Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Updated: Obama Talks About His Middle East Policy

See the end of this posting for the Washington Post's hard-hitting reaction to Obama's statement. The title of the Post's editorial says it all:

"Invitation to Appease: Will the Obama administration talk to Iran while it persecutes Americans and libels Israel?"

President Barack Obama met with Jordan’s King Abdallah, Tuesday April 21, and gave some thoughts about his plans for Middle East policy.

First, some background. Jordan has long been a weak but moderate country close to the United States. Nowadays, it has many fears: Syrian subversion; a Palestinian state that has ambitions regarding Jordan’s majority Palestinian population; radical Islamism at home and abroad, growing power of Shia Muslim forces; and Iran.

Given the Arabic-speaking world’s equivalent of political correctness, publicly, it can only either criticize Israel or call for Israeli-Palestinian peace as allegedly the solution to all the region’s problems.
No country in the Middle East is more dependent on U.S. protection and thus the king had to find out whether he could trust Obama to continue this traditional U.S. policy.

Two things emerge in the king’s statement. First, he was so effusive about how wonderful Obama is that it would almost embarrass a pro-Obama American journalist. But he knows what the president wants to hear. Second, he took a moderate path, showing that Obama did not signal him that he wanted to hear something militant about Israel.

Perhaps it is reading too much into what Abdallah said but the last part—about a group of countries—may indicate the desperation of relatively moderate Arab regimes for U.S. leadership in dealing with the threat from the Iran-led coalition.

It’s worth getting the tone of the king’s remarks:

“I’d also like to extend a warm thanks on behalf of many Arabs and Muslims who really had an outstanding response to the President’s outreach to the Muslim Arab world. It has gone on extremely well and really begins I believe a new page of mutual respect and mutual understanding between cultures. And I will…commit Jordan and myself to working with you, Mr. President. You have given us hope for a bright future for all of us. And America can’t be left by itself to do all the heavy lifting, so a group of countries, including Jordan, will do all we can to support you, Mr. President, in your endeavors. And hopefully under your tremendous leadership we will find some peace and stability in our region.”

At one point, the young king is so enthusiastic about his role verging on being a “yes-man” says in response to one of Obama’s remarks, “I couldn’t have said it better myself, Mr. President.”

But Obama did most of the talking. Regarding the Saudi-created proposal, which makes the positive step of offering to recognize Israel but with such negative provisions as it must return to the precise 1967 borders and let in any Palestinians who want to live there, Obama replied

“We have gone out of our way to complement the efforts of those Arab states that were involved in formulating the Arab Peace Initiative as a very constructive start.”

The words “constructive start” here is very important, showing that he has been briefed to make clear that it is not a basis for peace, thus taking into account Israel’s objections to specific provisions though generally positive response.

As I have argued elsewhere, Obama has not yet taken any anti-Israel steps and any such hostility has been greatly exaggerated…so far.

Obama’s main talking points are:

--He wants to see “over the next several months…gestures of good faith on all sides.” What these might be isn’t clear. Note that by “all sides” he is referring to Israel, the Palestinian Authority (PA), and Arab states. It will be important to see how these are defined.

--Bated by a journalist who wants to get him to attack Israel he points out that the government is new and that on all sides there “is a profound cynicism about the possibility of any progress being made whatsoever.”

--He would like to see “some concrete steps” that “will help hopefully to drive a process where each side is willing to build confidence.”

As I have argued elsewhere, however, Obama does not understand the reasons why this hasn’t—and isn’t going—to happen.

Regarding Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s speech in Geneva, Obama didn’t take the opportunity to explain why he rejected it or to articulate an alternative vision. He merely said that “this is the kind of rhetoric that we’ve come to expect” from him and that it hurt Iran’s position in the world.

The last point may well be valid but if the United States doesn’t take steps to ensure that this behavior has costs for Iran—for example, it makes no difference regarding engagement—than how does it hurt Iran?

On the positive side he did say, “We are going to continue to take an approach that -- tough, direct diplomacy has to be pursued without taking a whole host of other options off the table.”
The word “tough” was meant to be, well, tough. And the reference to “other options” was a continuation of Bush-era rhetoric, that military means were not ruled out for the future.
He added that he was planning to talk to Iran “with no illusions.” Yet he then articulated what was a very big illusion:

“Iran is a very complicated country with a lot of different power centers. The Supreme Leader [Ali] Khamenei is the person who exercises the most direct control over the policies of the Islamic Republic, and we will continue to pursue the possibility of improved relations and a resolution to some of the critical issues in which there have been differences, particularly around the nuclear issue.”

It is quite true that Khamenei is the real ruler of Iran, but he has just endorsed Ahmadinejad for another term despite not only that president’s extremism (which Khamenei evidently doesn’t think hurts Iran’s regime) but also his economic mismanagement. To understand that Khamenei is the real ruler is correct; to assume his views are in any way significantly different from Ahmadinejad’s is a dangerous mistake.

Of course, if the world put much more pressure on Iran, if Obama threatened to cancel engagement because of the speech, in other words if Tehran was given a serious impression that Ahmadinejad’s words did hurt Iran, maybe the supreme guide would change course a bit.
But U.S. policy is giving him no reason to do so.

Apparently, the Washington Post agreed with my assessment. Here's what they wrote in an editorial. Read it carefully and remember the following: 1. The Post, in Washington, is far more attuned to the realities of international affairs than other American newspapers. 2. The newspaper is very pro-Obama and thus such a major criticism expresses its real concern on this issue:

Last week, the Iranian regime convicted American journalist Roxana Saberi of espionage - a blatantly bogus charge. On Monday, Iranian President Ahmadinejad, who was last seen inaugurating a new facility for Iran's nuclear program, appeared at the UN conference on racism in Geneva to say the U.S. and other Western countries had "resorted to military aggression" in order to create Israel "on the pretext of Jewish sufferings and the ambiguous and dubious question of the Holocaust."

Thus has Iran answered President Obama's offer of dialogue and the decision by his administration to join talks on Tehran's nuclear program. What Iran is doing is inviting Mr. Obama to humiliate his new administration by launching talks with the regime even while it is conspicuously expanding its nuclear program, campaigning to delegitimize and destroy Israel and imprisoning innocent Americans.

Mr. Obama has always said that talks with Iran must be conducted under the right circumstances and in a way that advances U.S. interests. The administration won't meet that test if it allows negotiations to become a means of vindicating Mr. Ahmadinejad's radical agenda. It should postpone any contact until after the Iranian election in June - and it should look for clear signs that Iran is acting in good faith before talks begin.

1 comment:

  1. Agreed. The very least America can do is make Iran a price for its unremitting radicalism. To do that the roles and assumptions should be reversed. If Iran wants improved relations with the US, it can always seek out the address. But that should come at Iran's initiative, not the other way around. A breakthrough can only happen when both sides want it.


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