Business Times - 24 Feb 2010
Obama drifting into war with Iran
He's more dependent on support from conservative Democrats and Republicans who want tougher action against Teheran
By LEON HADAR
IT is quite possible that confounding the conventional wisdom, the Obama administration has been conducting secret negotiations with Iran that could open way to a diplomatic detente between the two governments. It is also possible that Washington is working behind the scenes with the Israelis and Palestinians to create the conditions for bringing about a peace accord between these two peoples.
It's possible but not so probable.
Even if something has been going on in that not-that-much-utilised sphere of 'secret diplomacy' - and once upon a time diplomacy used to be secret and went 'public' only after the deals were made - one would expect in this era of 24/7 news coverage opponents of American-Iranian dialogue in Washington and Teheran and Israeli and Palestinian 'rejectionists' - not to mention American neocons - to successfully torpedo these initiatives through relentless media exposure.
It is difficult to imagine former president Richard Nixon and his national security adviser Henry Kissinger pulling off in our media-saturated political environment the kind of secret diplomacy that had led to the US opening to China.
Their bureaucratic enemies would be leaking the story to Fox News and The Weekly Standard would be demanding that Dr K be fired before you could even say Chop Suey or Chow Mein.
Indeed, it's the politics, stupid! President Barack Obama has failed to turn his two major Middle East policy initiatives - engagement with Iran and Israeli-Palestinian peace - into reality because they were based on very weak political foundations. At times it seems as though Mr Obama assumed that opponents of these initiatives would be overwhelmed, if not crushed, by the power of his personal charisma and media stardom.
If his predecessor had fantasised that 'hard power' in the form of US military force doing 'regime change' could help remake the Middle East into a zone of peace, democracy and free markets, Mr Obama seemed to have operated under the illusion that application of 'soft power' - his historic addresses to the Muslim World in Istanbul and Cairo and his television interviews and YouTube appearances targeting Arab and Iranian audiences - would do the job.
While there is no doubt that Mr Obama has been successful in improving the American brand name in the Middle East (which wasn't such a difficult mission when you get to perform after George W Bush), he has yet to draw the outlines of coherent and realistic policy objectives in Iran and Israel/Palestine.
The notion that Washington would be willing to negotiate with Teheran and to activate the 'peace process' in the Holy Land may sound very forward-looking when contrasted with the approach embraced by Bush 43 but not when compared to the policies pursued by other US presidents, including Bush 41.
From that perspective, it was George W Bush who attempted to transform traditional American foreign policy in the Middle East in the aftermath of 9/11; Mr Obama has been trying to rewind it back to first diplomatic principles of negotiating compromises and making peace.
In fact, preFvious US presidents had negotiated and made deals with leaders and governments who under any moral yardstick would have been considered even more 'evil' than the ayatollahs in Teheran - and that includes Mao Zedong's China; the United States had even formed a military alliance with Joseph Stalin's Soviet Union during World War II. And it has been partnering Islamic fundamentalist regimes (Saudi Arabia) and groups (the mujahidin in Soviet-occupied Afghanistan) for quite a long time.
Nor did Mr Obama's demand that the Israeli government put a freeze on its building of Jewish settlements in occupied Arab territories amounts to such a radical change in US policy. If anything, it did not even come close to the kind of statements and policies adopted by his predecessors in office, including Bush 41, who had threatened Jerusalem with sanctions when it resisted US pressure. Again, it was George W Bush who overturned US policy by treating Israeli settlements in the occupied land with a modicum of benign neglect.
To put it in simple terms, all that Mr Obama has been trying to do was to reverse George W Bush's radical policies in the Middle East in the spirit of the more realistic agendas advocated by conservative figures such as Brent Scowcroft, Bush 41's national security adviser.
But after entering the White House and dispatching the respected former senator George Mitchell to the Middle East, Mr Obama was not able to put his policy where his mouth was during the campaign. One reason for that failure had to do with the legacy left to him by George W Bush. The ousting of Iraq's Saddam Hussein and other US policies (having an election in the Palestinian territories; giving Israel the green light to attack Lebanon) helped strengthen the power of Iran and its regional satellites (Hamas and Hizbollah) while providing Teheran with more incentives to develop a nuclear military capacity (to deter an American military attack).
In short, George W Bush's policies played into the hands of the more anti-American elements in Teheran while enhancing the bargaining power of the Iranians vis-a-vis Washington. His policies made it likely that Iran would be less accommodative towards any initiative coming from what it perceived to be a militarily and economically damaged US, even if the less belligerent Mr Obama is calling now the shots in Washington.
At the same time, the US policy under George W Bush helped accelerate a shift towards the political right in Israel. The Bush administration's last foreign-policy decision - giving Israel the green light to launch a devastating assault on the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip - helped ignite ultra-nationalist and anti-Arab sentiment among the majority of Israelis.
New Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has activated his old neocon troops in Washington, asking them to launch a major offensive against the 'appeaser' in the White House, hoping to bring political pressure on MP Obama.
Mr Obama could have certainly surprised Mr Netanyahu by proving that he does have it in his gut - by saying 'no' to Mr Netanyahu, a move that would have been a blessing to both Israel and the US. But by counting on political support at home and in Washington, Mr Netanyahu was able to resist the diplomatic pressure from Mr Obama and to ensure that the US president's diplomatic initiative would reach a dead-end.
That Mr Obama decided not to pursue a more confrontational approach towards Mr Netanyahu could be explained in part by the economic and political constraints operating on him at home. Even under the best-case scenario, there would have been limits to the Obama administration's ability to bring about a Middle East peace and to reach a deal with Iran that would have required US concessions.
Ironically, while Mr Obama's failure to get the peace process going angered Palestinians, his limited effort to do that has also antagonised many Israelis. Similarly, Mr Obama's initial resistance to the idea of the US government interjecting itself into Iran's political upheaval has alienated the members of pro-democracy opposition in Teheran, demonstrating once again that whenever the US tries to 'do something' in the Middle East, it ends up annoying some of the players and creates the conditions for an anti-American backlash.
In any case, a less-than-vigorous economic recovery coupled with Mr Obama's mounting domestic political problems as dramatised by the loss of the Democratic Senate seat in Massachusetts has made it even more difficult for Mr Obama to pursue his Middle East initiatives.
Now he is even more dependent on support from conservative Democrats and Republicans, who in some cases tend to be even more pro-Israeli than the average Israeli, and who are pressing for tougher action against Iran.
Indeed, in many respects, raising the diplomatic and economic pressure on Iran may have become the path of least political resistance for Mr Obama. It's a policy that enjoys bipartisan support on Capitol Hill, gets the backing of Mr Obama's national security team and brings together the Saudis and the Israelis.
Unlike his predecessor who had rushed into war in Iraq, Mr Obama is probably not eager for a military confrontation with Iran. But with all the talk about Iran's alleged nuclear military threat, the constant use of the Ahmadinejad-is-Hitler analogy, the calls for American support for a democratic Iran, and the anti-Iran mood on Capitol Hill, the media and the public, it's not surprising that many in Washington are feeling a sense of deja vu.
We've seen that movie, and that it, well, bombed.
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