Friday, August 21, 2009

Report from Washington: U.S. Middle East's Policy's Next Step

By Barry Rubin


It’s always a pleasure to arrive in a place, scrutinize the situation carefully, and conclude that your analysis has been right. And it’s also a good time to be taking a close-up look at U.S. Middle East policy.

Before talking about the next stage, let’s briefly review our story to date, since Barack Obama became U.S. president on January 20.


Step 1: Obama and his administration think that his charm and the fact that he isn’t George W. Bush will help quickly change the Middle East. He is planning to appeal to the people over the heads of government, show his sympathy with Islam and Palestinian aspirations, show his willingness to engage foes and make them friends, and generally get things moving quickly.

Result: Failure.

Step 2: Order Israel to stop building apartments on existing settlements, with quick compliance to follow. This would in turn lead to gratitude on the part of the Arabs (Hey, this guy really means business!) and thus a breakthrough in the peace process. This breakthrough would, in turn, lead to Arab support for U.S. efforts on Iran.

Result: Failure

Step 3: Faced with Israeli resistance, Obama then tried to get both sides to do something along the lines of giving Israel some confidence-building measures. Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia not only refused, they publicly refused, and not just that but publicly refused while standing in Washington next to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Sum total of successes: one weasel-worded op-ed in the Washington Post by a UAE royal; possible promises by Oman and Qatar to let Israeli commercial offices to reopen (but not Omani and Qatari offices in Israel).

Result: Failure


There is a dawning realization that things are not quite happening as many of Obama’s advisors have prophesized. To some extent this means the need to listen to other advisors.

We are now entering a new phase, which will also fail but is better than its predecessors, the optimism offensive. Obama will proclaim—he’s already started doing so—that his strategy has succeeded and that both Israel and the Arabs have pledged to do some things to advance the peace process.

There is, however, now a slight tilt toward Israel. Partial as it is, a limited freeze did give the Obama administration something, while the Palestinians gave nothing and the Arab regimes close to nothing. What Obama is likely to propose is not a detailed peace plan but a feel-good sense that we are now on the road forward. A good amount of the credit will be given by him to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

In Washington, it is thought that this optimism will in itself generate  progress. The American people will see that Obama was “right” and that in comparison to his predecessor the president’s personal attention has moved things forward. They also think this will appeal to Arabs and Israelis alike, who will see hope. And hope, as you know, is the thing this administration believes leads to change you can believe in.

I am more skeptical that this phase will have much impact. It is based on too little and comes at a time when cynicism is at a peak, even by the Middle East's usual standards. Arabs and Palestinians will grumble as Israel completes already started apartments, insisting that Israel has given nothing and that America once again proves it is pro-Israel.

The administration and many in Washington simply don’t understand the depth of radicalism, ideology, how extremism serves regime and opposition interests, and other such factors in the Arabic-speaking world.

As I write this, a translation from MEMRI arrives on my computer, an Egyptian cleric speaking on al-Jazira about Obama’s Cairo speech:

“All the people in the front row applauded him….don't know what for….He is killing your sons in Iraq, he is killing your Muslim mothers and sisters in Afghanistan, and he sent a ship loaded with weapons to the Jews, in order to replace the three million kg of weapons that they used against your brothers in Gaza for 23 days.

“You come and tell me we should recognize Israel? If you love them so much…give them half a state of the United States….But no, they planted [Israel] in our midst.”

Now this is not the way President Husni Mubarak or Jordanian King Abdallah speaks to Obama, but it is apparently not too different in tone from what the president heard when he visited the Saudi king. That meeting was—according to sources I believe—a real shock for him, the equivalent of when Dorothy said to Toto, “We’re not in Kansas any more.”

At any rate, it is closer to the mainstream narrative in the Middle East—to use the current post-rational jargon—than people in Washington think of as the norm.

So the Arabs, no matter how polite the rulers are to the administration, or Palestinians won’t buy the official optimism. Indeed, the Palestinians are moving in a more radical direction as the Fatah congress showed. (Incidentally, no one seemed to notice that there was no  gratitude or praise for Obama at that meeting.)

As for Israelis, they follow events too closely and are too familiar with how things work in the region to buy the U.S. claim that everything is going well on the peace train. Polls showing that the great majority of Israelis don’t even believe they have a Palestinian peace partner indicate this is a matter of national consensus not some right-wing viewpoint. I have to keep reminding people here that this is not a Netanyahu government but a Netanyahu-Barak government. Israelis are not going to be deluded into believing that peace is at hand.

What about domestically? Will the American people buy it? To some extent they will but I can foresee, for example, that in early 2010 the New York Times will be writing articles about Obama’s brilliant success in the Middle East while the Washington Post is saying that he hasn’t achieved anything.

Moreover, it is important to factor in the growing criticism of Obama within the United States, where his popularity is falling steadily. The health plan mess has hurt him. Congress is no longer as tame as it was before and is returning to an independent voice on Middle East issues. At the same time, the loony left is starting to be dismayed that Obama is not in their camp, even if only from a sense of personal self-preservation rather than any conviction that they are wrong.

An element of good news is that the Obama-is-out-to-destroy-Israel talk will die down. We should remember, however, that if Israel didn't have a government willing to stand up for national interests things could have gone much worse.

Finally, and very importantly, little progress on Arab-Israeli issues will be accompanied by even less on Iran. Tehran is likely to give him nothing, perhaps unwilling to meet for negotiations, certainly unwilling to make real concessions.

There is an important distinction between the Arab-Israel issue and the Iran-Syria issue, and not just its nuclear weapons’ element. At this point, wishful thinking on the former will do little or no harm; wishful thinking on the latter is incredibly dangerous. The problem is not just the Iranian regime getting nuclear weapons but its spreading influence and power which could transform the regional power balance.

The writer F. Scott Fitzgerald once said that there were no second acts in American lives. The Obama Administration is going to need an act two in its term or it may not have a term two.

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), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books go to http://www.gloria-center/.com>. To see or subscribe to his blog go to

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