Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Inside Obama's Brain on Middle East Policy

By Barry Rubin

President Barack Obama said all the right things in his Newsweek interview but saying them—based on a briefing that gave him these words, remember—and doing them are two different things. Still, it is better to say the right things than not to do so.

Regarding Iran he continued the Bush administration policy of keeping all options open. He defined the engagement period as giving Iran “an opportunity to align itself with international norms and international rules.”

This is a waste of time since Iran has had repeated chances over the years to do this. What Obama is doing is saying that he is going to try, implying that his predecessor didn’t and that he has some special skill. Both are false. Iran is moving closer to getting weapons. But the key question is how long he does this and what does he does after.

What I find distasteful is his pattern of bashing the United States and all his predecessors. But what is even more worrisome is an argument that shows a profound misunderstanding of the region:

“We are going to reach out to them and try to shift off of a pattern over the last 30 years that hasn't produced results in the region.”

All presidents since the revolution have reached out to Iran and interestingly enough the two who did it most are the ideological opposites: Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan.

This is the basic American doctrine of what might be called deterministic optimism: either history is moving toward better things or it isn’t moving at all. There is something very American in saying that something “hasn’t produced results” when they really mean hasn’t produced good results. Iran’s policy has produced lots of results. Here are some of them:

--Made Islamism the opposition ideology in every country which is growing in power.

--Blocked any resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

--Greatly increased anti-American sentiment.

--Being on the verge of having a pro-Iran Islamist group the key force in governing Lebanon.

--Having a pro-Iran Islamist group running the Gaza Strip.

--Shifted conservative, traditional Islam in a radical direction where it often mirrors the same basic worldview as in Iran.

And I could list a dozen more points here. There is a difference between the Obama view and a general Western conception of a Middle East sunk in a morass of non-change, and the view of many in the Middle East (on both sides) that it is moving toward a wave of Islamist revolution or at least massive civil conflict.
When he does talk about engagement with Iran he says:

“Now, will it work? We don't know. And I assure you, I'm not naive about the difficulties of a process like this. If it doesn't work, the fact that we have tried will strengthen our position in mobilizing the international community, and Iran will have isolated itself, as opposed to a perception that it seeks to advance that somehow it's being victimized by a U.S. government that doesn't respect Iran's sovereignty.”

I wouldn’t call this full-on naiveté but still high-level naiveté. Here’s what he says: we have nothing to lose. It’s Iran that will look bad and it will no longer be able to portray itself as victim.

Where to begin?

Why does engagement have to be an American victory? Will the international community be more mobilized?

Will countries which have an interest in not cooperating due to greed and fear (large parts of Europe), alignment (Russia), or fear of setting a precedent plus desperate need for Iranian oil (China) change their minds?

Will they say: Oh, Obama has tried, what a great man! Well that’s enough for me!

Of course that’s not true. Nothing will change except the date on the calendar and the proximity of the Iran regime to deliverable nuclear weapons.

And that also applies on the flip side: the Middle East dimension. Those millions of people who think that Muslims and Arabs are the victims of a vast Western conspiracy of aggression will not be persuaded. They may only be persuaded that Iran is winning and that America is weak and afraid.

Does he really think that by holding some meetings with the Iranian regime and making some offer that the Middle East media, the mosque preachers, the politicians, are going to say: hey, America’s government really does respect Iranian sovereignty?

The key issue is not that Obama is going to sell out the West or Israel in order to appease Iran. What's most important is that this effort will gain nothing and have some real costs for everyone.

Finally, he said that he understands very clearly that Israel “considers Iran an existential threat” and that there is a material reason for that belief.

That’s not Obama’s problem. As I have argued repeatedly, the failing here is not on the U.S.-Israel bilateral relationship but on U.S. interests and U.S. relations with relatively moderate Arabs.

What Obama needs to understand is that most Arab governments consider Iran and its bloc and radical Islamism to be an existential threat to them. And they are right. He also needs to understand that Iran and its allies and radical Islamism are an existential threat to Western interests in the Middle East.

I’m not concerned with Obama worrying about Israel or understanding its interests. I’m concerned that Obama isn’t worried enough about the United States and its interests.

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