Obama Can’t Do Multitasking
Though the President of the United States is responsible for the management of the nation’s foreign policy he hardly has a free hand. Congress has increasingly been playing a role utilizing its power to legislate and also its control over the federal budget while various non-government constituencies within the United States have the ability to influence elections and media perceptions of the Administration. Those groups have inevitably become part of the process, which has also become more complicated due to the fact that foreign policy, which for the Founders consisted largely of protecting Americans overseas, has since the Second World War been conflated with national security and defense, making it increasingly difficult to identify and pursue clear cut interests. The result is that though foreign policy is not a major concern for most Americans at the White House level it consumes a disproportionate amount of time and energy while the instant news cycle and a reflexively hostile GOP make every possible misstep fraught with peril.
The Barack Obama administration’s foreign policy has been characterized by numerous errors caused by vacillating perceptions of what national interests are actually at play in any developing situation. That dysfunction is largely a result of differing visions of America’s place in the world, whether it is to serve as a last resort instrument to make people behave, however that is defined, or as a realistically driven force that does what it needs to do to support its own interests, however they are defined. Both realism and idealism are represented within the cabinet in the persons of Kerry and Hagel versus Rice and Powers.
The political schizophrenia is nowhere more evident than in the Middle East, where the Administration has proven adept at going one step forward followed by two steps back in an attempt to assuage a gaggle of allies who are not really allies and to advance certain interests that are not actually genuine interests for the United States. This has produced a series of foreign policy initiatives that are simple and linear, dealing with one issue at a time without any consideration for an overall strategy which would admittedly require a better understanding of complex interrelationships and conflicting claims. The Obama Administration has sometimes attempted to play this weakness off as a strength by ignoring the linkages in an attempt to make all the conflicting constituencies happy.
Witness the current Iran policy and Israel-Palestine. If one is actually concerned about the development of Iran as a regional hegemon, it is essential to appreciate that the two issues are linked in that much of Iran’s appeal is due to the fact that it is able to exploit Muslim resentment over the treatment of the Palestinians by Israel. Iran, though Shi’a, appears to be a stalwart protector of the Palestinian cause that is willing to stand up and oppose Israel while the neighboring Arab states do little more than talk and send an occasional check. Resolving the Palestinian problem would weaken Hezbollah in Lebanon, Iran’s closest ally, and would allow traditional Sunni-Shi’a resentments to surface and predominate, further reducing Iran’s influence.
So it would be in the United States’ interest to incrementally create the conditions that would permit the creation of an actual Palestinian state while at the same time reducing Iran’s incentives to seek a possible nuclear weapon by addressing its genuine security concerns. All of which requires a multilateral approach. But Israel does not want that linkage because it would disrupt its plans to acquire all of the West Bank while expelling its Palestinian residents. So what does the White House do? It comes down on both sides of every issue whenever it possibly can, criticizing the growth of Israeli settlements while at the same time doing nothing to stop them and doing even less to expedite the development of a viable Palestinian state. Regarding Iran, it takes a first step to address that nation’s nuclear program while simultaneously sending signals that any Iran enrichment program will be forbidden, guaranteeing that future talks will fail.
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The policy within the policy is designed to avoid having to confront directly the Israel Lobby, which is unrelenting in its drive to have its viewpoint be the only acceptable narrative to be found inside the Beltway. The Lobby is constantly bringing allies into the fold to challenge the White House. For example, in May The Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA), provided an all-expenses paid trip to Israel for thirteen recently retired American generals and admirals. The officers were wined and dined by their hosts and last month issued a report that not surprisingly agreed with the Netanyahu government on virtually everything, to wit any agreement that allows Iranian enrichment of uranium is an “ugly deal,” while endorsing the ridiculous theory that ratcheting up pain on Iranians through more sanctions will result in a revolution that will sweep the Mullahs from power. They also recommended consideration of a military strike to delay Iran’s alleged plan to develop a nuclear weapon and described elections in Arab countries as a bad idea because they are a “tool for Islamic parties to seize power.” Yes indeed, and breaking up Syria is good for Israel because it would “interrupt the conduit for Iran’s support to Hamas, Hezbollah and other terrorist groups…” For what it’s worth, former Secretary of State Colin Powell has publicly blamed JINSA and its friends inside the Bush Administration for conniving to bring about the war with Iraq in 2003.
Another key Lobby component the Washington Institute for Near Eastern Policy (WINEP), an American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) spin off, also found itself in the limelight last month regarding the nomination of the latest in a long series of advisers for the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Even though the negotiations will never go anywhere without effective pressure from the United States on Tel Aviv to roll back the settlements and eventually dismantle most of them, the beat goes on year after year. Everyone involved on both sides knows that it is all a waste of time but knowing something and wanting to do anything about it are two different things.
The new negotiator is David Makovsky of WINEP, who is the brother of Michael Makovsky, Chief Executive Officer of JINSA. He will be working for Martin Indyk, who also came out of WINEP after a stint at AIPAC. Makovsky is a political ally and bookmate of Dennis Ross, “Israel’s lawyer” on the former State Department negotiating team, so it is clear where he stands politically. He, like Indyk, nominally supports a two state solution to Israel Palestine while permitting negotiations to go on and on so Benjamin Netanyahu can steal still more Arab land in a process that is sometimes referred by the euphemism “managing the conflict.” Makovsky recently produced a New York Times op-ed that urged the European Union to get tough with the Palestinians and force them to talk with the Israelis. Apart from that Makovsky reflects pretty much the Israeli view that much of the West Bank will have to be annexed and that all of Jerusalem and contiguous areas on the West Bank are part of Israel. He has even produced a map to show what the two states might look like. The Palestinians would get some bits of desert to compensate for the lost fertile land and they should stop dreaming of Palestine as it once was as there will be no right to return to their former homes.
I would hate to think that the White House is deliberately sacrificing the Palestinians in order to obtain some breathing room on Iran, which it considers more important, even though it is possibly resigned to losing that fight as well. That assessment of the relative importance of the two issues may be true strategically speaking, but America’s failure to deal with all foreign nations fairly and to judge their behavior by the same standards means that the United States stands for absolutely nothing, having abandoned a broader vision and having adopted a policy of tradeoffs to obtain little more than temporary advantages in its dealings with much of the world.