Obama's Delicate Middle East Pivot

By Robert Satloff
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The volcanic events of the past 150 days make those words seem, in retrospect, jarringly odd and out-of-step. Arabs did not rise up in Cairo, Deraa, Benghazi, or Sana because they saw themselves as Muslims, but rather because they viewed themselves as Egyptians, Syrians, Libyans, and Yemenis. Nor did they rise up out of grievance against America, but rather out of grievance against their own leaders. As much as anything, the Arab Spring demolished the broad-brush pan-Islamic context in which the president first approached his relationship with his listeners. Whether, as some contend, the president's outreach to Muslims defused anti-Americanism in the Middle East and paved the way for Arabs to focus on their own internal pathologies, or whether - as is more likely - the outreach was generally irrelevant to the surge of popular revulsion at the corruption, venality and mismanagement of local regimes, the gritty reality of the various rebellions against Arab leaders should finally end the ultimately fruitless search for the seeds of Muslim rage against America.

The president's task tomorrow is far more complex than the one he set out to perform in Cairo two years ago. Then, the target of his rhetoric was a single, amorphous, undifferentiated group of Muslims, and the goal was simply to turn a new leaf. Now, if he is to say something serious, he cannot avoid delving into the gray complexities, the unsatisfying inconsistencies, and the urgent necessities of the moment.

Specifically, a successful speech will need to align America with the most positive aspects of Arab rebellions against autocracy; reflect a balance between the hope and fear triggered in equal parts by seismic political change; signal American support for a process of democratic choice without suggesting indifference to the outcome of free and fair elections; project both disapproval and understanding - but not endorsement - toward those U.S. friends, especially in the Gulf, who refuse reform and repress its advocates; and explain why the maniacal dictator in Libya merits NATO bombing while the capo di tutti capi in Damascus does not even merit specific personal opprobrium for his outrageous behavior (or, alternatively, announce that Asad deserves no less a fate than Qadhafi and Mubarak).

In a key segment of this speech, the president needs to go beyond platitudes to offer substantive and meaningful help to those forward-looking Arabs battling a rearguard effort by a coalition of Islamists and ancien regimists to inherit the benefits of revolution. This is likely to involve a major aid package, focused on debt relief and OPIC guarantees, that will form a pillar of larger international assistance. Here, the medium is the message - to have real political impact, the assistance needs to be visible, timely, and not a smoke-and-mirrors reprogramming of existing initiatives.

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And that's the simple part. The more difficult part of the president's speech is to outline a coherent vision of U.S. interests in this new, uncertain era - an era defined as much by fiscal restraint at home as by tumultuous change abroad - as well as a strategy that matches those interests. His listeners will want to know the impact of Tahrir Square on the contest between Iran's axis of allies and America's; how change has affected the time-honored list of American regional priorities; and what new mix of military might, financial aid, political engagement, and moral suasion the administration will deploy to achieve these goals.

Further complicating matters, some members of the administration - as well as some foreign leaders - want the president to use the stage to articulate a more comprehensive vision for how the United States can advance Arab-Israeli peace. Although no president can avoid the topic altogether in a major Middle East address, it is difficult to imagine a moment less propitious than the current one for a president to wade knee-deep into the muck of peace diplomacy.

On this issue, the president again faces the test of lessons learned. From his earliest days in office, he or his advisors suggested that the peace process was the most important issue on a crowded regional agenda; that resolving it - by a specific date - was a top priority; that failure to achieve breakthrough would handicap all other regional initiatives; that Israeli territorial concessions trumped Palestinian recognition of Israel's legitimacy as a prerequisite of progress; that securing a full halt to all Israeli settlement activity, including in east Jerusalem, was a necessary precondition for diplomacy; and that vetoing a wrong-headed UN Security Council resolution would ignite a firestorm of protest across the Middle East. The events of the past twenty-six months show that all of those propositions were not only wrong, but counterproductive.

The result is that the cupboard of U.S. diplomatic achievement during this period is strikingly bare. Neither Israelis nor Palestinians are blameless, but one cannot escape the fact that, after placing such a priority on the peace process, the Obama administration has brokered just three desultory weeks of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in nearly two-and-a-half years - the least (and least consequential) Arab-Israeli diplomatic engagement since the 1973 war. Add to this the sad coda of President Mahmoud Abbas's decision to opt for reconciliation with an unreformed Hamas, effectively rejecting the five-year-old, internationally sanctioned effort to transform Hamas from a terrorist organization into a legitimate partner for peacemaking and opting to throw his lot in with his sworn enemies. A new approach to peacemaking would begin with internalizing the analytical errors that led to this sorry state.

The reality is that the "Palestine issue," as it is widely called, may be an emotive topic for many Arabs and Muslims, but it is not the driver of regional dynamics. In practical terms, the impact of Israel's peace with Egypt and Jordan and de facto relations with key North African and Gulf states, combined with the inward-looking focus of most Arab countries, has resulted in redefining the Arab-Israeli dispute to a narrower (if still bloody and irredentist) conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. The Arab Spring only confirmed this trend. Indeed, even Arab commentators viewed the recent faux invasions of Palestinians across the Syrian and Lebanese borders more as desperate stunts in the Asad regime's shrinking arsenal than as manifestations of some new Palestinian strategy to challenge Israel.

In this context, although President Obama can hope that Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu comes to Washington with some new ideas - perhaps even a more detailed vision for peace that could crystallize the choice that Palestinians will make should they hold elections next year - it would be foolhardy for the president himself to invest limited capital in a process that promises diminishing returns. In fact, the peace process merits even less attention in tomorrow's speech than the president gave it in his 2009 Cairo address, when it was the second of seven items on his agenda. This reality also explains why he has chosen to address the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee this Sunday.

In sum, by choosing to give a major address that effectively changes the topic of the international conversation from America's singular success against bin Laden to the multiplicity of U.S. policies regarding the Arab Spring, President Obama has taken on a sizable strategic, analytical, and communications challenge. A serious presentation will require him to sacrifice clarity for nuance, trade consistency for self-interest, and offer a rigorous accounting of U.S. strategic priorities. Although the speech is unlikely to project the soaring rhetoric of his finest orations, the reverberations of his words could have huge implications for how both friend and foe - groups that are shifting rapidly in the Middle East - view America's durability as the preeminent global power in a volatile region.

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Robert Satloff is The Washington Institute's executive director and Howard P. Berkowitz chair in U.S. Middle East policy.

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