Jonathan S. Tobin, senior online editor of Commentary magazine and writer for the magazine's "Contentions" blog on its website, briefed the Middle East Forum via conference call on March 20, 2013. The briefing took place during Obama's first presidential visit to Israel.
Mr. Tobin began his talk by comparing the foreign policy teams of the two Obama administrations. He argued that while all three members of the first-term team (Secretary of State Clinton, Secretaries of Defense Panetta and Gates) were no advocates of a strong forward foreign policy, they were keenly aware of Washington's security requirements and the need to stand by its allies. By contrast, the composition of the second-term team raises the specter of a dark period in U.S.-Israeli relations, an undeterred Iranian nuclear threat, and a weakened U.S. national security. Specifically,
- Secretary of State John Kerry, a believer in multilateralism and the U.N., has described Syria's President Assad as a moderate and is afflicted by the dangerous hubris of solving the crises in the Middle East.
- Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel belongs to the old Realist school of thought that upholds the unrealistic belief in an outreach to Iran, Hamas, and Hezbollah while questioning the value of the U.S.-Israel alliance.
- Director of the Central Intelligence Agency John Brennan sought to appease Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood in his former capacity as chief counterterrorism advisor to the White House, displaying a distinct lack of resolve in pursuing the war on terror.
In the final account, however, it is Obama who sets policy in this top down administration rather than his team; and having wasted his first term on dead-end diplomacy with Tehran and the Palestinians, the president's Israel visit suggested that he has learned from his mistakes. This was demonstrated, inter alia, by his reaffirmation of Washington's "eternal" alliance with Jerusalem in language validating Israel's ancient history: in stark contrast to his 2009 Cairo speech which ascribed Israel's right to exist to the Holocaust. Obama also upped his rhetoric regarding Iran, leaving himself little room short of a full diplomatic success that would contain Tehran's nuclear threat.
These positive aspects notwithstanding, given Obama's past failure to follow through on his rhetoric, it remains to be seen whether his recent pronouncements translate into actions that make the U.S. more secure while maintaining its close alliance with Israel.
Summary account by Marilyn Stern, Associate Fellow with the Middle East Forum