Tuesday, September 22, 2009

France throws a Pie in Obama's Face: The Increasingly Obvious Failure of Obama's Middle East Policy

By Barry Rubin

It’s a development of shocking proportions if properly noticed and evaluated. President Barack Obama’s entire Arab-Israeli and Iranian policies are miserably failing, though partly concealed by theatrical events and media protection.

Here's the latest development. French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner arriving at the UN General Assembly session, stated that he doesn’t favor blocking the export of refined oil products to Iran, the keystone of the new sanctions proposed by Obama.

The New York Times reported this story but grossly underplayed its implications:

“But if France is to come out against fuel sanctions analysts said, they will most likely be off the table as an option for increasing the pressure on Iran.”

Ha! If France does so it will be the end of Obama’s whole strategy against Iran. For Tehran, it will be a straight, largely untroubled stroll to nuclear weapons, unless derailed by an Israeli attack.

“I think this is a bit dangerous,” Kouchner said about the proposed sanctions. Would that be more dangerous than Iran getting nuclear weapons? But Kouchner didn't make clear to whom or in what way it's dangerous. He did say, however, that it would mostly harm “poor people” in Iran.

[An aside: This is the kind of phony “humanitarian” considerations that paralyze Western policy today. Sure, there is some patriotic reaction against foreign pressures in places like Iran, but do the millions opposing that regime as a repressive dictatorship really want the West to coddle and court their oppressors? Do Gazans favor Western actions ensuring Hamas remains in power? Do Iraqis retrospectively curse Western sanctions against Saddam Hussein’s regime?

[Can the West fight no war because there will be civilian casualties; can it not preserve its freedoms because Muslims or others might be offended? Is the “zero-harm” approach an effective way for policy to be conducted, or even for democracies to survive at all?]

Of course, French President Francois Sarkozy may reverse his foreign minister’s stance. Yet it is extraordinarily significant that a major ally supposedly wowed by Obama’s charisma and popularity, can publicly do the equivalent of throwing a pie into the president’s face with no consequences.

And there's a virtual parade of pie-throwers. Obama’s Arab-Israeli policy was derailed by similar responses. Israel refused to bow to American demands stated in the most extreme, public, peremptory manner and Obama gave in. Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and other Arab states all publicly made clear that they would defy the president and reject the confidence-building measures with Israel he request. Obama smiled and thanked them for their help.

Then the same thing happened with his Iran policy. First, Russia and China rejected his efforts to get their agreement to increased sanctions. Now, France may be doing the same thing. In between, the White House accepted an insulting Iranian message for talks.

Could it be any more obvious? Obama’s salient international characteristic is not popularity but weakness. Already, Obama has been defied or has buckled under to a long list of countries including: China, Egypt, Iran, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Venezuela, and now perhaps France.

That's why the conspiratorial notion that Obama aims to sell out Israel is wrong. He will back away if anyone stands up to him. The risk posed by administration policy is not to Israel but to U.S. interests altogether as he refuses to confront radical anti-American forces.

A strong argument could be made that the United States should boycott meetings with Iran altogether. After all, even if the Tehran regime wasn’t working on nuclear weapons, the mere fact that it is a dictatorship that has just stolen an election, repressed a peaceful opposition, put on trial many dissident leaders, and appointed a wanted terrorist as defense minister should be sufficient to inspire such a boycott.

Just this week, there are reports leaked by U.S. military officials—frustrated at White House policy?—that Iran’s Qods force (whose former head is now Iran’s defense minister) is training and arming Taliban gunmen in Afghanistan. The official spin is that this poses no current threat to American forces there. Right. Only when the Taliban soldiers finish their training and go out to kill Americans will there be an immediate threat. Already, though, the same Qods force has been involved in helping to kill Americans in Iraq, according to U.S. intelligence reports.

Instead of action, the administration delivers the photo op of a meeting between Israeli and Palestinian leaders in New York that will enable Obama to portray himself as a great success in peacemaking. In fact, what he has “accomplished”—a meeting of the two leaders—would have happened months ago if Obama’s injection of the construction freeze issue had not given the Palestinians a rationale for suspending talks.

[After I wrote this article, I heard National Public Radio's report on this event. It explained clearly the main problem clearly as Israel not wanting to freeze construction and the Palestinians not wanting to negotiate unless that was done. But it never mentioned that the whole problem arose because Obama made the issue the central factor. In other words, this conflict didn't just arise from Israel or the Palestinians but is all Obama's fault. This is rather typical of how most of the media has dealt with the administration's mistakes.]

[And the AP coverage was equally wrong:

"Despite months of effort, the sides remain far apart on a staunch Palestinian precondition for talks: that Israel halt all construction of Jewish settlements in Palestinian territory. Obama has publicly echoed that demand to Israeli leaders...."

Echoed? The Palestinians got the idea from Obama! Before he got started there were no Palestinian preconditions about meeting Israeli officials.

Continuing with the kind of insanity that seems to seize many reporters when they cover Obama, the AP story continues:

"Bristling with impatience, President Barack Obama sternly prodded Israeli and Palestinian leaders to relaunch Mideast peace negotiations Tuesday, grasping a newly personal role in their historic standoff."

How patronizing can you get? This is a man whose role in dealing with the conflict goes back about six months meeting two leaders who have been coping with it for more than thirty years. It is as if the Israeli and Palestinian leaders are schoolchildren, as if their duty was not to their own people but to satisfy Obama. With an attitude like this--arrogance plus weakness--he can expect no success in this part of the world.

Nahum Barnea, arguably the Israeli left’s most distinguished writer, who backs a complete settlement freeze and would like to support Obama, wrote the get-together at the UN meeting, “Is a joke at the expense of an American president who tried to get involved in Middle East politics and was stung….The Americans,” Barnea continued, “discovered that they want an Israeli-Palestinian agreement more than the leaders of both sides desire one.”

Precisely. And in this regard nothing has changed much since 2000 when the Palestinian leadership rejected peace. That reality should have been clear to the Obama Administration from the beginning rather than its attitude of bravado about how it was going to hit the ground running and solve the conflict very fast.

Barnea concluded: Obama “is cool….Yet the U.S. president is not Brad Pitt or George Clooney. He’s supposed to bring results.”

Well-put. While American opinion-makers continue to focus on Obama’s “coolness” and Western Europeans cheer him—what’s not to cheer in an American president who let’s you do whatever you want?—the world is giving him the cold shoulder.

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. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

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