The Region: Yes, no, maybe

Obama's dithering on Iran and failure to advance the Israeli-Palestinian peace process shows that nothing has been learned from his first year in office.

By BARRY RUBIN
January 17, 2010 23:31
4 minute read.
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obama 248 88 ap. (photo credit: AP [file])

In the United States, about half the population and most of the policy elite think 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.

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Originally, the administration suggested that it would raise sanctions against Iran in September 2009 if engagement yielded no fruit. That was then pushed back to the end of that year. 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, US 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: US 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 tout de suite, including the apartments being completed and the ones being built in Jerusalem. The media likes to say that both sides are "defying" the US. But in fact what Israel is doing was approved by the US, and 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 would quickly be 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.

While current policies are disturbing, the alternatives being pushed within the policy establishment and promoted so often in the mass media are generally worse. Starting from the perspective that US strategies have failed, it is argued that this is because they haven't gone far enough in the wrong direction. Rather than proposing a much tougher policy toward Iran - with real sanctions at least - the proposals are for even more engagement and concessions.

Noting that Hamas is still in power, what we hear are not calls to subvert it further and bring it down but rather to give up and start negotiating with that group.

The same position is being put forward about Hizbullah and Syria: to claim falsely that they are moderating and urge Western concessions. As for the "peace process," since the US cannot even get talks going, it is asserted that it should leap to the end of negotiations and try to impose a final, comprehensive solution right now.

Most of these bad ideas are not going to be implemented, by the US at least though they have more appeal in Europe. Yet this orientation nevertheless makes it impossible for any sensible alternatives to be presented and seriously debated. Apparently the dominant school of thought at present thinks that other than al-Qaida, there is no revolutionary movement in the world that doesn't really prefer to be moderate, no enemy that cannot be won over through dialogue.

But why should Damascus and Teheran or Hamas and Hizbullah or the Muslim Brotherhood and the Palestinian Authority abandon what they deem to be a successful strategy of militancy and intransigence, especially if the West keeps telling them they can get concessions without making any themselves? How can so many Western analysts and journalists simply put aside virtually everything such organizations say and do to focus on their own personal interpretations of what these forces "really" want?

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


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