Commentary Magazine


RE: Reality Intrudes

What are we to make of the latest comments about the peace process from President Obama? In recent weeks, the White House has run the gamut of approaches: blistering public criticism and harsh personal treatment of Netanyahu; leaks that the administration might impose a “solution” on the parties; leaks that Dennis Ross is a dual-loyalist; leaks that administration advisers are “all over the map” about how to approach the issue; and now, defeatism from an obviously chastened president.

Right now, we are in a phase of trying to understand what might be called the Arabesque of Obama. Sometimes it looks as though he has a coherent — however mistaken — grand vision of how to navigate the region: we’ll knock the Israelis into line, and then the Palestinians and Arabs will come around, and then we’ll ride the success of the peace process over to Tehran, where we’ll deal with the nuclear problem through diplomacy, and so on. None of this had any chance of working, but at least it had the appearance of being a strategy.

And then sometimes it looks like there’s no grand vision at all — he’s just winging it, he has impulses but no strategy, he doesn’t think very far down the line about the consequences of his actions, he dismisses the caution of his predecessors on the grounds that they didn’t have the Obama magic, his advisers disagree on basic questions, etc — and this is why he keeps smacking his head into the same problems.

One week the president is issuing ultimatums from on high, and the next he’s resigned to the limitations of his own influence. What is Obama up to, exactly?

At this point, I’m inclined toward believing that he’s winging it, or more precisely, that he’s been indulging his instincts on the Middle East, which are ideological and incoherent instincts. As someone with ample diplomatic experience emailed to me:

[Obama] has laid out a perfectly incoherent, self-contradictory policy. 1.) The solution to the Iran nuclear threat and all the other problems of the region depends on the outcome of the Israel-Palestinian problem; 2.) The US is at odds with Israel regarding this outcome; 3.) The US is considering presenting its own plan for a solution; 4.) Either party to the conflict can block a solution and the US can do nothing about it because the US cannot impose solutions; 5.) The Iran nuclear threat cannot be stopped unless the Israel-Palestinian problem is solved.

How is Obama going to extricate himself from the trap he has set for himself? He’s already done serious damage to his relations with the Israelis and gotten nothing in return for it from the Arabs. At this point, nobody knows which Obama — and which Obama ambition — they’re going to have to deal with next week, next month, or next year, so the best they can do is dig in and protect themselves the best they can. And in this fog of confusion, and amid the administration’s obsession with Israeli zoning decisions, countries like Syria seize the opportunity to do things like ship Scud missiles to Hezbollah. If Obama is learning anything, hopefully it is that his nuance and experimentation are making the Middle East a more dangerous place.