Obama’s Mideast priorities

On April 22, I appeared on a panel organized by The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, entitled “The Obama Administration and the Middle East: Setting Priorities, Taking Action.” Fellow panelists: Thomas Friedman, William Kristol, and David Makovsky. The proceedings have just been published, and they can be downloaded here. Below, my initial statement; go to the full proceedings for more.

I’m at a distinct advantage because I’m on a panel with partisan journalists, and I’m an academic. I’m entirely objective. [Laughter.] And I’m interested very much in ideas. You see, I don’t have any sources whispering in my ear. I just have to read texts and what people say and reach my best understanding of them.

This has been an interesting conference because we’ve heard a lot of reassurances, especially from General [Jim] Jones last night, that all of the administration’s priorities are in proper alignment. And I don’t want to question anyone’s good faith, but the fact is there are a lot of mixed messages coming out of this administration. And no one really knows whether this mixing reflects a clever strategy or is just a sign of confusion.

President Obama himself does it. A good example was his visit to Israel during the presidential campaign back in mid-2008. While in Sderot, he said, “A nuclear Iran would be a game-changing situation, not just in the Middle East but around the world. Whatever remains of our nuclear non- proliferation framework I think would begin to disintegrate.” That was a very powerful statement. And I call that “Obama 1.0.” We heard echoes of it last night in General Jones’s speech as well.

But then Obama, on the same trip, went off to Jordan and met with King Abdullah. And he came back and appeared on Meet the Press, where he said the following:

I think King Abdullah of Jordan is as savvy an analyst of the region and player in the region as there is. And one of the points he made and that I think a lot of people made is that we’ve got to have an overarching strategy recognizing that all these issues are connected.

If we can solve the Israeli-Palestinian process, then that will make it easier for Arab states and the Gulf states to support us when it comes to issues like Iraq and Afghanistan. It will also weaken Iran, which has been using Hamas and Hizballah as a way to stir up mischief in the region. If we’ve gotten an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, maybe at the same time peeling Syria out of the Iranian orbit, that makes it easier to isolate Iran so that they have a tougher time developing a nuclear weapon.

Ladies and gentlemen, that is the Obama policy formulated then, down to the letter. And I call it “Obama 2.0” because look at the shift that took place. The game-changer in the Middle East is no longer Iranian nuclear capabilities, but the peace process. This shift is one in which Iran essentially becomes subordinate to the peace process.

To my knowledge, Obama has not repeated the phrase “game-changing” since he made it in 2008 to describe the effect of Iranian nuclear weapons. In 2008, he said it was an extraordinary priority to stop Iran. Last month, he said it’s one of our highest priorities to make sure that Iran doesn’t possess a nuclear weapon. And the other day, Adm. Mike Mullen said that Iran has been a priority of this administration from the outset. So stopping Iran has gone from being an extraordinary priority to one of our highest priorities to a priority.

And then Bill [Kristol] had a very interesting piece the other day—I see it in front of him—about Admiral Mullen saying the following: “Iran getting a nuclear weapon would be incredibly destabilizing. Attacking them would also create the same kind of outcome.” Now, obviously, if the outcome from doing something and from doing nothing is the same, that’s a pretty powerful argument for doing nothing. But of course, it isn’t the same outcome. I’ll leave it to Bill to explain, perhaps, why this is what he has called a false equivalence—unless you’ve decided that a nuclear Iran is not a game-changer, but instead just a really big hassle.

Now, I admired Obama 1.0 for what I thought was a very clear-sighted vision. A nuclear Iran does change the game for the Middle East and for the world, as he said. Obama 2.0 seems to me very confused about priorities. And that’s because an Israeli-Palestinian deal, for whatever merits it has and whatever limitations it’s obviously going to have, doesn’t change the game. It rearranges the pieces on the board, possibly to give one a slight advantage.

For example, the spat over housing in Jerusalem looks to me like something totally out of proportion. Excuse me for saying so, but the controversy over Ramat Shlomo—1,600 building units in Jerusalem—made Obama look like the captain of a ship rearranging 1,600 deck chairs on a vessel headed straight toward an iceberg. And that’s how I would describe the first year of the Obama administration. We’re on a ship. The iceberg is straight ahead. Everyone can see it. And the administration has been busy rearranging the deck chairs. [Applause.]