US Affairs: Justified paranoia?

Though it's unlikely that US President Barack Obama's recent faux pas with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown indicates a decline in Anglo-American relations, interpreting Washington's behavior towards Jerusalem appears less clear-cut.

barack obama wave 248.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
barack obama wave 248.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
The British might have taken it as a point of pride that the first foreign leader President Barack Obama welcomed to the White House was their own prime minister, Gordon Brown. Instead, the country experienced a tremor of fear when the president's press secretary referred to the US-British "special partnership," rather than the coveted "special relationship," in the run-up to the March meeting. The worst seemed to be confirmed when the White House delivered blow after blow to a history-laden ego: Obama didn't greet Brown personally at the airport; he presented him with of a stack of DVDs (reportedly not compatible with UK DVD players) even as he returned the bust of Winston Churchill that had sat in George W. Bush's Oval Office; he rebuffed Brown's attempt at humor during an awkward joint press conference. The British media quickly concluded that the country was no longer an object of US affection, that it was no wonder Obama wouldn't commit to a "relationship." But maybe, just maybe, the kerfuffle said more about Britain's feelings than America's. "A lot of the neurosis and anxiety in the British press comes down to these tiny, tiny things which somehow have a greater meaning for Britain's position in the world, and that comes from the insecurity of not being the great power it used to be," explained British-born MSNBC analyst Richard Wolfe, describing the collective agonizing over "whether the press secretary says the words 'special relationship' or 'special partnership' - oh my goodness, the world is falling down!" He added irreverently, "The magic words are 'special relationship,' whatever that means." ISRAEL MAY not be a great power in decline, but it too is obsessed with its "special relationship" with the US, and just might be exhibiting a wee bit of paranoia itself. Take the reaction to the White House hosting its first Middle East head of state last week, King Abdullah II of Jordan. His visit was received in the Israeli press as confirmation that Obama loves the Arabs more, since Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu would only be making his Washington debut in May. The reception in DC? "Anyone who thinks there is a message in the sequencing is either paranoid or unfamiliar with Washington," said US Institute of Peace expert Scott Lasensky, pointing out the obvious - Netanyahu was still forming a government while the White House was working out logistics with the king, as working out logistics can take a long time. Or take the flap about Obama not wanting Netanyahu to come at all. On a recent trip here, veteran Yediot Aharonot columnist Nahum Barnea said he understood that the Americans wanted Netanyahu to hold off for now, a story duly reported in his paper the next day. But he happened to be speaking in the presence of Martin Indyk, a former US ambassador to Israel with close ties to the current administration. "Obama is looking forward to Bibi coming in early May," Indyk countered, calling Barnea's impression a "totally inaccurate" take, which he chalked up to Israeli "spin." In case any doubt of America's view remained, special envoy George Mitchell devoted two of his eight sentences, following his April meeting with the PM, to stress that "the president and the secretary of state asked me to personally convey their feelings to you. They are looking forward very much to seeing you in Washington at the appropriate time, when it's convenient for you." BUT, AS they say, just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't out to get you. While no one seriously thinks a Gordon Brown joke that didn't go over well will jeopardize Anglo-American ties, the US and Israel have serious differences on serious issues. Chief among them is whether Palestinian statehood is a good idea - Obama has repeatedly praised it, while Netanyahu is having trouble uttering the words "two-state solution;" and how much time to give diplomacy on Iran - Israel is urging tight time lines, while the US is resisting any limitations on its engagement effort. How smoothly the parties proceed could depend significantly on how much the two leaders develop the necessary personal rapport, i.e. trust: Does Netanyahu trust that Obama will do what's needed on Iran when push comes to shove? Does Obama trust that Netanyahu will work as hard for peace as his coalition will allow? And paranoia doesn't help trust. One Israeli official compared the situation to that of a suspicious boyfriend questioning his girlfriend's feelings, to the point that nothing becomes something, driving the two apart. In the case of Israel, being jealous of other countries and insecure about US interest only strains a relationship that needs no additional stressors. It is, in short, counterproductive. By way of example, one shrewd Washington observer pointed out that the Obama administration had no particular allegiance to the Annapolis process - a Bush-era initiative loaded with baggage - until Avigdor Lieberman began his tenure as foreign minister by declaring Annapolis had "no validity." That then compelled Obama to explicitly back the process, for the first time publicly referring to it in a high-profile speech during his address to the Turkish parliament. As it gears up for Netanyahu's crucial Washington visit, Israel might want to keep in mind that long-distance relationships are difficult - it can take hours of plane travel to clear up misunderstandings, cultural cues don't always translate well and DVDs can't be played across different regional zones.