Obama faces only hard choices in Mideast
The conventional wisdom in Washington these days is that a newly empowered president, freed from the political constraints of reelection, will have more discretion, drive and determination to take on the Middle East’s most intractable problems.
Don’t believe it. This looks a lot more compelling on paper than in practice. Should President Barack Obama be tempted to embrace it, he may well find himself on the short end of the legacy stick.
Once again many on the left are summoning up the spirit of Obama unchained. Those who saw a new kind of American president in the Middle East – tough on Israel; sensitive to the Islamists and the Arabs (see his March 2010 Cairo speech), and bent on engaging the world in a spirit of mutual tolerance and respect – hope for his return.
The president may well try to deal with some of the region’s knotty problems. But it will be in a more deliberate and transactional manner – not with the transformational zeal of his first year in office. Here’s why:
Governing is prose. This president found that out most clearly in the Middle East, where his hopes for a quick breakthrough in the Israel-Palestinian issue; engagement with the Iranian mullahs and hopes for an Afghan surge gave way to the crueler realities of an angry, broken and dysfunctional region.
Obama, a wartime president from the get-go ‑ albeit one with a Nobel Peace Prize ‑ morphed into a less reckless and ideological version of George W. Bush. He doubled down with Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai in his own surge; buckled to pressure from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on settlements; carried on a predator drone strategy that has killed more than 3,000 people, 10 times the number of his predecessor, and kept Guantanamo open. Obama once burned will be twice shy about allowing his rhetoric and hopes to exceed reality ‑ particularly in a region that offers no quick successes or painless legacy opportunities.
Governing is about choosing. America can attend to its own broken house and have a competent foreign policy, too. Obama proved that in his first term. But a president confronting difficult domestic challenges can’t afford costly failures abroad that raise questions about his competency, erode his political currency and accentuate his lame duck status. The issues Obama now confronts, however ‑ particularly Iran and Israeli-Palestinian peace ‑ are loaded with domestic political explosive power.
To become more proactive on any of them will expose a president to criticism from Republicans and even some in his own party. All at a time when the public wants much more attention paid to fixing America crumbling infrastructure and foreclosure problems rather than repairing the houses of everyone else.
Migraines or root canals: Take your pick. It would be one thing if the problems Obama faces were easy ones. But they are not. They include an historic conflict in which neither Netanyahu nor Palestinian President Abbas is willing or able to pay the price on the big issues of borders, refugees and Jerusalem; Syria’s imploding civil war, which has no easy courses for intervention, Chinese and Russian support for the Assad regime and a fractured opposition that includes elements Washington would rather not see armed; and an Iran seemingly determined to pursue a nuclear weapons capability though Israel and even the United States threaten military action.
None of these problems offers the prospect of a quick breakthrough. Each is instead a long movie ‑ with an outcome, not a permanent solution, and likely characterized by great uncertainty, not clarity.
This is not an argument for inaction, however. There are risks to the national interest in doing nothing. But there is a compelling argument for caution and for an unforgiving assessment of options. Most important, Obama needs to prioritize. He cannot at the same time take a lead role in fixing Syria, solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and cut a deal with Iran.
Obama should focus on being smart about Iran, using tough and imaginative diplomacy to do a deal ‑ while keeping a military strike as a real option. Who knows, if he can succeed there, he just might expand the number of options on the other two.
PHOTO: President Barack Obama delivering a major speech about the Middle East in the Grand Hall of Cairo University June 4, 2009. REUTERS/MENA/Pool