Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Is There Hope that the Obama Administration Might Change?

By Barry Rubin

Regarding the Obama-Netanyahu Meeting, please forgive the following:





and I'm glad there's good news for once.  U.S.-Israel relations are again on a firm footing.

On that I was sure. But now here's some speculation.

It could be that the Obama administration will be a two-act process on the Middle East, though I hasten to add I am only talking about this issue and not about domestic or other foreign policy questions.

The first act, which will take up the rest of this year and perhaps the early part of next year, will see a continuation of the effort at engagement which has had overtones of appeasement. But it will fail.

The heroes in this drama, by forcing Obama to shift in spite of himself, are Iran, Syria, Hamas, Hizballah, and the Palestinian Authority, with supporting roles for Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, and a number of Arab regimes.
They won't let Obama's original policy work.

They will ensure that his popularity offensive bears no fruit.

They will be aggressive in Lebanon, showing openly their desire to take over the country and use it as a base for spreading radical Islamism.

Iran will continue going full-speed-ahead developing nuclear weapons, breaking any promises or commitments made to the United States.

Pakistan will not do more than the minimum against the Taliban and al-Qaida.

Iran and Syria will continue sponsoring anti-American terrorism, including attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq. Obama's plans for a withdrawal might actually increase such violence as Tehran and Damascus wants to make the U.S. departure look like a defeat.

Hamas will continue to be extreme, repressive in the Gaza Strip; eager to attack Israel.

The Palestinian Authority will not be helpful in advancing the peace process. Fatah, the Palestinian Authority's ruler will prefer trying to make peace with Hamas to making peace with Israel.

Syria will prefer its alliance with Iran to any rapprochement with the West.

There are a lot more examples that could be added to this list.

And then what will happen? Will Obama say: "My fellow Americans, we tried but they would not unclench their fists when we offered our hand?" Is this administration capable of reacting to reality and becoming something quite different than how it began?

I don't know the answer to that question but such a turn is starting to seem conceivable.

Remember, you can't just look at Obama's pre-election background, ideology, or even his intentions. You have to look at the fact that the enemies who he wants to treat as friends will treat him as an enemy. If they were different--less rigid or more clever--perhaps the Obama administration would turn out to be a disaster.

Of course he can ignore all the warning signs and refuse to learn about the Middle East, or listen to the worst officials he's appointed, to turn his term into a nightmare for the region.

So far, various issues at a different point in educating this administration. The course of instruction is most advanced on the inflexibility of Syria right now, moving ahead a bit on Iran, but least developed on Pakistan, Afghanistan, and engaging Islamist movements.

Not only are the radicals unable and unwilling to become moderates who love America and play nice, but the very confidence being generated in them by Obama's apparent retreats and regional events are making them more aggressive and adventurous.

If you think Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or Hizballah sounds extremist and anti-American now, wait till you hear what they say after they win upcoming elections.

But here's the bottom line: we are right about the forces of extremism, dictatorship, hatred, aggression, and would-be genocide.

And because we are right, perhaps the administration will be capable of learning this lesson as America's enemies make it increasingly obvious.

Even if this does happen, though, a great deal of ground can be lost by the signals it's been sending and the errors it's been making. Lebanon might well be under the control of the Iran-Syria bloc; any hope of stopping Iran from building nuclear weapons--already limited--will be altogether gone.

There is also the really scary question of how this administration would handle a big, dangerous crisis in the region. If such were to take place, especially during the current period of its thinking, the United States could be in serious trouble. Jimmy Carter's administration saw such events as an Islamist revolution in Iran and a Marxist one in Nicaragua. These crises were, of course, based on local situations but the terrible outcome was due to a major degree from U.S. policy failings.

Yet, yes, I think there is some hope that the Obama administration might change. Any such process will have loads of zigs and zags. The turning point could be too long delayed or never happen at all due to a lack of courage or flexibility or ideology.

Perhaps, though, even if based on the most politically motivated selfish interests, the administration will heed to some extent public opinion polls that disagree with its assessments of the Middle East.

And what if he doesn't change? Then Obama might be surprised by what will happen when he runs for reelection after having led the United States through a series of crises, humiliations and defeats.

We must continue criticizing the administration's serious mistakes, especially those trial balloons of bad ideas and the silly or outrageous statements made by specific officials. This effort can at least reduce the damage. In fact, I already believe it has done so.

I plan to watch both skeptically and with an open mind every step of the way.

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