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Friday, June 5, 2009

I'm Bearish On Obama's Middle East Policy..and Here's Why

If you are diplomatice, you would say that President Obama is the most balanced president we've had when it comes to the Middle East. If you are more incendiary, you would call President Obama anti Israel. This new approach has excited some, and many in the Middle East are hopeful. I, however, am bearish and here's why.

The president has four main pillars to his Middle East policy. First, he wants a softer approach that he believes will win hearts and minds of the commoner on the Middle East street. Second, he believes that the center piece of his policy must be a successful two state solution to the Palestinian/Israeli crisis. Third, he wants to make an all out effort to create face to face dialogue with Iran. Fourth, he will take a much harder line with Israel and this starts with the issue of settlements. He also has de emphasized Iraq while emphasizing Afghanistan much more. Those two issues aren't as important to this discussion.

Here's why this will all fail miserably. First, by making the issue of settlements so important, he gives the Palestinians all the excuses they need to do nothing to stop the violence and hate. In other words, while rockets are lobbed and Hamas continues to insist on the destruction of Israel, Mahmoud Abbas will continue to insist that there's no progress because Israel hasn't halted their settlement expansion. As rockets continue to reign over Israel, you can bet Abbas will blame Israel's expansionist policies for the failure of the peace process to move forward. Abbas will simply refuse to do anything until Israel halts settlements, and Hamas will continue reigning terror in the meantime. Obama will be stuck. His insistence on Israel halting settlements is one of the pillars for winning hearts and minds. If he softens that, the rest of the Middle East will accuse him lying and making empty promises. As such, while the Palestinians continue regular terror, Obama will in fact continue to demand that Israel halt settlements. You can all see just how nice and neat the Israeli/Palestinian conflict will be solved if this happens.

From Israel's perspective, the citizens are waking up to the idea that President Obama doesn't have their best interest at heart. This means that PM Netanyahu not only has free reign to oppose Obama, but electorally he has no choice. Here's how Israeli journalist Caroline Glick put it.

The only silver lining for Israelis from the president’s speech in Cairo and his general positions on the Middle East is that Obama has overplayed his hand. Far from bending to his will, a large majority of Israelis perceives Obama as a hostile force and has rallied in support of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu against the administration. This public support gives Netanyahu the maneuver room he needs to take the actions that Israel needs to take to defend against the prospect of a nuclear armed Iran and to assert its national rights and to defend itself against Palestinian terrorists and other Arab and non-Arab anti-Semites who wish it ill.

So, Obama's open hostility to Israel means that Netanyahu will be that much less likely to give in on a range of issues, settlements included. So, President Obama will soon find that neither side will be very accomodating in his requests. With neither side cooperating, the two state solution stalls. With that stalling, this allows the rest of the Middle East to continue as normal blaming the stalemate on their own lack of progress on civil rights, democracy, and recognizing Israel. Given the importance that Obama has placed on it, it will be hard for him to press anyone.

This leads directly to the issue of Iran. While the president continues to pursue engagement, the clock is ticking for Israel. Unlike the president, PM Netanyahu simply can't wait to see if this engagement will work. At some point, he will have to attack Iran's nuclear sites. Such an attack would create serious instability in the region if not all out war. As soon as that happens, whatever progress he has made in the Middle East will be obliterated and the rest of the Middle East will likely blame the President for not stopping Israel from attacking. Once Netanyahu attacks Iran you can put to bed any ideas of a two state solution until long after Obama is out office, even if he wins a second term.

Finally, the president is downright arrogant about his geopolitical skills.

You've probably seen more sustained activity on this issue in the first five months than you would have seen in most previous administrations,” Obama said. “I think given what we've done so far, we've at least created the space, the atmosphere, in which talks can restart.

On a later conference call, a State Department official made the criticism more personal to President George W. Bush: "The president made clear that the United States, under his administration in the past few months, has probably done more than it had in the previous eight years.

During the news conference, Obama said: “Ultimately, the United States can't force peace upon the parties. But what we've tried to do is to clear away some of the misunderstandings so that we can at least begin to have frank dialogue. … We've only been in office five months, and yet we've seen extraordinary activity already on this issue. And that's sent a signal to all the parties in the Middle East that we are serious.”

In reality, the president has accomplished absolutely nothing. He's made a few speeches and sent a few diplomats to the region. The problems facing the region are deep and complicated, and outreach means very little. All this crowing about opening frank dialogue does is raise expectations well beyond where they reasonably should be. Obama believes his own hype and soon he'll discover that Middle East reality is far more complicated. His far too rosey initial assessments will then be used by all in the Middle East as a bludgeon against Obama when things don't actually improve. He will be accused of not following through. He will be accused of not engaging enough.

Ultimately, it won't matter very much if in fact all of this is true. One thing is certain. In the Middle East, tyrants and despots are very good at deflecting attention from their own deficiencies. When the Middle East looks like much more of a mess at the end of the year, you can bet that everyone will put the blame on Obama. His early optimism will only be used as a bludgeon.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


Wow. Also, since Dubya's still alive; and Cheney is out there talking; isn't it possible that the State Department's "blindness" to agreements can still get voices out there to be heard? Arik Sharon's "Gaza giveaway" certainly had "wink-wink" agreements made. What about the letter Arik got? Oh, and what about the personal letter the Saud's got out of Dubya in August 2001? Before they paid for 9/11?

I, too, am BEARISH on Obama. (But he's reaching for republican voters; hoping they also see him as giving them what they may want.) If in politics, it's all about numbers, then soon enough either Obama has created more votes for himself. Or less.

While Caroline Glick is saying Bibi Netanyahu's stock has risen. Bearish? Or Bullish? On that?