The president is no peacenik — he’s just a throwback to the foreign policy George H.W. Bush.
By Leon Hadar
President Barack Obama is continuing to reorient U.S. foreign policy in general, and in the Middle East in particular, along the lines of the internationalist/neo-realist approach pursued in the pre-9/11 years of Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Obama’s televised address marking the end of the U.S. combat mission in Iraq, coupled with his earlier decision to escalate U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan and this week’s start of a new round of U.S.-orchestrated Israeli-Palestinian talks in Washington, fits very much into a familiar pattern — a policy based on the assumption that Washington will continue setting the agenda and determining the policy outcomes in the Broader Middle East (Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Israel-Palestine).
That should not have come as a major surprise to those of us who have been calling for long-term structural changes in American global strategy, starting with the necessary reassessment of the U.S. goal of maintaining a hegemonic position in the Middle East. After all, much of presidential candidate Obama’s criticism of President George W. Bush’s foreign policy sounded like the kind of assessments that were being made by President Bush I’s former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft — who not unlike Obama was opposed to decision to invade Iraq and who was calling for diplomatic engagement with Iran.
Contrary to the hopes raised by some of Obama’s admirers in the antiwar movement — and the fears stirred up by neoconservatives — Obama was not a closet peacenik, an isolationist, a “third worldist,” or an “Arabist,” and his positions on Arab-Israeli issues reflected a view shared by most of his predecessors in office. Compare Obama’s phony “confrontation” with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the issue of the Jewish settlements with the way Bush père challenged former Israeli PM Yitzhak Shamir over the same question (when Bush I threatened to withhold loan guarantees to Jerusalem, among other things), and the notion promoted by neoconservative pundits that Obama is the most “anti-Israeli” U.S. President seems laughable.
In trying to improve America’s standing in the Arab and Muslim worlds, engage Iran in the diplomatic arena, begin a process of military disengagement from Iraq, and revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process by emphasizing the U.S. role as an honest broker, Obama has not been attempting to transform traditional U.S. policy in the Middle East. Instead Obama has been playing the role of a counter-revolutionary, turning back the radical foreign-policy approach pursued by Bush the Second and his neoconservative advisers — i.e., the policy of preemption, regime change, diplomatic unilateralism, the Democracy Agenda — while embracing the more realist strategies pursued by Clinton and Bush the First.
That Obama has discarded the Bush era’s stand of treating Israel as Washington’s sheriff in the Middle East may explain why, after eight years of having uninterrupted access to a U.S. diplomatic blank check, some Israelis and their American supporters may have reacted with so much animosity toward the new president. Yet in doing that, and by treating the threat of international terrorism as a manageable national-security challenge — as opposed to a global war against Islamofascism — Obama has helped protect the moral and strategic principles of U.S. foreign policy. It was George W. Bush and his advisers who had been violating those same principles; they were the radicals.
Obama’s televised address on Iraq seemed to reflect his goal of “de-neoconizing” U.S. foreign policy. There was no talk about democratizing Iraq and the Middle East, confronting an Axis of Evil, or defeating Islamofascism. “The United States has paid a huge price to put the future of Iraq in the hands of its people,” Obama said in the address from the Oval Office. “Through this remarkable chapter in the history of the United States and Iraq, we have met our responsibility,” he concludes. “Now, it is time to turn the page.” Indeed.
At the same time, the administration’s decision to invite Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to Washington on September 2 to resume direct negotiations to resolve all final-status issues — including Jerusalem, the Jewish settlements, and the Palestinian refugees — seems to send a signal to Arabs and Israelis that, unlike his predecessor, President Obama is placing the Israel-Palestine issue at the top of his foreign-policy agenda and is prepared to invest more time and energy – and potentially huge political costs — in trying to resolve the Mideast conflict. Or so it seems.
Obama may be trying to recapture some elements of the strategic status quo that had existed in the Middle East before 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq, hearkening back to a time when the U.S. could maintain a relatively cost-free hegemony in the region. It did so by pursuing a strategy of offshore balancing, by keeping U.S. military forces “over the horizon,” through the “dual containment” of Iraq and Iran (and by playing the one against the other), and by sustaining the momentum of a perpetual Arab-Israeli peace process. While George W. Bush and his advisers contended that their radical foreign policy agenda — including the invasion of Iraq — was the proper U.S. response to 9/11, a realist strategy aimed at preserving U.S. status in the Middle East and weakening Arab and Muslim radicals would have meant toppling the Taliban, destroying al-Qaeda and its satellites, and reviving the Israeli-Arab peace process (rather than ousting Saddam Hussein and attempting to transform the Middle East). This is exactly what the Obama administration is doing now by trying to close the book on Iraq, getting the peace process moving, and “finishing the job” in Afghanistan.
The reason why this strategy is probably not going to work is that the Bush administration’s policies have already changed the balance of power in the Middle East, as well as the political balance at home, in a way that makes it difficult, if not impossible, to “de-neoconize” U.S. foreign policy and turn back the strategic clock to re-establish the pre-9/11 status quo.
Announcing the end of the U.S. combat mission in Iraq and convening an Israeli-Palestinian summit in Washington do not change the depressing realities on the ground. They amount to not a lot more than media events. Iraq’s Pandora’s box of ethnic and religious rivalries remains wide open, and a more powerful and assertive Iran and its Shiite allies in Iraq and Lebanon are perceived as a major threat to the interests of the mostly Arab-Sunni regimes in the region (Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt). At the same time, Turkey is very concerned about the objectives of the Kurds in the north of Iraq and is ready to take action to protect its interests there. A huge powder keg is ready to blow up.
In the Holy Land, the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships are divided and the national consensus on both sides has been radicalized since the second Intifada, 9/11, and with the continuing Israeli occupation and buildup of settlements in Palestinian territories, all of which makes it less likely that the Israelis and the Palestinians could resolve any of the major final-status issues within a year. They could not resolve them in 2000, when Yasser Arafat was ruling a unified Palestinian camp, when a relatively moderate political figure was serving as Israel’s PM, and at a time when the U.S. was at the peak of its so-called unipolar moment and Iran, Hizbollah, and Hamas were having great difficulties in trying to exert their influence. So why exactly will the peace process lead to the promised land of tranquility now?
Even if one presupposes a best-case scenario in which Tehran’s nuclear ambitions are resolved in a way that averts a military conflagration involving Israel, the U.S., and Iran, it is still very difficult to envision a state of affairs that could bring about peace and stability in Iraq and in Israel/Palestine in the near future. To paraphrase what Oscar Wilde has said about marriage and second marriage, pursuing policies based on these assumptions would make would mark the triumph of intelligence and hope over intelligence and experience.
It is possible to imagine an alternate universe in which the U.S. did not suffer the triple blows of 9/11, the war in Iraq, and the Great Recession — a world in which America was ready to use its enormous power to make peace and bring stability into the Middle East. But one does not have to be a great geostrategic thinker to conclude that in the real universe the U.S. not going to have the economic and military resources, and the political will to use them, to prevent the likely explosions in Mesopotamia and the Levant as America also tries to fight al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, and elsewhere. Especially when, as Obama put it on Tuesday, “Our most urgent task is to restore our economy and put the millions of Americans who have lost their jobs back to work.” Something’s gotta give, and it will probably be Obama’s Mideast policy that will be the first to lose ground.
Leon Hadar is a Cato Institute research fellow in foreign-policy studies and author, most recently, of Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East.