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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.

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(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)
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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.

The Honest Broker

Robert Malley, a former Clinton official, says Hamas must be engaged

The Shadow Viceroy

Elliott Abrams, who oversaw the Middle East for George Bush, says the recent Israel crisis reflects how the Obama team is doing business with the rest of the world

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.

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David says:

No surprises from Elliott Abrams, the chief lobbyist for Israel. It surprises me he hasn’t been swept up by the FBI for the same reasons those suburban Russian “illegals” were — for working as an unregistered agent of a foreign nation.

Elana says:

I would just like to point out that the only experts you interviewed are men…..

zev guber says:

I take the position that all your ‘experts’ have it wrong, though Andrew Exum comes closest to reality. The US hegemony has passed. Our arrogance which carried us into Iraq has continued in Afghanistan and continues to imbalance the necessity of peace. The Israelis have to take care of their Arab neighbors and brothers, as do the Arabs have to take care of their Jewish neighbors and brothers. Until their is the joint recognition of the extent to which the two cultures-religions-tribes are inexorably and inextricably bound there is no possibility of peace. And each act of force, which generates an asymmetrical only further muddies the waters.

Speedy says:

In the space provided these mid-east hands no one has said anything that would take them off the DC dinner party A-List. In fact, Obama has a foreign policy that has created vacuums throughout the middle east. Our friends now consider the US unreliable, and the President as weak and ineffectual. Our adversaries feel empowered and are causing allies to ponder whether they should seek security by accommodating to the most fanatic ideologies in the region.

The fear that the US will NOT be there to protect our interests has far greater power than the notion that the US is there and will not abandon so-called moderate Arab regimes. Israel will be reluctant to make any meaningful compromises as long as it perceives the US to be hesitant in its support. Every previous accommodation made by Israel has been accompanied by increased violence and Israeli’s do understand that fact. Netanyahu, despite his unpopularity with this Administration, was democratically elected by a public that is increasingly security conscious and reluctant to take further risks

As regards Turkey the big difference is not the Erdogan government per se, but that with increased democratisation comes increased attention to attention to popular sentiment as opposed to the repressive military governments of Turkey’s past led by Generals who could afford to ignore those desires and were happy to do what the U.S. asked of them provided they got the weaponry they wanted. So unless Obama is willing to back yet another military coup The U.S. is going to have to learn to live with another ally with a mind of its own.

The key to broader middle east stability is a resolution to the Israel/Palestine conflict; the Obama administration must not be seduced into a minimal settlement that rewards certain Palestinian leaders at the expense of the more general aspirations of the Palestinian people, this is not a recipe for a lasting peace. Any settlement must not only deliver safety and security for Israelis but must also be generally acceptable to the broad mass of Palestinians.

I feel that, in many cases, the U.S. has been backing the wrong horse in the region, e.g. Mubarak in Egypt, maybe it is time to consider making aid conditional on liberalising measures and to engage with opposition groups.

If Obama wishes to further isolate Iran then peeling away its allies should be a priority. It is long past time to normalise relations with Syria and to stop pretending that Hamas and Hizbullah are utterly beyond the pale and to treat them as potential partners in peace.

June says:

I must agree with Speedy. Obama has entirly misread the situation. Unfortunately for the Palestinians their Arab brothers have continulally used them poorly, inflating their dreams and always keeping them as second class or refugee pawns and as a focus away from their problems at home. At the same time they felt free to pursue this course because they knew that as long as the US would be there for Israel the US would be there for them for their oil. The Palestinisans now have Iran to sponsor their dreams. With the US backing away from Israel, the Arab states see that if Iran gains a foothold on the Mediteranian, getting Arab oil anywhere will be dependant on the whim of the Persian state. If the US doesn’t see Israel’s strategic importance in this respect we are all in for trouble. And then of course there is the fact that if the US is willing to undermine its friend Israel (who, remember, took all those scud missels during the Kuawit invasion) who else will they be willing to throw under the bus!

dalan says:

People buy Abrams nonsense? Abrams implies the vacuum in the Middle East and decrease of American influence in the M.E. is because America has not sufficiently supported Israel. (LOL) The decline of Egypt and Saudi Arabia is because they are lead by “old autocrats” (Abrams says). This is complete BS (How could the U.S. support Israel any more: 3 billion dollars in tax money, How many U.N. resolutions vetoed? Double standard on nuclear weapons, resolutions on settlements, demolitions, confiscations of what the entire international community says is Palestinian land vetoed by America when America officials admit those Israeli actions are against the 4th Geneva Convention.) America is losing influence because we weakened Israel’s Arab neighbors by supporting Israel 100% of the time even when Israel is wrong. Any leader of Egypt and Saudi Arabia would be weakened by America’s policy in the region. That is why countries are searching for new allies like Iran or Turkey. The only way to fix it is by making Israel accept international norms. America is the superpower NOT Israel. Otherwise other actors in the region will fill the void. And America suffers! (How did Abrams get his job?)

abrams the traitor says:

Blind support of Israel as Petraeus said “The enduring hostilities between Israel and some of its neighbors present distinct challenges to our ability to advance our interests in the AOR [CENTCOM’s area of responsibility]. Israeli-Palestinian tensions often flare into violence and large-scale armed confrontations. The conflict foments anti-American sentiment, due to a perception of U.S. favoritism for Israel. Arab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of U.S. partnerships with governments and peoples in the AOR and weakens the legitimacy of moderate regimes in the Arab world. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda and other militant groups exploit that anger to mobilize support. The conflict also gives Iran influence in the Arab world through its clients, Lebanese Hizballah and Hamas.

Bernie says:

The whole Middle East issue is fraught with complexities and pitfalls: engaging the “moderates” infuriates the radicals, a friend can quickly become a foe. For US administrations, being Israel’s best friend like Bush or playing good cop/bad cop with Israel like Obama/Biden hasn’t helped in either case. Solving the Israeli/Palestinian issue will not placate Iran, Syria, Hezbollah or Hamas.

Pierrette Winter says:

As long as the Arab nations use the Palestinian “refugees” as pawns, refusing to allow them to integrate into their countries, as the Jews who had to leave the Arab nations had to integrate in other countries, this situation will continue. The so-called right of return that has been touted by the Arab nations has caused so much misery to so many people who, by now, would have made a new life for themselves elsewhere, as so many people have had to do all over the globe, that this fallacy needs to be addressed and Real Politik needs to happen. what is happening is that too many people are living in misery, thanks in large part, to their inept so-called government which foments hatred, lives in luxury (cf Arafat’s wife who lived at the Crillon in Paris) and has no interest in anything but continuing the strife and hatred and punishing its own people (the Palestinians in this case) at least as much as it punishes Israel. I am stunned that this does not cause a huge outcry. I imagine that it would unsettle too many antisemites to accept that the Jews are not responsible for everything.

verbatim says:

bozobama didn’t misread anything. he’s an anti-semite, plain and simple. anything he, he meant to do.

Rehmat says:

Frankly, I have heard the pro-Israel and anti-Muslim rants of these so-call experts who worked for the Israel Lobby when they were power against the very national interests of United States (making them taitors by every definition) and now once out of the power-corridors – they’re working for the pro-Israel Jewish think tanks, lead by Richard Haass of CFR.

However, the good news is that world-politics is rapidly changing, especially in the Middle East and South America.

P. S.W. says:

Rehmat does not mind the anti-Israel and pro-Muslim rants, only the opposite annoys him. How enlightened.

Adnan says:

Rehmat is right. P.S.W. do you wonna do the simple math? I think that Obama is just naturally trying to follow the american way of dealing with the area. Same attitude towards Iran(Preasure, sanctions), Unconditional help towards Israel (Financial assistence, 100% political support, systematic vetoing in favour of Israel in the U.N.) Suport for undemocratic governments of arab countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia etc. Same attitude towards Hesbollah in Lebanon and Hammas in Palestine.A big mess in Iraq. For God’s sake somebody tell the difference in between Obama and previouz presidents? I’ll just make an assumption: Zero.

P. scg., says:

Now a president of the United States should approve of a murderous group like Hesbollah and Hammas (sic). Bravo. Your thinking honours you.

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Let us not forget that Reagan’s future vp (Bush) and cia chief (Casey) met with the Ayatolla Khomeini behind the back of the then-current Carter administration (treason) and arranged for Iran to keep the American hostages until after the election. In return Iran got, at the very least, a conduit thru which to illegally receive missiles and other armaments–which came to light when traitor Ollie North got busted taking the missile $$$ and giving it to friends in Central America who turned out, naturally enough, to be drug smugglers USA-bound. Ah, the good old days…

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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.

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