Thursday, January 14, 2010

It’s Starting to Look As If The Obama Administration Has Learned Nothing from Its First Year

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By Barry Rubin

In the United States, about half the population and most of the policy elite thinks that President Barack Obama’s administration is a great success internationally. The other half doesn’t. A key reason for the first group’s attitude is its obsession with the highly visible popularity issue, the idea that America is more liked in the world. The problem is that, at the same time, it is less respected and that is the factor that counts.

As we move into 2010, with the administration’s first, “learning,” year behind it, a turn toward learning the lessons of that experience is not yet visible. This is especially so on the two most high-profile Middle East issue.

Originally, the administration suggested that it would raise sanctions against Iran in September 2009 if engagement yielded no fruit. Then that was pushed back to the end of 2009. Now we have a new estimate: July 2010. Maybe. And we also have the defining of those sanctions long in advance as ineffective, narrowly—and symbolically—focused on a ruling elite which will never feel any pain as a result.

This, then, is the way the Obama Administration views threats, which will make its adversaries see them as hollow. In a Brussels speech, U.S. ambassador to the European Union William Kennard explained:

"You'll hear over the next six months a lot more about our efforts on sanctions."

Hear about them? Haven’t we been hearing about them for a year? And at the end of six months will we actually see them?

This all makes the following scenario quite imaginable:

Fill in the month; fill in the day; fill in the year: Iran Has Nuclear Weapons

Same month; same day plus one; same year: U.S. announces low-level, ineffective sanctions to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons.

Meanwhile, a parallel scenario is affecting the administration’s “peace process” policy. There are lots of stories in the media. Envoys zig and zag over the map. Meetings are held; plans are hinted at. But none of this matters. None of it.

Here’s the only thing that matters: Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas says he won’t even go to talks unless Israel stops all construction right now, including the apartments being completed and the ones being built in Jerusalem. The news media likes to say that both sides are “defying” the United States. But in fact what Israel is doing was approved by the United States, even highly praised by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Obama’s Administration is urging that negotiations restart based on the fantasy that all the tough issues will be quickly resolved. Resolve borders, security guarantees, recognition of a Jewish state of Israel, end of conflict, settlement of refugees in Palestine, status of Jerusalem, and lots of other incredibly difficult issues? The administration can't even get the two sides to the table!

Here's a basic aspect of the problem. While Israel won’t give up everything Abbas demands in negotiations, Abbas is unprepared to make the slightest concession on anything. First, because he doesn’t want to do so; second, because he is unable to do so, since he lacks a strong base of support; third, because he is afraid to do so because he would lose power, his Fatah movement would splinter, and he might even be overthrown by Hamas.

Therefore, in July 2010, and by January 2011 for that matter, the administration is unlikely to make any progress.

Very possibly the administration will fool the American media by constant activity and claims that it is getting somewhere; somewhat possibly it will fool a large proportion of the American population. But people in the Middle East aren’t fooled at all.

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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