Analysis: Obama's cabinet fears Mideast black hole

Prospects of a third intifada and war with Iran would guarantee American focus on the Middle East for decades to come, much to Obama's dismay.

October 28, 2013 07:10
2 minute read.
US President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu in the Oval Office, September 30, 2013.

Netanyahu and Obama meeting in Washington 370. (photo credit: REUTERS/Jason Reed )


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WASHINGTON – Throughout the summer, scrap and whiteboard notes consumed the West Wing corner office of National Security Adviser Susan Rice as she – with a small group of aides – tried to outline how this president could finally pivot the United States away from the Middle East.

Fresh off her promotion, Rice was tasked with refocusing on a long-sought shift repeatedly emphasized by President Barack Obama – away from miring and expensive conflicts in the Near East region, and toward Asia, where powers are fast gaining capital and the US wants a part.

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The president told Rice to complete her review in time for his speech to the United Nations General Assembly in September, The New York Times reported after interviewing the former UN ambassador. During that speech, the findings of her review were made public: the US would be engaged in the Middle East “for the long haul,” Obama said.

But in order to shift attention elsewhere, his administration would conduct a diplomatic full-court press on the region’s two greatest sources of instability: Iran’s nuclear program and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Obama declared that these two issues would top America’s foreign policy agenda for the rest of his presidency.

The policy review reflected a frustration in the White House that five years after the eight of George W. Bush, new conflicts continue to spring from the Middle East with lives of their own, and yet demand the president’s attention – as if he can do anything about them.

Obama seeks policies that don’t delay core problems or attempt to own them with American staying power, but that instead solve or contain them and allow for the US to disentangle from the region.

But for Obama to get what he wishes for, he will need deals that ultimately satisfy Israel’s political establishment. For instance, the crisis with Iran will not end until Israel is content, because the Jewish state, under Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, continues to cast the Islamic Republic as an existential threat and repeatedly reminds the world that it has the right to defend itself.

Whether Obama thinks it acceptable for Iran to retain the ability to enrich uranium at low levels is not of primary importance. He must either convince Iran to capitulate that it has no inherent right to enrichment, or coax Israel into accepting a small, closely-monitored civilian nuclear enrichment program below the key level of 3.5 percent.

On Palestine, too, the president needs to work toward the lowest common denominator in Israeli politics: he must incentivize Netanyahu to divide Jerusalem, and he must incentivize the Israeli people, who are deeply torn over how much to sacrifice for the intangible prospect of peace.

The irony of the review and his speech is that neither adequately addressed the consequences of failure on these two diplomatic fronts: the real risks of a third intifada, and war with Iran. Both are devastating prospects that would, counter to the president’s goals, guarantee American focus on the Middle East for decades to come.

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