Obama’s Mid­dle East strat­egy left in tat­ters

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - Tony Blank­ley

This White House, like its pre­de­ces­sors, can take some com­fort in the fact that the Mid­dle East has been break­ing the hearts of diplo­mats and for­eign politi­cians for at least 2,000 years. Of course, some cen­turies have been worse than oth­ers. (Pon­tius Pi­late had a par­tic­u­larly dif­fi­cult in­ning.) But in mod­ern times, the Amer­i­can vot­ing pub­lic has be­come ac­cus­tomed to see­ing reg­u­lar news from the Mid­dle East fea­ture wars, terrorism, may­hem, re­li­gious fa­nati­cism and failed peace ini­tia­tives.

As a re­sult, few pres­i­dents pay much of a price at elec­tion time for fail­ing to de­liver peace or other con­spic­u­ous diplo­matic suc­cesses from that cra­dle of civ­i­liza­tion and birth­place of the three great Abra­hamic re­li­gions. I cer­tainly am not pre­pared to pre­dict that Pres­i­dent Obama will lose many votes in 2012 based on his Mid­dle East pol­icy.

And yet, events of re­cent weeks are be­gin­ning to sug­gest a sin­gu­lar mo­ment of U.S. pol­icy in­ef­fec­tive­ness — even in­ept­ness.

Two months ago, the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s dither­ing about, and then un­der­min­ing of, Pres­i­dent Hosni Mubarak’s gov­ern­ment in Eygpt out­raged both Saudi Ara­bia and the kids on the street dur­ing the up­ris­ing.

That “Demo­cratic revo­lu­tion,” as the ad­min­is­tra­tion per­sis­tently called it, seems to have set­tled down into an ugly ac­cord be­tween the army-run gov­ern­ment, the Mus­lim Brother­hood and the fa­nat­i­cal Salafists — whom Mr. Mubarak had im­pris­oned but the new regime has been re­leas­ing. Killing Cop­tic Chris­tians, at­tack­ing women on the street for wear­ing non-Mus­lim garb and other pre-Mubarak at­ti­tudes are thus back in vogue in “demo­cratic” Egypt.

The ad­min­is­tra­tion’s in­con­sis­tent poli­cies in Tu­nisia, Egypt, Syria, Libya, Lebanon, Iran, Ye­men and else­where con­tinue to baf­fle and con­fuse the world.

Ear­lier this month, the ad­min­is­tra­tion was “sur­prised” at the Egyp­tian-bro­kered ac­cord be­tween the ter­ror­ist Ha­mas and the West Bank Fatah Pales­tinian fac­tions, end­ing even a the­o­ret­i­cal chance of Is­raeliPales­tinian ne­go­ti­a­tions.

Then, two weeks ago — with King Ab­dul­lah of Jor­dan and Is­raeli Prime Min­ster Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu sched­uled to be in Wash­ing­ton for sep­a­rate ma­jor dis­cus­sions with the pres­i­dent (and Mr. Ne­tanyahu sched­uled to ad­dress a joint session of Congress) — the pres­i­dent’s Mid­dle East peace en­voy, Ge­orge Mitchell, an­nounced he was quit­ting sum­mar­ily.

The day be­fore Mr. Mitchell’s pub­lic res­ig­na­tion, the White House an­nounced that last week, the pres­i­dent would be giv­ing his sec­ond ma­jor outreach speech to “the Mus­lim world” — an inapt, mono­lithic term for a vastly var­ie­gated fifth of mankind.

The first speech in June 2009 was at the famed Al-Azhar Univer­sity in Cairo.

The May 19 speech was to be de­liv­ered at the rather less spec­tac­u­lar State Depart­ment in Wash­ing­ton.

Sur­pris­ingly, ac­cord­ing to the Wall Street Jour­nal, the speech was to men­tion the killing of Osama bin Laden.

As the news­pa­per re­ported, the pres­i­dent “will ask those in the Mid­dle East and be­yond to re­ject Is­lamic mil­i­tancy in the wake of Osama bin Laden’s death and em­brace a new era of re­la­tions with the U.S.”

What makes all this awk­ward (at a min­i­mum) is that the ad­min­is­tra­tion has al­ways ar­gued that the ab­sence of peace be­tween Arabs and Is­raelis has been at the cen­ter of Mid­dle East chaos — and that a peace ac­cord is the first, nec­es­sary step to broader res­o­lu­tion of Mid­dle East prob­lems.

But the Mitchell res­ig­na­tion is seen across the spec­trum as con­vinc­ing ev­i­dence that the pres­i­dent’s Mid­dle East peace process is dead, which makes last week’s high-level talks with the pres­i­dent, the king and the prime min­is­ter ex­er­cises in em­bar­rass­ing ir­rel­e­vancy.

Usu­ally, Cabi­net-level staff mem­bers at­tempt to in­su­late a pres­i­dent from di­rect re­spon­si­bil­ity for failed poli­cies.

But, cu­ri­ously, in light of this melt­down of ad­min­is­tra­tion Mid­dle East pol­icy, Thomas E. Donilon, the White House’s na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser, told the New York Times, “[the pres­i­dent] has re­ally been the cen­tral in­tel­lec­tual force in these de­ci­sions, in many cases, designing the ap­proaches.”

The same ar­ti­cle re­ported that they were told by White House staff that the pres­i­dent “of­ten surfs the blogs of ex­perts on Arab af­fairs or re­gional news sites to get a lo­cal fla­vor for events . . . [and] has sounded out prom­i­nent jour­nal­ists like Fa­reed Zakaria of Time mag­a­zine and CNN and Thomas L. Fried­man . . . [and] or­dered staff mem­bers to study tran­si­tions in 50 to 60 coun­tries.”

Wash­ing­ton staffers are fa­mous for try­ing to take credit for their boss’ suc­cesses.

But one rarely has the treat of see­ing a top staffer go on the record in the New York Times giv­ing his boss full per­sonal credit for a failed pol­icy.

The more dis­turb­ing pos­si­ble con­clu­sion from the Donilon quote is that both Mr. Obama and his staff ac­tu­ally be­lieve they are car­ry­ing out a suc­cess­ful Mid­dle East pol­icy.

Tony Blank­ley is the au­thor of “Amer­i­can Grit: What It Will Take to Sur­vive and Win in the 21st Cen­tury” (Reg­n­ery, 2009) and vice pres­i­dent of the Edel­man pub­lic re­la­tions firm in Wash­ing­ton.

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