Analysis: Does Obama's candor on naivete inspire confidence?

Like Americans, Mideast leaders won't play cat and mouse.

obama speaks to crowd 248.88 ap (photo credit: AP)
obama speaks to crowd 248.88 ap
(photo credit: AP)

The new year is a time for frank introspectionand earnest resolutions, and US President Barack Obama engaged inexactly that during an interview with Time magazine at the start of the second year of his presidency.

Indoing so, he showed considerable candor as he acknowledged having mademistakes and missteps in his Middle East policy during the last yeareven as he recommitted himself to the peace process.

But then again, internal reflection is one thing and publicconfession quite another. Sharing as Obama did raises questions aboutwhether he's learned the right lessons.

For starters, detractors have long labeled Obama as naïve and hubristic; in the Time interview, he seems to echo their assessment.

Hetold Joe Klein that the political realities confronting Palestinian andIsraeli leaders made it harder than expected for them to come to thenegotiating table. "I think that we overestimated our ability topersuade them to [negotiate] when their politics ran contrary to that,"he said, adding later that, "If we had anticipated some of thesepolitical problems on both sides earlier, we might not have raisedexpectations as high."

It's as though legions of Middle East experts, Arab and Israeliofficials and large chunks of the American Jewish community hadn't toldthe administration exactly that, repeatedly. Acknowledging not havingcomprehended that reality smacks of, indeed, naivete; proceeding in theface of such advice suggests, well, hubris.

Foranother, one of the most widespread critiques of this administration'sapproach to the peace process has been its penchant for declaring inpublic what should have been whispered in private. The unfulfilleddemand of Israel to totally freeze settlements, including in EastJerusalem, is perhaps the most outstanding such example, with manyobservers suggesting that more closed-door communications would haveyielded better results, and it would also not have raised the stakes sohigh that it became difficult for Arabs and Palestinians to acceptanything less than a complete construction halt.

These latest public ruminations, while honest, also might notbe strategically helpful. Whose cause does Obama aid, exactly, byacknowledging that his administration misread the situation such thatit "overestimated" some of the basics, i.e., the difficulty of thesituation and that it is "as intractable a problem as you get"? Does itinspire the confidence, does it command the respect whose lack somehave argued made it that much harder for the US president to extractthe concessions he sought from the parties?

And finally, one of Obama's major setbacks was his loss of theIsraeli street early on last year. That was one error, at least, thatthe administration seemed to understand and actively attempt to fix inrecent months.

Though Obama didn't make grander gestures of visiting Israel oreven giving interviews to the Israeli media, the White House did reachout to American Jewry, heavily supporting Israel on issues like theGoldstone report and Turkish shunning of the IDF, and publicly praisedthe settlement moratorium Jerusalem eventually adopted.

Yet, in two breaths, Obama undermined those efforts, simultaneously sowing doubts about their sincerity.

In the interview, Obama said that for both sides‚ politicalenvironments have made it "very hard for them to start engaging in ameaningful conversation." This comment ignores Prime Minister BinyaminNetanyahu's calls, from his first Oval Office meeting with Obama inMay, for an immediate resumption of peace talks with the Palestinians(who, on the other hand, refuse to sit down without a total settlementfreeze).

And worse yet, from an Israeli perspective, he went on to saythat, "Although the Israelis, I think, after a lot of time showed awillingness to make some modifications in their policies, they stillfound it very hard to move with any bold gestures."

In effect - if not his intention - Obama belittled a settlementmoratorium which, as US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pointed out,is unprecedented in its scope, not to mention Netanyahu's reversal toendorse a Palestinian state and his willingness to hold substantivetalks.

More to the point, if Obama doesn't encourage Israelis for whatmost see as the maximum Netanyahu and his right-wing coalition candeliver short of Palestinian reciprocation, the public and governmentwill question the utility of further concessions. And they will raisethe charge that he still doesn't understand the political realities onthe ground in Israel.

It is perhaps no coincidence that Obama admitted a lack ofdiscernment concerning the "political problems" confronting Israelisand Palestinians as he faced a major domestic reversal born in part bya lack of discernment concerning the political problems of his ownparty.

In the loss of the Massachusetts US Senate seat held for 46years by Democratic stalwart Ted Kennedy to an unknown Republican statelegislator, Obama forfeited his super-majority in the Senate and withit the momentum for passing his signature legislation, health care, aswell as the sense of a popular mandate for his policy agenda.

Moreover, his political team's inability to assess and thenaddress the vulnerability of such a crucial seat, which should havebeen a shoo-in for the Democrats, has raised questions about what elsehis staff is missing. And what else he's no longer on top of.

These questions are being asked not just in Washington, but in Jerusalem and Cairo and Beirut.

As an Arab reporter said at a rare press briefing White HouseNational Security Council spokesman Mike Hammer held Friday: "Given theincreasing domestic problems you're having at home [in the US], howwill this impact the foreign policy agenda? There is an increasingsense in the Middle East that this will tie the President's hands,especially on the peace process; you know, that the administration isin a weaker position and has less momentum than when you guys started."

In response Hammer reassured the reporter thatthe president wouldn't be distracted from the peace process by hispolitical fortunes at home.

"Hiscommitment is not driven at all by the politics of our country," hesaid. "Don't be distracted by domestic politics; the Presidentcertainly isn't when it comes to national security."

Pressed by another Arab reporter on Obama's Timemagazine quotes, and who exactly the president held responsible for thecurrent impasse, Hammer said that "this is not an issue of assigningblame to either of the parties." Rather, he said, the course of eventsneeded to be put "in context," and referred to the Gaza war at thestart of Obama's term as creating a "difficult situation" that thenended, but was followed by the election of the Netanyahu government.

"You had a new Israeli government, so from the get go it wasgoing to be a challenge to move forward and of course trying toestablish talks between the parties," Hammer said.

Still, he stressed, the main point was the White House's continued focus on the peace process.

As Obama said at the conclusion of the Time interview,"We are going to continue to work with both parties to recognize what Ithink is ultimately their deep-seated interest in a two-state solutionin which Israel is secure and the Palestinians have sovereignty and canstart focusing on developing their economy and improving the lives oftheir children and grandchildren." Happy new year.