Diplomacy: A defeat of Olympic proportions

Diplomacy A defeat of O

WASHINGTON - US President Barack Obama gave shuttle diplomacy a new twist when he set out last week for Copenhagen to lobby the International Olympic Committee to choose Chicago for the 2016 summer games. The aim was trivial by global geopolitical standards, and yet - perhaps because of that inconsequence - the failure of Obama's bid was felt in places other than the Windy City. The fact that the leader of the Free World was unable to move a panel of IOC members sufficiently to help Chicago advance into even the second round of voting has made some question how he could expect to prevail with Iran, North Korea and other equally cagey parties. And those perennial adversaries haven't been the only ones giving Obama attitude. European allies have been unwilling to provide more troops in Afghanistan or more stimulus money. Closer to home, Capitol Hill minions describe an atmosphere in which "Yes, we can" might be Obama's mantra, but members readily tell him "No, we won't." In the Middle East, slammed doors came first from Arab leaders refusing to make gestures toward the Jewish state, and then from Israelis unwilling to freeze settlements. "When the king of Saudi Arabia or the prime minister of Israel - or the Olympic Committee - says no, it clearly diminishes the credibility and the influence of the United States," asserted Elliott Abrams, who served as the deputy national security adviser in the George W. Bush administration. "It makes it harder to do whatever you're trying to achieve." While Bush had also lost clout by the time he left office, Abrams said such a phenomenon was common for presidents coming to the end of their terms. "In the first year, you usually don't have this kind of issue arise." Although Abrams disagreed with what Obama had been trying to get Israel to do - freeze settlements, including for natural growth, as a gesture toward the Palestinians and the Arab world - he said that an American president who wasn't seen as being able to get things done was no good for anyone. Regardless of ideology, he said, "we all have to wish it were otherwise." "WHEN YOU say no to the superpower, it comes at a price for the great power's credibility," echoed Aaron David Miller, though the Woodrow Wilson Center scholar takes different positions than Abrams on settlements and other issues. Miller, who has advised six secretaries of state on the Middle East, compared Obama to Gulliver, an idealistic adventurer who awakens in a distant land only to find himself "tied up by small tribes who are tougher and meaner and have a greater stake in the outcome." He added, "Where we're not tied up by them, we're tied up by our own illusions." He pointed to the Obama administration's initial expectation of getting a complete settlement freeze and steps on normalization from the Arabs. "That's not seeing the world the way it really is," he contended, but suggested that the setbacks of recent months would lead to some reassessing. "You're going to see a rethinking of the peace process in the coming months. There's a dawning of how extremely painful the realities of the Israeli-Palestinian track are." At the same time, many observers are concerned about the lessons the administration has drawn so far, and that it is setting its sights on a goal - a final-status agreement - that is sure to be even harder to obtain. "It hasn't worked for 35 years. I don't see that it's working now," said another Middle East analyst of the elusive final-status deal, who didn't want to be quoted criticizing the administration. And coming up empty-handed could cost the White House even more stature down the road. "It goes to the heart of the president's credibility, because the president's come out very strong in support of a Palestinian state; he's come out very strong against settlements," the analyst continued. "The more he backtracks, the less credibility he has in the Middle East and globally." A drop in credibility could make the next steps even harder, but it could also make the administration more pragmatic. "It might be more helpful for the US to set more practical and attainable goals, rather than reaching for a final-status agreement," said Haim Malka, an Israel expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He suggested shorter-term goals that could "improve dynamics on the ground," such as promoting a Palestinian unity government between Hamas and Fatah, and a broader Israel-Hamas cease-fire. Abrams said there was room for the US to encourage the Arab states to do more to bolster the Palestinian Authority, and also to build Israel's confidence that America was watching out for its security interests. Malka assessed that the difficult situation on the ground was such that America's lack of results so far wouldn't be decisive in determining what could be produced. And while Miller thought it wouldn't make things easier, "it's not fatal."