Monday, October 4, 2010

How Can Obama's Ineptness on Middle East Issues Be Explained, Especially When It Makes Him Look Foolish?

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By Barry Rubin

A friend who follows these issues closely wrote me to ask a question about something that is confusing him:

"How could Obama, who screwed up so badly before on the settlement issue, have convened a high-profile summit at the beginning of September only to possibly have it blow up in his face just weeks later because he failed to secure a deal on the moratorium [on construction] matter? How could he, and his staff, be so inept?....

"It's just hard to imagine that Obama didn't understand Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's constraints or Palestinian Authority (PA) leader Mahmoud Abbas's weakness (and need to find an excuse to get out of a negotiating process he can't compromise on). ...This is simply incomprehensible, is it not?"

Well, such behavior is quite comprehensible if one understands that it is largely stupid not only from the standpoint of peace and U.S. interests but even in the context of the Obama Administration looking as if it knows what it's doing.  Let me state the issue in one sentence:

Knowing that it was unlikely he'd get a continued freeze and that the PA was eager to get out of negotiations, why did Obama stake so much of his prestige on success; give himself unnecessary self-imposed impossible deadlines; make a breakthrough seem likely and easy (despite giving lip service to the difficulties); and magnify the issue's importance so that a failure seemed all the worse?

Remember, this isn't the first time in the last month that Obama has set himself up for humiliation on the issue. He also made his big UN speech which presented the Israel-Palestinian conflict as the world's most important issue and made the potentially embarrassing prediction that he would resolve the conflict within one year.

Defenders of the Obama Administration would say that he had some secret plan that is too intelligent for us mortals to comprehend (critics have their own conspiracy theories). Not so in both cases. Or they would say that someone pointing to the emperor's lack of clothes is merely biased against Obama. OK, so if that's the reason you've got to be able to answer this question: Where are the clothes?

Or they would say that Netanyahu--they would never blame it on Abbas--had let him down. Yet Netanyahu didn't do anything that was unpredictable, or at least shouldn't have been. And the make-up of his coalition is well-known, as is the fact that a nine-month freeze was sold to Netanyahu as an experiment and it was one that clearly failed.

The answer that would make the administration look best is that it knows there's no hope of progress but just want to show that they are working hard on the issue (supposedly keeping Muslims and Arabs happy) and are trying to avoid a crisis (so they can focus on Afghanistan, Iraq,and Iran nuclear).

There must be some truth here but this doesn't explain why they look so foolish in dealing with the issue. For example, that strategy would encourage them to downplay the peace process and lower expectations, not make it seem like big meetings are about to happen and grand breakthroughs are at hand.

So this is an example of incompetence on the part of the Obama Administration, though I've also pointed out how part of it is due to an element of cynical domestic political calculation.

Now, let's go back one year to September 2009. What happened then? In front of the world's leaders gathered during the UN session, Obama proclaimed that within two months there would be direct, intense, high-level, Camp David-style talks that would quickly produce a peace settlement.

Thus, what happened this year is hardly new, and can be extended to other issues. Don't get me started on Iran, revolutionary Islamism, Syria, and a half-dozen other questions but you can provide the examples for yourselves, dear readers.

Back to Israel-Palestinian negotiations. For one thing, the Obama Administration is spoiled in the classical sense of that word. It knows the media won't ridicule it and thus it can get away with big mistakes. And that feeling of safety, in turn, encourages the kind of carelessness that leads to big mistakes.

Another factor is ideology. The administration's officials genuinely--and wrongly--seem to believe that this is the world's most important issue. Thus, the magnify it, an action that puts more pressure on them to solve it. Needing to solve it, they next think they can do so.

Connected with this is another misconception about the conflict, though on some levels they must know better. For example, they really seem to believe that the Palestinians are eager for a deal and Israel is recalcitrant. Almost all of their experience shows the contrary, yet that has no effect on their thinking. After all, it was the Palestinian leadership that killed Obama's September 2009 plan and stalled talks for a whole year.

The U.S. officials can think that if only Israel did more everything would be fine, but they must be aware that Arab states have refused to be helpful and that Abbas has tried to do everything possible to get out of talking. Their shortcoming, however, is that they have not made the leap to comprehending that their paradigm is wrong: the Palestinian leadership neither wants nor can deliver a compromise peace.

As long as they fail to reach that conclusion they keep banging their heads against the wall.

I am not aware of a single mass media outlet that has asked the basic questions about why the Obama Administration keeps looking so stupid on this issue and repeats its miscalculations. Blaming Netanyahu is always an easy way out of actually thinking about what's going on, yet many don't even do that so much nowadays. They just seem puzzled about things like: If the Palestinians are so miserable and oppressed, why aren't they eager to negotiate .a compromise peace?

But let's stick to U.S. policy for right now. There is no mystery here. A combination of Incompetence (not implementing a desire plan well), ignorance (not understanding the region), ideology (systematically misunderstanding issues and rejecting corrective experience, and arrogance (assuming one is always right, ignoring experience and criticism) is the answer.

It isn't just incompetence, of course, as I pointed out in the list of the previous paragraph. Yet let me put it this way: Even if you want to do something stupid for various reasons, you still don't want to look stupid in doing it. The looking stupid part is the essence of incompetence.

Obama is not doing a very good job on international affairs, as policymakers from countries all over the world know and say in private. Refusing to see that reality means finding it hopelessly impossible to understand what's happening in the world and especially in the Middle East nowadays.

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). The website of the GLORIA Center is at and of his blog, Rubin Reports,

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