Assessing the Obama Mideast team
by Steven J. Rosen
February 12, 2009
We now have most of the nominees for the key Mideast positions in the Obama White House and the State and Defense departments, including Puneet Talwar and Dan Shapiro at the National Security Council; George Mitchell and his deputy Fred Hof, Dennis Ross, Bill Burns and Jeffrey Feltman at the State Department; Tony Blinken in Vice President Joseph Biden's office; and Michele Flournoy and Sandy Vershbow at Defense. It is possible to make the first assessment of where Barack Obama is going from what we know about these people.
The Left is not happy with most of Obama's core Mideast team, with the possible exception of Mitchell. None of the people announced or reliably reported up to now is known to bring a pronounced "Arabist" perspective, nor to be a consistent critic of Israel, nor to be an apologist for Iran, Syria, Hizbullah or Hamas. There is no one with a history of participation in ideological organizations of the Left, as Sandy Berger had with Peace Now before joining the Clinton White House. Semantha Power has been appointed to the NSC's multilateral institutions office, and has a disturbing record of stridently anti-Israel statements, but the position to which she has been appointed does not normally have a great impact on Mideast policy. For those of us who feared that an inexperienced president so enthusiastically embraced by the left wing of the Democratic Party might fill the roster with its favorites, there is scant evidence so far that our worst fears are being realized.
Instead, Obama is assembling a team of intelligent centrists with a realistic, pragmatic approach. Many of them have experience in the tough environment of the Middle East, where the use of force is sometimes required. None is starry-eyed and romantic about the Arabs. Many have extensive experience with Israel and some understanding of its strategic position.
On the other hand, nowhere on the list so far is there a true hawk either, an Elliot Abrams or a Doug Feith or a John Bolton or a Paul Wolfowitz. Fred Hof is tough on Hizbullah ("Hassan Nasrallah... and his inner circle do what they do first and foremost to defend and project the existence and power of the Islamic Republic of Iran... If [they] come to a violent end in the current crisis you will not find me among the mourners"). Dan Shapiro was one of the authors of the 2003 Syria Accountability Act. And Jeffrey Feltman was admirably outspoken as ambassador to Lebanon.
Broadly, it is a team that represents the thinking in the center of the Democratic Party. In a situation of real duress, like an imminent Iranian breakthrough to nuclear weapons, it is not clear who among them will ring the alarm and rally the others to consider measures beyond the ordinary.
There could also be a tendency toward magical thinking about the transformative potential of diplomacy. Among those who believe most fervently that George W. Bush missed key diplomatic opportunities and failed to work with allies, there may be a tendency toward undue confidence that the problems in the Middle East will shrink steadily as Obama's new envoys get to work. The Bush administration held more than 28 direct meetings with the Iranians and got poor results, but the Obama team remembers it as a failure to engage.
WISHFUL THINKING could be a particular problem on the issue of Iran, because the time remaining to stop its relentless drive for nuclear weapons is so short. The new administration believes it can get more cooperation on Iran from Russia and China, and induce changes in Iranian policy by putting together a package of bigger carrots and bigger sticks. What if Iran exploits America's eagerness for diplomacy, and uses dilatory tactics to "run out the clock" during its final sprint? What if Obama's diplomatic initiative fails, and Iran calls his bluff about nuclear weapons being "unacceptable"?
The president said, "I will do everything in my power - everything" to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons, but will he? If he is faced, in the end, with a stark choice between a nuclear Iran or the use of force, will the president have the strength of will necessary to overcome domestic resistance to the tougher options, including objections at the Joint Chiefs of Staff? Or will he veto, not just the use of American forces, but also Israel's? If the United States capitulates to a nuclear Iran, and tries to fall back on deterrent threats to contain it, will these deterrent threats be credible, the issuer having just accepted something he said repeatedly would be "unacceptable"?
There are other issues that may cause stress in the US-Israel relationship. Settlements, always a sore point, take on greater importance when American diplomats believe a diplomatic breakthrough with the Palestinians is achievable. There is little support in Israel today for relinquishing control of the West Bank, given its bitter experience after removing all soldiers and settlers from Gaza. Israelis no longer believe that territorial concessions on their part will bring peace with the Palestinians. Most believe that the real issue blocking "peace" with Hamas and its allies is Israel's existence, not its settlements. With Hamas in firm control of Gaza and growing in strength on the West Bank, it stretches credulity to believe that the Israeli public can be persuaded to entrust its security to agreements signed with Palestinian leaders who can't or won't honor commitments.
THE MOOD IN THE US is quite different. The theory among many here is that George Mitchell achieved peace between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, and now can work his magic between the Israelis and the Palestinians, if only Obama is willing to use a little "tough love" with both sides. They want more public criticism of Israel by American officials. Some of the enthusiasts in the "peace camp" are urging Obama to produce an American plan for the solution, one that by their definition would diverge from the terms Israel considers vital to its national interests, lest we are seen as "Israel's lawyer."
If Obama takes all this bad advice, it won't bring peace to the Middle East, but it will bring tension between Israel and its most important ally.
The "peace camp" is also urging Obama to take a more "even-handed" approach in the Middle East. But the effect of even-handedness is not even. The Arab League has 22 members and a lot of oil; there are 56 Muslim countries in the Islamic Conference; and much of the rest of the world automatically supports Arab positions. Israel depends uniquely on its close relations with one main ally, the United States. When the US is neutral, there is a huge imbalance, and the scale automatically tilts the other way.
The new administration may also have a lower tolerance for the civilian casualties and diplomatic stresses that arise when Israel is compelled to take military action in its own defense. Even in quiet times, there is likely to be heartburn about checkpoints and other security measures necessary in the struggle against terror. Obama could cut back on US vetoes to prevent anti-Israel resolutions at the UN Security Council.
It is too soon to know whether the new administration will make any of these or other mistakes. We had plenty of reasons to be anxious about George Bush the day he took over, influenced as he was by big oil, the Saudis and some of his father's bad advisers. The fears many of us had about Obama during the campaign as to the people he might appoint to run Mideast policy are not being realized. Maybe the potential mistakes listed above also won't happen.
Steven J. Rosen was AIPAC's director of executive branch relations for 23 years. He chronicles the new administration on Obama Mideast Monitor, which is hosted at the Middle East Forum website. He is a defendant in the AIPAC case.
Related Topics: US policy | Steven J. Rosen
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