The Region: US policy: Better late than never versus too little, too late

It is finally dawning on the Obama administration that its Middle East policy isn't working out so well.

barry rubin new 88 (photo credit: )
barry rubin new 88
(photo credit: )
There are more signs that the Obama administration is switching gears on its Middle East policy. The recent visit of several US officials to Israel did not bring any major friction over the construction on settlements issue, which is probably far deader than people think. There are two factors involved in bringing about this new phase in US strategy. First, it is dawning on the administration that its Middle East policy isn't working so well. The phrase "no success in six months" is being heard. That obviously isn't enough time to solve the world's problems, but to fail to have a single positive development anywhere in the globe - given the high expectations generated by this administration and its over-optimism - is humiliating. And as it looks ahead, it doesn't see any successes on the horizon. Second, the administration has to gear up for its sanctions-building plan on Iran. The leaks say that the basic timetable is clear. In August and September, the US will try to mobilize international support for increasing sanctions on Iran. If the Islamic republic hasn't changed course by the end of September - and it won't - these sanctions will be put into effect. WHAT'S ON the list? Cutting exports of gasoline and other ready-to-use petroleum products - something Congress is already passing - and no insurance for companies trading with Iran are highest on the list. There might also be boycotts of companies trading or investing with Iran. All of this would be a step forward, but of course there are numerous problems which makes the policy look like a failure in advance:
  • What will the Europeans support and implement? Less than the US wants. While US President Barack Obama has done everything possible to please them - and they have declared their love for him - getting them to act is something else.
  • What, if any increased sanctions, will the Russians and Chinese back? Clearly, they will support even less than the Europeans, further lowering the level of pressure on Iran and then probably violating even that agreement. Russia views Obama with close to open contempt.
  • How will Iran react? By ignoring the sanctions and trying to go around them. This administration, at least in its next phase, will not get tough with allies or Iran no matter what they do or don't do. In Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's main foreign policy speech, the use of power and force literally went unmentioned. If US policy overwhelmingly focuses on "soft power," it is hard to get anything done. By making the other main theme of its foreign policy, "partnership" rather than unilateralism or even strong leadership, the administration has tied its own hands. The US won't get too far out ahead of its allies. Finally, it's also a policy of too little too late, not because Iran is so much closer to getting nuclear weapons and long-range missiles but because the Teheran regime has made up its mind. This is a far tougher Iranian regime than that of a few months ago, having stolen an election, repressed the opposition and pushed to the side the less militant of its own hard-line leadership. Obama's idea that while Iran's president was very extreme, its supreme leader was more flexible is now exposed as absurd. The partnership of the two leaders is sealed in blood. Moreover, the Iranian regime regards the West - and especially Obama - as weak, helpless and cowardly. This was a totally predictable outcome of the administration's engagement policy as the US government was repeatedly warned. NO ONE seems to realize, and it is better to avoid saying so in public, that Israel has won a tremendous diplomatic victory. Obama who, before running for office, was arguably hostile to Israel and who began his term as an incredibly popular new president by confidently issuing an ultimatum demanding Israel concede on the construction issue, has now for all practical purposes backed down. Of course, as always, much of the "credit" is due to a Palestinian leadership which made crystal-clear its intransigence on making peace, along with Arab regimes who told the Obama administration they wouldn't help. And of course as best-supporting actors, Iran and Syria also treated Obama with contempt and showed they weren't at all interested in any real compromise with the US. Indeed, the administration itself helped sabotage its own policy. By coming out of the starting-gate so critical of Israel, it unintentionally signaled to Arabs to sit back and enjoy a US-Israel confrontation. And since the new US government made its desire to avoid friction with Arabs or Muslims clear, they knew there would be no cost for defying Obama. Incidentally, the reason why US policy is the critical variable in the region is not that America is so all-important in its own right, though of course it is - or should one say used to be? - such a powerful factor. The reason is that the stances of everyone else are fixed. In their basic course, Arab regimes and Iran, Israel and the Palestinians are not about to make huge changes. And so US policy is the only aspect of the region that really shifts much. Of course, this was another point which the Obama administration missed, thinking that changes of its own along with the application of energy, charm, empathy and imaginative diplomacy would break logjams and produce dramatic progress. They were wrong, as anyone who knew the region well could have told them long ago if they'd been willing to listen. True, the Obama administration's Phase Two should be better than Phase One, which was an unworkable, even ludicrous, scheme to get Israel to stop settlement construction, then persuade Arab states to help produce dramatic progress toward Israel-Palestinian peace, while also engaging Iran and Syria. But Phase Two will also ultimately fail, as Arab radicals walk all over America and as Iran expands its influence and goes full speed to develop nuclear weapons. Every month through the end of this year and into next year, Obama and Clinton will wag their fingers at Iran in empty threats, and every month the Iranian regime will give America the finger. One day - though it's not going to happen this calendar year - the Obama administration is going to have to think about things like toughness, the use of force (not necessarily applied by itself) and defining enemies in serious terms.