06 August 09
Jen and Jonathan, I don’t think Obama really can recalibrate. He has staked his strategy on repositioning the United States as an “honest broker” between Israel and the Arabs, a long-standing demand of the Left, which claims — as Obama reiterates — that the Bush administration neglected the peace process for eight years because of its affection for Israel. In other words, the peace process is something the Arabs want but Israel doesn’t. This, of course, couldn’t be further from the truth, as in reality Bush inherited not a peace process but the violent and bloody consequences of a failed one.
Nonetheless, George W. Bush attempted for the first year of his administration to carry on as Clinton had, despite the human bombs going off all over Israel. Even this became implausible when, a few months after 9/11, the IDF intercepted the Karine A ship carrying 50 tons of illegal weapons from Iran to Yasser Arafat. Meanwhile, Israeli intelligence had uncovered irrefutable proof of Arafat’s deep complicity in the suicide war. Yes, at that point the “peace process” went on the shelf for a little while, at least compared with the frantic standard set in the last months of the Clinton administration. Can anyone argue that it shouldn’t have? Well, Obama can, of course, if only to score political points. The “Quartet” and the “road map” were created during this period of alleged neglect, but Obama never mentions that.
Obama’s advisers have been telling him that Abu Mazen is weak but also doing a terrific job of being a Palestinian moderate. Obama knows that things might really fall apart if he presses him, and then he will be in Bush’s position — without a Palestinian participator. Plus, he has staked a large portion of his foreign policy on a rapprochement with the Arab world, which demands that America take the Palestinian side and get tough with Israel. The problem with this strategy is it ties his hands with the Palestinians — if he criticizes them, his larger Middle East stagecraft will suffer.
Obama has walked very far down a road that he is discovering leads to a dead end. The Palestinians and the Arab states, witnessing Obama turn on Israel, are digging in, hoping for more, and seizing the opportunity to do nothing. Obama is probably also not noticing, as evidenced by the Fatah convention, the extent to which Hamas continues to set the tone of Palestinian politics.
The only benefit for Obama from this larger strategy is that he can enjoy the appearance of improved relations with the Arabs at very low immediate cost. The drawback is that he has to depend on them not to make him look foolish. Right now he might be discovering the downside of this strategy: he is already starting to look foolish. The frightening thing is that we can’t tell whether Obama understands he’s creating short-term good PR at the expense of longer-term problems, or whether he thinks the PR is actually solving the problems.