Commentary Magazine


Humility Isn’t in the Obami Repertoire

Elliott Abrams sums up the mess that is the result of a year of the Obami’s “smart” Mideast policy:

So the Obama administration’s Middle East adventures in 2009 came to a close with Netanyahu, whom the administration has never much liked or treated well, stronger politically; and Abbas, whom the administration wished to strengthen, weaker and talking of retirement. In Arab capitals the failure of the United States to stop Iran’s nuclear program is understood as American weakness in the struggle for dominance in the Middle East, making additional cooperation from Arab leaders on Israeli-Palestinian issues even less likely. A strongly pro-American former Israeli official shook his head as he evaluated the Obama record in 2009: “This is what happens when -arrogance and clumsiness come together.”

While George Mitchell prattles on about a time limit on peace negotiations that have no starting point, no attendees, and no hope of success, Abrams suggests there is another way: forget the “peace process,” the endless churning of diplomats in European capitals with the same impediments to meaningful progress (not the least of which is a viable Palestinian negotiating partner for Israel), and instead create “a Palestinian state from the bottom up, institution by institution, and ending with Israeli withdrawal and negotiation of a state only when Palestinian political life is truly able to sustain self-government, maintain law and order, and prevent terrorism against Israel.” Despite the inescapable logic of the idea and the presence of Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, who is devoted to such an approach, the Obami seem insistent on trotting out Mitchell to rehash what has been tried not for only a year but for a couple decades.

It’s worth asking why the Obama team has yet to see the light, and why Mitchell digs in, ever insistent on spinning a fantasy world in which he imagines that, in just the right setting (what, Vienna instead of Oslo or Annapolis?), and with just the right mumbo-jumbo rhetoric, and with enough sanctimonious condescension about past administrations’ failed efforts, there will be a breakthrough. We have to ask: doesn’t he realize how ridiculous he sounds?

Well, neither Obama nor his minions appear to have much self-awareness, whether about the Middle East or any other aspect of their not-very-smart diplomacy. They pat themselves on the back as they slip the trap they have set for themselves (be it in Honduras in backing, and then abandoning, Manuel Zelaya, or imposing and then dropping the precondition of Israel’s agreement on an absolute settlement freeze), but they never advance past their initial starting point.

One gets the sense that the Obami regard their own earnestness and the number of frequent-flier miles accumulated by Mitchell as ends unto themselves. Look how hard they’re trying! It’s a pattern of self-congratulation not uncommon to the Obama team, which is long on meetings and short on results.

But there’s also something else at play here: if the Obami were to follow Abrams’s advice, where would be the glory in it for them? As Abrams describes it, institution-building by definition is a process undertaken by Palestinians for Palestinians. Abrams quotes Fayyed: “This is our agenda, and we want to pursue it doggedly” (emphasis added). Indeed there is nothing much for Mitchell to go on Charlie Rose to crow about. It’s not about them. There is an art and a certain humility required to step back, to allow the Palestinians to earn their own statehood. And humility is something in very short supply in the Obama administration. So let’s not get our hopes up that the Obami will see the light and try a different approach with some chance of success.

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