kramer—tomorrow.

‘A Diminished America’
Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow for Middle East Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and the former deputy national security adviser in the George W. Bush Administration:

The Obama Administration appears to have three basic premises about the Middle East. The first is that the key issue in the entire Middle East is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The second is that it is a territorial conflict that can be resolved in essence by Israeli concessions. The third is that the central function of the United States is to serve as the PLO’s lawyer to broker those concessions so that an agreement can be signed. I think these premises are all wrong.

The main struggle in the region is partly ideological, between moderate, pro-Western groups and Islamist and jihadi groups, and partly it is a contest for power in the region by Iran, in its effort to diminish American influence. The administration’s view is playing into Iran’s hands.

Regarding Iran, the administration has held together the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the U.N. security council—United States, Russia, China, France, and the United Kingdom—plus Germany) solidly against the Islamic Republic, but the price has been a long delay in getting sanctions, as well as the weakening of sanctions to satisfy the Chinese and Russians.

Now the next issue of some concern is Turkey. The Erdogan government’s first major step outside of the U.S. alliance was during the Bush Administration, when it wouldn’t let Washington use Turkey as a launching ground for U.S. troops entering Iraq in 2003. The question is, to what extent is Turkey moving into a perceived vacuum of diminished U.S. power? Or, does Turkish policy reflect internal developments; namely, is the country genuinely becoming more Islamist? If it’s correct that the country is becoming more Islamist, then any U.S. administration would be dealing with the same Turkish problems. But if the answer is rather that Turkey sees an opportunity to assert leadership alongside a rising Iran and a diminished America, the problem is a reflection of Obama policy in the region.

‘Tactical Missteps’
Robert Malley is the Middle East program director at the International Crisis Group:

The Obama Administration came into office with the overriding desire to turn the page on a number of Bush Administration policies that, in its view, had eroded U.S. credibility and thus America’s ability to promote its interests. Hence the effort to revive the peace process, reach out to Arab public opinion, and engage with so-called rogue states. Almost two years on, it is fair to describe the outcome as mixed.

The image, if not necessarily the credibility, of the United States undoubtedly has improved, which is not insignificant. But results have lagged far behind. Several reasons suggest themselves. To begin, and this is beyond this or any administration’s control, the region has become less susceptible to outside suasion or pressure than was initially thought—or that had been the case in the past. This reflects both long-term structural changes in the regional and global balance of power but also the more short-term fallout from the Bush years.

Second, there have been several tactical missteps, from the early focus on a full Israeli settlement freeze and Arab moves toward normalization with Israel to the overly cautious approach toward Syria. These are not irreversible, but they have led to a feeling of stagnation, of lost time, from which the administration has yet to fully recover.

Third, the administration appears to be extremely president-centric, which is not a bad thing in itself but leads to an impression of drift unless and until he puts his personal stamp on a given policy. We witnessed this clearly on the domestic front with the evolving dynamics of the health-care debate. We see it, too, on the question of the peace process. The president will need to show his hand and make it clear to his team where he wants to go, and at what political price, for clarity to emerge and a sense of direction to take hold.

Finally, and this is both the most interesting and in some respects troubling aspect, the administration—for all its attempts to disentangle itself from the past—remains wedded to a particular way of perceiving the region, namely as divided between militants beholden to Iran (who must be weakened) and moderates close to the United States (who we must bolster). This paradigm assumes the existence of “axes” that are not quite as coherent as believed, overlooks the degree to which some countries operate in the grey “in between,” and thus misses important opportunities to influence regional actors.

This is the more serious of the various issues. For it suggests that we are fighting the last war, guided by an obsolete model. So much has changed since 2000, the last time Democrats were in power. Because of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, because of what has happened in Iran, because of our long disregard of the peace process, the United States no longer has the authority or legitimacy it once had to shape events. Our traditional Arab allies are running out of steam. New, more dynamic states and movements are gaining in influence. And faith and even interest in the peace process is fading. All of this matters because it determines what we can do, how, and with whom.

Dore Gold heads the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and served as Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations from 1997 to 1999:

Clearly the Obama Administration came to office with very different conceptions about the Middle East than many Israeli governments. This administration stressed the Palestinian issue as the key to regional stability while Israel was increasingly focusing on Iran as the main source of Middle Eastern conflict that had to be addressed first. The Israelis came to the peace process with the keen sense that five prime ministers prior to Benjamin Netanyahu had tried to reach a final-status peace agreement and were unable to do so, and therefore it was necessary to reassess how peacemaking might be conducted differently. In Washington more broadly there had been a tendency to accept the received legacy of Camp David and Taba without the same reservations that you would find in Israel.

That also pointed to a more fundamental problem that existed between the United States and Israel, which went beyond who was president of the United States. The Israelis had undertaken two major peace initiatives vis-à-vis the Palestinians that led to a serious undermining of state security. First, during the Oslo years, Israel absorbed a wave of suicide bombing attacks, leaving more than 1,000 Israelis dead, which had emanated from areas under Palestinian jurisdiction, where Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and Fatah militants had a safe haven. Second, while Israel had hoped that the 2005 Gaza withdrawal would address in part Palestinian political grievances, the pullback resulted in a 500 percent increase in rocket attacks on Israel from 2005 to 2006. Therefore, Israelis became far more security-oriented as they looked to any peace initiatives in the future, and in fact the Israeli body politic moved to the right.

In the United States, after the debate over the Iraq war, the American discourse on foreign affairs stressed diplomacy as a panacea for the world’s problems, unshackled by Bush-era security concerns. Even engagement with adversaries, like Syria and Iran, became part of the new approach to global affairs. In short, both countries were moving in opposite directions in 2009.

Finally, for the last decade and a half, while Palestinian leaders had been very specific about their political demands—a viable contiguous Palestinian state with Jerusalem as a capital—the Israeli side, unfortunately, has been far more vague about its diplomatic goals, preferring a more abstract concept like peace, or peace and security, which are in and of themselves worthy goals but have nothing of the specificity of the Palestinian side, resulting in an asymmetry that made the American discourse on Middle East peace far more attuned to what the Palestinians needed than to Israel’s concerns.

‘Of Comparatively Little Importance’
Andrew Exum is a fellow at the Center for a New American Security:

The Obama Administration’s efforts in the Middle East have centered around the same three I’s that would most concern any U.S. administration: Israel, Iran, and Iraq. The United States has an interest in a secure Israel, a non-nuclear Iran, and a democratic Iraq at peace with itself and its neighbors.

In Israel, the Obama Administration has badly managed relations with the ruling coalition in Jerusalem, but it is hardly to blame for the right-wing composition of that government, which would have certainly clashed with the previous administration as well. U.S. and Israeli policymakers simply have different opinions about what will secure Israel in the long term: Israeli policymakers worry almost exclusively about Iran and its proxies, while the United States and its allies also press for the establishment of permanent borders and a Palestinian state as well as the dismantlement of most Israeli settlements.

With respect to Iran, the Obama Administration has successfully passed tough U.N. sanctions against the regime, but few believe these sanctions will prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Nothing short of large-scale U.S.-led military action—the second-order consequences of which would be horrific—is likely to seriously retard the program’s development.

Iraq, ironically, and thanks in part to a 2007 surge of troops that then-Sen. Obama opposed, is the lone U.S. success story in the Middle East. But it is a fragile success. U.S. military commanders, including Gen. David Petraeus and Raymond Odierno, fret that an Israeli or U.S. military strike on Iran’s nuclear weapons facilities would endanger Iraq’s democratic peace and U.S. troops both there and in Afghanistan.

I tend to believe the actions of local actors are more significant than those of U.S. policymakers. And experience in Iraq and Afghanistan has taught me that U.S. military force alone cannot decisively protect most U.S. interests. I also believe U.S. interests in the Middle East should be prioritized against one another within the region and also against U.S. interests elsewhere. In President George W. Bush’s second term in office, for example, the United States assumed greater risk in Afghanistan—diverting troops and other resources—in order to succeed in Iraq. Under Obama, the reverse is true. The president has been remarkably clear and consistent in terms of U.S. policy, strategic goals, and commitment of resources to Afghanistan. One senses, in fact, that when compared to Afghanistan, the Arabic-speaking Middle East is of comparatively little importance for this president.

As in Afghanistan, though, the Obama Administration inherited a difficult environment in the Middle East. It has made mistakes, but the difficulties it has encountered would have likely confounded a McCain Administration as well. Not that this will be of any comfort should U.S. policies in either the Middle East or Central Asia fail.

This is the first in a two-part series. Go on to part two.

Lee Smith is the author of The Consequences of Syria.