Obama Mideast policy: an optimistic view

Yesterday I wrote a very pessimistic piece about the pressure that I expected the Obama administration to put on Israel for an immediate withdrawal from the West Bank. Here’s a much more reassuring view of the same issues.

Let’s hope he’s right and I’m wrong.

Not the Center of the World
by Barry Rubin

Israel isn’t going to be the center of the world for the Obama administration and that’s a good, if ego-disappointing, thing. Both the pro-Israeli right’s paranoia and the wishful thinking of the anti-Israeli left in the United States (and, in the latter category, Europe plus the Middle East as well), are operating out of expectations rather than the actual situation.

What can be safely assumed is something along the following lines:

  • The Obama administration will put the main emphasis on domestic issues rather than foreign policy. It faces humongous problems at home and has gigantic ambitions to change America, for better or worse.

Of course, foreign policy has a way of imposing itself on the White House through crises, though many of these might not come from the Middle East or at least the part where Israel is located. Still, what this means is that presidential prestige won’t be involved at high levels or consistently to wage campaigns unless really deemed unavoidable.

  • The administration’s Middle East priority will be dealing with Iraq. If you want, you can add Afghanistan and possibly Pakistan. The key point, though, is that withdrawing at least American combat troops successfully from Iraq, no matter how many months it takes precisely, must top the list. This will take massive amounts of policymaker time and political capital, both domestic and international.
  • No doubt there will be much apparent activity on peace process stuff including endless delegations, speeches, and other showpieces. Nevertheless, the administration will put little effort behind it. Many academics, journalists, and ideologues haven’t yet gotten the word but the kind of Washington types who will actually make government decisions understand this issue isn’t a panacea for all problems, Middle East or global.
  • They also know there aren’t quick or easy solutions. So while the Obamaists criticized Bush for not doing enough on the issue, deep down they know that not a lot could be done. Policymakers, and especially Secretary of State-designate Hillary Clinton, aren’t going to waste time on issues that won’t make them look successful.
  • Consequently, there will be no all-out effort to pressure Israel into major concessions because everyone who counts knows these aren’t going to lead anywhere.
  • Rather, the administration will certainly expect Israel to keep things quiet so as not to interfere with its Iraq strategy.
  • Periodically, Hillary will make some demand on Israel regarding minor points in order to make her look good and give the illusion of success and progress. She’ll be angry if she doesn’t get what she wants. But what she will want will be fairly petty stuff.
  • And she isn’t going to make nice with Hamas and Hizballah, whatever the administration does with Iran and Syria.
  • If Bibi Netanyahu is Israel’s next prime minister there’s certainly potential for friction between him and Obama. But if Israel has a national unity government, Bibi continues talks with the PA, seeks to strengthen it against Hamas, and even keeps chatting with Syria–even knowing these negotiations won’t lead anywhere–bilateral relations should be okay.
  • This administration will probably never support an Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities, but if Israel’s leaders deem such a strike necessary for national survival, they should go ahead anyway and the relationship will weather the crisis.
  • The long-touted idea of creating a U.S. Middle East coordinator has run into trouble because Hillary and others won’t give away turf to someone who reports directly to the president. Such a person wouldn’t influence Afghanistan or Pakistan policy (which might get a separate coordinator) or the withdrawal from Iraq (which will have its own czar as well as being overseen by NSC chief General James Jones), nor in dealing with Iran (which remains with Hillary). It isn’t even clear if that person would get the Syria portfolio. So they’d end up as a sort of equivalent of former British prime minister Tony Blair, running around cajoling people to be friends.
  • The administration will try to engage Syria and Iran but won’t get anything real out of them. Let’s see how long it takes the administration to realize this.
  • Even Arab states have largely stopped their old propaganda line: “Solve the Arab-Israeli conflict and all other problems will disappear. Of course, there’s a wide gap between what’s said in private and in public.

In reality, though, Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia are scared of Islamism; Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia are afraid of Iran, Shia Muslim power, and Islamism; smaller Gulf states are just interested in making money and living well (not that there’s anything wrong with that); Lebanese are desperately trying to survive an Iran-Syrian onslaught; and Iraqis are trying to end their internal conflict and build a stable government.

That doesn’t mean regional leaders won’t keep using Israel as scapegoat. They’re unable and unwilling to make peace; but they don’t want war either and are more interested in getting U.S. protection from Tehran than a Palestinian state. They’ll simultaneously be pleased if Israel destroyed Iran’s nuclear facilities and denounce Israel for “aggression.” Why not have your baklava and eat it, too?

We’re in a new Middle East, or rather a battle between two new Middle Easts. This isn’t the old Middle East of Arab nationalist regimes striving for regional hegemony and using the Palestinians as a tool in that battle. Nor is it the new Middle East of 1990s’ hopes for peace and democracy.

The choice is between the Iran-Syria model for a region of “resistance” (fighting Israel and America as top priority; installing Islamist regimes) and that of Arab states resisting Islamism and Iranian hegemony.

Anyone unprepared to deal with these realities is incapable of understanding what’s going on now and what will happen in coming years. The Obama administration is wrong in making conciliation with sworn, ideologically sincere enemies its main theme rather than building a united front against radical Islamism and Iranian imperialism. At the same time, though, it doesn’t seem to be intoxicated with the bash-Israel-and-save-the-world fantasy.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), with Walter Laqueur (Viking-Penguin); the paperback edition of The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan); A Chronological History of Terrorism, with Judy Colp Rubin, (Sharpe); and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley). To read and subscribe to MERIA and other GLORIA Center publications or to order books, visit http://www.gloriacenter.org.

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One Response to “Obama Mideast policy: an optimistic view”

  1. Shalom Freedman says:

    This is a most sophisticated and reassuring answer to the suggestion that the Obama Administration would be putting almost immediately brutal pressure on Israel for territorial concessions. However I am made uneasy by the statements of a large number of people indicating that the Israeli- Arab conflict is going to be a first priority, and that it is not going to ‘wait for the seventh year’(As the Bush Administration allegedly did). Yesterday I heard British Foreign Minister David Miliband enthusiastically express this very idea.
    So with all due respect for Barry Rubin I am not at all sure he is right on this one.

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