Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Obama’s Failing Initiative in the Middle East: Lack of Change You Can Believe In

By Barry Rubin

Presidents must be optimistic when presenting initiatives. To keep up support they have to insist that things are going well, progress is being made, and all will be well.

At the same time, though, a president better have a realistic assessment of what’s happening. In other words, he can’t believe his own propaganda. Does Barack Obama understand this? Not clear.

Now he has had President Husni Mubarak visit him. Mubarak is near the end of his term. On the positive side, he has maintained stability in Egypt, held back the Islamists, and been pretty friendly to the United States.

On the negative side, Egypt has remained stagnant, his regime has been repressive, and he often either hasn’t helped the United States or at least not all that much.

In the old days, if Mubarak came to Washington to visit Republican presidents, liberal Democrats would complain that such an anti-democratic dictator was given red carpet treatment. Liberal Democratic presidents would press for more human rights in Egypt.

But by taking a classical liberal position, despite his administration’s mistakes, George W. Bush made liberal Democrats sound like, say, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, a classical 1950s realpolitik conservative. .
Most important for Obama is the state of the peace process. Here’s what he said:

“There has been movement in the right direction and I came in from the start saying that all parties concerned had to take some concrete steps to restart serious negotiations to resolve what has been a longstanding conflict that is not good for the Israeli people and is not good for its neighbors. And I think that the Israeli government has taken discussions with us very seriously. George Mitchell has been back and forth repeatedly; he will be heading back out there next week. And my hope is that we are going to see not just movement from the Israelis, but also from the Palestinians around issues of incitement and security, from Arab states that show their willingness to engage Israel.”

Note by the way his slight pro-Israel tilt here. This might be the signal that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has agreed to some sort of freeze on building apartments in settlements. Israel gets praised for taking discussions “seriously.”

The construction of his own last sentence could be read to say that Israel has moved and now it is the Arabs’ turn. Or it could be read to say, which amounts to the same thing, we’re even-handed and not just making demands of Israel. This is different from Phase One Obama policy.

He then added:

“If all sides are willing to move off of the rut that we're in currently, then I think there is a extraordinary opportunity to make real progress. But we're not there yet. I'm encouraged by some of the things I'm seeing on the ground. We've been seeing reports in the West Bank in particular that checkpoints have been removed in some situations. The security forces of the Palestinian Authority have greatly improved and have been able to deal with the security situation on the West Bank in a way that has inspired not just confidence among the Israeli people, but also among the Palestinian people.”

Well, true, if the sides are willing to move, there can be progress. Consider the banality of that tautology. And if, as the old Yiddish proverb goes, If my grandmother had wheels she could be a baby buggy.

He is also careful to praise both sides evenly here: Israel is good because it removed checkpoints; the Palestinians are good because their forces have learned to kill people better. (Remember that if they use these skills against Israelis in future.)

Still, it is easy to disassemble Obama’s optimism. None of the Arabs have responded to him. The Palestinian Authority, which lives off of U.S. subsidies and money obtained from U.S. fundraising efforts, told them not to. Slap, slap. As far as I know, there was no U.S. anger or pressure to make them stop doing that.

The Saudis also said “No.” Slap, slap. Right in the midst of their Washington visit.

Even the Jordanians said “No,” even though they’d probably be happier than any other Arab government. They must be too afraid of being isolated. More afraid of others than of Obama, that’s for sure.

Now, Mubarak arrives in Washington and he says, “No,” too.

Oh, wait, there is a breaking development: Oman and Qatar say that if Israel freezes settlement construction they might let it reopen its trade offices in their countries. (But they won’t send any representative to Israel.

So that’s it. There are rumors that the administration is about to present a peace plan. I’m not going to speculate until I see the text.

But this situation sent me back via mental time machine to 1982 when President Ronald Reagan unveiled his peace plan. Within a few hours it was dead in the water. And that was 27 years ago almost to the day.

In the Middle East, people don’t really seem to believe in change. Maybe this shows the Obama administration it has to comprehend the region. I propose a slogan: Lack of change you can believe in. The watchword is not “Hope” but rather “Nope.”

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition) and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books, go to To see or subscribe to his blog,

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