Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Obama Takes Reality a Bit Into Account

By Barry Rubin

I’ve said it before so I’ll say it again: it’s easy to overestimate the eagerness of the Obama administration for a confrontation with Israel. And it’s easy to underestimate the eagerness of the Obama administration for engagement with Iran.

Regarding the first issue, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech—which repeated the points he made to the U.S. president on his Washington visit—met two (readiness to accept a Palestinian state as part of a comprehensive agreement and readiness to start negotiations) of three (freeze on all construction on settlements) American demands.

There are rumors that talks are trying to resolve the third point through some compromise. Hysteria about impending direct U.S. bashing or betrayal of Israel is misplaced. While the administration might like to do things that would objectively endanger Israel’s interests, the Palestinian leadership plus Syria and Iran are too intransigent to go along with any such dealings. Nor is even this administration prepared to ignore an overwhelmingly pro-Israel sentiment from both Congress and the general public.

The best response is a combination of calmness and vigilance.

Regarding Iran, Obama made a very interesting statement which includes these lines:

"I think it's important to understand that although there is amazing ferment taking place in Iran, the difference between Ahmadinejad and Mousavi in terms of their actual policies may not be as great as has been advertised."

"Either way we were going to be dealing with an Iranian that has historically been hostile to the United States, that has caused some problems in the neighborhood, and has been pursuing nuclear weapons.

"We have got long-term interests in having them not weaponize nuclear power and stop funding organizations like Hezbollah and Hamas, and that would be true whoever came out on top in this election.”

This is a combination of worldly cynicism—not much difference between the candidates—with an eagerness for engagement. In effect, Obama is saying that the United States should disregard the battles within Iran because either way that country will have to be dealt with.

But how? The implication is that he still thinks it possible to use diplomacy to stop Iran’s nuclear weapons’ drive and sponsorship of terrorism.

After all, Obama could draw the exact opposite conclusion: not much difference so the whole regime is extremist and not interested in compromise. He seems to be saying: We might as well negotiate with the worst since they're the ones who hate us most. Apparently, he still believes in the transformative power of saying out loud what the teleprompter tells him.

Obama might be better advised to be more supportive of the Iranian dissidents. Sure, as he says, the regime will try to use that against them but it will claim they are American agents any way and a statement of support would greatly encourage the opposition. Maybe the best thing right now is for the regime to accuse the opposition of being open toward friendship with America, and the opposition responding, "So what?"

He would also do better to press than caress an Islamist regime even he calls hostile troublemakers who may soon have nuclear weapons.

And after all, it's contradictory for Obama to have insisted that U.S. efforts on Iran had to wait until after the presidential election and then claim that the election would never have made any difference.

There's also a hint here of Obama's plan. Let them have the capability of making nuclear weapons when they want as long as they don't "weaponize" them. It's a strategy of wink, wink, nudge, nudge. The United States would say: sure go ahead with your program but don't actually make a bomb and test it.

If Obama were to succeed completely here--and one might also ask what he'd give away to get this deal--the region could feel 10 or 20 percent more secure. Unfortunately, it would also feel 80 or 90 percent less secure. The real value of such a bargain is that the United States and Europe could ignore the problem completely. Nuclear weapons? We don't see no nuclear weapons!

I'm tempted to say that Obama's philosophy isn't just that you can only make peace with enemies but...

You can only make peace with people who despise you so much they want to kick you in the groin, tear at you with their fingernails, spit in your face, and utterly annihilate you.

But at least there is reason to believe that Obama has now completed his introductory course on the Middle East, getting a sense of how hard it is to accomplish the goals he set by the methods he chose. Now he is ready for the intermediate class. Professors Mahmoud Abbas, Ali Khamenei, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are ready to begin the new semester.

Let’s hope for high grades and graduation before too much time has elapsed.

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