The least competent manager of our diplomatic portfolio in a long time.

By WALTER RUSSELL MEAD
Professor of Foreign Affairs and Humanities at Bard College and Editor-at-Large of The American Interest magazine

The Dreamer Goes Down For The Count

I had never thought there were many similarities between the pleasure-loving Charles II of England and the more upright Barack Obama until this week. Listening to his speeches on the Middle East at the State Department, US-Israel relations at the AIPAC annual meeting and most recently his address to the British Parliament the comparison becomes irresistible.

“Here lies our sovereign king,” wrote the Earl of Rochester about King Charles: Whose word no man relies on. Who never said a foolish thing Or ever did a wise one.”

This seems to capture President Obama’s Middle East problems in a nutshell. The President’s descriptions of the situation are comprehensive and urbane. He correctly identifies the forces at work. He develops interesting policy ideas and approaches that address important political and moral elements of the complex problems we face. He crafts approaches that might, with good will and deft management, bridge the gaps between the sides. He reads thoughtful speeches full of sensible reflections.

But the last few weeks have cast him as the least competent manager of America’s Middle East diplomatic portfolio in a very long time. He has infuriated and frustrated long term friends, but made no headway in reconciling enemies. He has strained our ties with the established regimes without winning new friends on the Arab Street . He has committed our forces in the strategically irrelevant backwater of Libya not, as he originally told us, for “days, not weeks” but for months not days.

Where he has failed so dramatically is in the arena he himself has so frequently identified as vital: the search for peace between Palestinians and Israelis. His record of grotesque, humiliating and total diplomatic failure in his dealings with Prime Minister Netanyahu has few parallels in American history. Three times he has gone up against Netanyahu; three times he has ingloriously failed. This last defeat — Netanyahu’s deadly, devastating speech to Congress in which he eviscerated President Obama’s foreign policy to prolonged and repeated standing ovations by members of both parties — may have been the single most stunning and effective public rebuke to an American President a foreign leader has ever delivered.

Netanyahu beat Obama like a red-headed stepchild; he played him like a fiddle; he pounded him like a big brass drum. The Prime Minister of Israel danced rings around his arrogant, professorial opponent. It was like watching the Harlem Globetrotters go up against the junior squad from Miss Porter’s School; like watching Harvard play Texas A&M, like watching Bambi meet Godzilla — or Bill Clinton run against Bob Dole.

The Prime Minister mopped the floor with our guy. Obama made his ’67 speech; Bibi ripped him to shreds. Obama goes to AIPAC, nervous, off-balance, backing and filling. Then Bibi drops the C-Bomb, demonstrating to the whole world that the Prime Minister of Israel has substantially more support in both the House and the Senate than the President of the United States .

President Obama’s new Middle East policy, intended to liquidate the wreckage resulting from his old policy and get the President somehow on to firmer ground, lies in ruins even before it could be launched. He had dropped the George Mitchell approach, refused to lay out his own set of parameters for settling the conflict, and accepted some important Israeli red lines — but for some reason he chose not to follow through with the logic of these decisions and offer Netanyahu a reset button.

As so often in the past, but catastrophically this time, he found the “sour spot”: the position that angers everyone and pleases none. He moved close enough to the Israelis to infuriate the Palestinians while keeping the Israelis at too great a distance to earn their trust. One can argue (correctly in my view) that US policy must at some level distance itself from the agendas of both parties to help bring peace.

But that has to be done carefully, and to make it work one first needs to win their trust. Obama lost the trust of the Israelis early in the administration and never earned it back; he lost the Palestinians when he was unable to deliver Israeli concessions he led them to expect.

The President is now wandering across Europe seeking to mend fences with allies ( Britain, France, Poland ) he had earlier neglected and/or offended; at home, his authority and credibility have been holed below the waterline.

Everyone who followed the events of the last week knows that the President has lost control of the American-Israeli relationship and that he has no near-term prospects of rescuing the peace process. The Israelis, the Palestinians and the US Congress have all rejected his leadership.

Peace processes are generally good things even if they seldom bring peace; one hopes the President can find a way to re-launch American diplomacy on this issue but for now he seems to have reached a dead end — and to have allowd himself to be fatally tagged as too pro-Israel to win the affection of the Europeans and Arabs, and too pro-Palestinian to be trusted either by Israel or by many of the Americans who support it.

Internationally, this matters a great deal; domestically it matters even more. The President has significantly less capacity to act than he did a week ago. The Bin Laden dividend, already cruelly diminished by what The Daily Caller said was the administration’s “victory lap in a clown car” is now history. The GOP, in trouble recently as voters recoil from what many see as Republican extremism on issues like Medicare and public unions, will be able to use the national security card in new and potent ways.

As the stunning and overwhelming response to Prime Minister Netanyahu in Congress showed, Israel matters in American politics like almost no other country on earth. Well beyond the American Jewish and the Protestant fundamentalist communities, the people and the story of Israel stir some of the deepest and most mysterious reaches of the American soul. The idea of Jewish and Israeli exceptionalism is profoundly tied to the idea of American exceptionalism. The belief that God favors and protects Israel is connected to the idea that God favors and protects America .

It means more. The existence of Israel means that the God of the Bible is still watching out for the well-being of the human race. For many American Christians who are nothing like fundamentalists, the restoration of the Jews to the Holy Land and their creation of a successful, democratic state after two thousand years of oppression and exile is a clear sign that the religion of the Bible can be trusted.

Being pro-Israel matters in American mass politics because the public mind believes at a deep level that to be pro-Israel is to be pro-America and pro-faith. Substantial numbers of voters believe that politicians who don’t ‘get’ Israel also don’t ‘get’ America and don’t ‘get’ God. Obama’s political isolation on this issue, and the haste with which liberal Democrats like Nancy Pelosi left the embattled President to take the heat alone, testify to the pervasive sense in American politics that Israel is an American value. Said the Minority Leader to the Prime Minister: “I think it’s clear that both sides of the Capitol believe you advance the cause of peace.”

President Obama probably understands this intellectually; he understands many things intellectually. But what he can’t seem to do is to incorporate that knowledge into a politically sustainable line of policy. The deep American sense of connection to and, yes, love of Israel limits the flexibility of any administration. Again, the President seems to know that with his head. But he clearly had no idea what he was up against when Bibi Netanyahu came to town.

As a result, he’s taking another ride in the clown car, and this time it isn’t a victory lap. I hope I’m wrong, but I think the next intifada got a lot closer this week. (Hashem forbid!)

Obama’s virtual reality

By Yoram Ettinger
Israel Opinion/Ynet
21 May ’11

Op-ed: President’s idealistic vision ignores Arab tradition of tyranny, political violence

On November 2, 2010, the US electorate decided that President Obama was detached from domestic reality, and therefore dealt the Democratic Party a devastating defeat in federal and state legislatures, as well as in gubernatorial elections. In his May 19, 2011 speech on the Middle East, the President proved himself detached from Mideast reality as well.

President Obama is determined to introduce democracy to Arab countries, in spite of their 1,400 year old systemic track record of tyranny, terror, political violence, uncertainty, volatility and treachery. He prefers the virtual reality of the “Arab Spring,” rather than contending with the Middle Eastern reality of the “Stormy Arab Winter.” Hence, he views the seismic events rocking the region as “a story of self-determination” and is convinced that “repression will not work anymore.”

Obama’s virtual reality leads him to compare the violent Arab Street to “the defiance of those patriots in Boston who refused to pay taxes to a king, or the dignity of Rosa Parks as she sat courageously in her seat.” Are the two million Egyptians who assembled at Cairo’s Tahrir Square, cheering Sheikh Kardawi, a top Muslim Brotherhood leader, following in the footsteps of Patrick Henry and Martin Luther King???

President Obama offers to relieve “a democratic Egypt” of up to $1billion in debt and to channel billions of dollars to Egypt and Tunisia, “the vanguard of this democratic wave…, (which) can set a strong example through free and fair elections, a vibrant civil society, accountable and effective democratic institutions and responsible regional leadership.” He expects the flow of aid to generate trade, entrepreneurship and a free market economy. However, he downplays the absence of an appropriate infrastructure of values and education in the Arab Middle East, which is a prerequisite for democracy and a free market economy.

Obama has chosen to ignore in his speech clear and present threats to US economic and national security interests – such as Iran’s nuclearization and Islamic terrorism – while the “Arab Roller Coaster” runs uncontrollable and Russia and China deepen their penetration of the Middle East. Furthermore, the US is about to withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan, which could be leveraged by rogue regimes, exacerbating regional violence, instability and uncertainty.

In February, 2010, President Obama appointed a new ambassador to Damascus – following four years of diplomatic absence – “because Assad could play a constructive role in the Middle East.” So much for Mideast realism…

Like deer caught in headlights

Persian Gulf leaders are traumatized by the Iranian threat, by domestic upheaval and by a potential Iraqi “earthquake” in the aftermath of the US departure, irrespective of the Palestinian issue. Other Arab leaders are shaky in the face of lethal domestic turbulence, which is totally unrelated to the Palestinian issue, to the Arab-Israeli conflict or to Israel’s existence. Nonetheless, Obama is convinced that “the conflict between Israelis and Arabs has cast a shadow over the region.”

Like a deer caught in a headlights-look, the American president is glued to the Palestinian “screen saver.” He is convinced that the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Palestinian issue are a root cause of Middle East turbulence, the crown jewel of Arab policy-making and a core cause of anti-US Islamic terrorism.

Hence, he disregards the sweeping popularity of bin Laden and Saddam Hussein on the Palestinian Street, the presence of Palestinian terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan, Abbas’ track record in intra-Arab subversion and terrorism and the anti-Semitic, anti-Israel and anti-US hate-education and incitement in Abbas-controlled education, the media and the clergy.

Obama also disregards the unprecedented Palestinian terrorism triggered by the Oslo Accord, by the Israeli initiative to establish the Palestinian Authority and by Israel’s withdrawal from the entire Gaza Strip and from 40% of Judea and Samaria.

Obama pressures the Jewish State to partition Jerusalem and to retreat to the 9-15 miles wide pre-1967 lines, in defiance of precedents which document that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has never been over the size – but over the existence – of the Jewish State. Thus, Obama radicalizes Palestinian expectations and demands, distances them from – and replacing them at – the negotiation table, and signals to the Palestinians that terrorism is rewarded. By doing so, he forfeits the role of an honest broker.

President Obama’s position is at odds with the majority of the American people and most Democrats. It is out of step with most Senators and Representatives, who are empowered to initiate, bloc, suspend, amend and turn around policy. Therefore, Obama’s plan will not be implemented unless the Jewish State wastes its substantial base of American support, submitting itself to the pressure of a relatively-weak president, who is rapidly losing the “Bin Laden bonus,” and increasingly requires congressional cooperation in order to be reelected.

In fact, it was the pressure by congressional Democrats that forced Obama – against his worldview – to declare in his speech that “symbolic actions to isolate Israel at the UN in September won’t create an independent state.” In other words, the US will not tolerate a Palestinian Tsunami in the UN in September.