The length of time Obama has had so far to exert an impact on the Middle East is short. But even in that short time he has managed to signal significant shifts in the character of US policy – the least of which, although they do matter, are his stance on Iraq, and his campaign, unfolding last week, to impress the Arab Muslim world with his special solicitude.
Although it is not necessarily his most important signal, Obama’s effort to cultivate Arab Muslims has been uniquely intensive and taken some rather bizarre forms. The celebrated bow to Saudi King Abdullah during a G-20 conference is probably the most famous incident, and one that Americans justly object to on several levels. But Obama’s proposal to appoint Charles Freeman, former ambassador to Saudi Arabia and a long-time lobbyist for the Saudis, to chair the National Intelligence Council was another questionable gesture: one that would have put an avowedly Arabist perspective in a position to influence the strategic direction of US national intelligence.
Clinton and both Bushes pursued Arab-friendly policies; it is not cooperation and friendship with Arabs that are eccentric. Indeed, the US has managed to act as a stabilizing influence for decades precisely because we pursue partnership with the Arab nations as well as with Israel and Turkey (and, under more favorable conditions, Iran). When George W. Bush approved a multi-billion dollar nuclear energy cooperation deal with the UAE, in the last week of his presidency, this was not seen as peculiar favoritism toward an Arab nation. When Obama reaffirmed the deal in May, after a videotape had surfaced of an Emirati sheikh torturing a prisoner, and additional concerns from US legislators put the deal in question, even overseas commentary couched the deal in terms of Obama making special concessions reflective of his solicitude for Arabs – and of the threat perceived by Arabs in his conciliatory policies toward Iran, and the need to mitigate it with special gestures.
Whatever his subsequent concrete actions, with his speech in Cairo on 4 June Obama has guaranteed that they will be interpreted in light of the staging effort for that speech – which put him in a great hall filled with Arabs and was broadcast throughout the Muslim world – and of his unprecedented care to speak in reverent terms of the “holy Qu’ran,” among other rhetorical devices. Previous American presidents, speaking of the Qu’ran, have dispensed with the special reverence and the qualifier. They have, to a man, been Christians, and have spoken respectfully, but not with an untoward reverence, of other religions. There is no getting around the fact that Obama’s manner and actions have combined to suggest a special personal affinity on his part, not merely for Muslims (“America is not a Christian nation”; “America is one of the largest Muslim nations”), but for Arab Muslims.
This somewhat oddly-constructed charm offensive (which, we must remember, has entailed a deep bow by our head of state to the Saudi king, something no American president had ever done before any monarch) forms a strong contrast with Obama’s posture on Iran and her nuclear ambitions. However Americans may parse and re-parse his communications on that topic, the Arabs of the Middle East are alarmed at what they perceive as an effective relinquishment, on Obama’s part, of options that could prevent Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons, without requiring destabilizing concessions to Iran.
Individual observers were reporting as far back as March that Arabs, especially those in the Gulf nations, have grave fears about the trend of Obama’s policy toward Iran. Their concern is specifically that his focus on engagement and friendly overtures, without strictures or preconditions, means an Iranian nuclear weapon is inevitable – unless, perhaps, Obama plans to sell America’s Gulf Arab partners down the river in a “grand bargain,” as the Russian report on the UAE nuclear power deal put it.
Later reports in May, like the ones here and here, record Saudi Arabia and Egypt publicly requesting assurances from Obama that his overtures to Iran will not come, in their words, “at [their] expense.” A point Americans should consider is that the Middle Eastern Arabs may well be seeing a salient aspect of Obama’s political profile – as a cynical Chicago-style manipulator – more clearly than we do. It was obvious when Bush left office that he would not be putting an end to Iran’s nuclear ambitions before his departure; but our Arab partners nevertheless did not suspect him of intending to make “grand bargains” with Iran at their expense. The concerns began to emerge after Obama shifted America’s diplomatic and rhetorical stance – even though in terms of concrete actions related directly to Iran, he has done little that Bush had not already tried.
Context matters. Few things Obama has done will haunt his reputation, throughout his presidency, like the secret letter to Moscow in which he offered to negotiate away the planned missile defense sites in Europe, in exchange for Russia’s “help” with Iran. This action not only branded him as a behind-the-scenes dealer and betrayer of allies (in that case, NATO allies Poland and the Czech Republic), but as weak on missile defense. His subsequent budget cuts to America’s missile defense program – cuts that have been juxtaposed throughout the spring with missile launches by North Korea and Iran – have only tended to confirm the latter impression of him. Arab intelligence services are probably clearer than the average American on the precise impact of the Obama budget cuts on missile defense, one of which is leaving America’s only missile defense site in North America incomplete, with a number of its existing silos unfilled, and a second silo array cancelled.
If Obama is that unconcerned about missile defense for the United States, and for Europe, how much less might he be about missile defense for Middle Eastern Arabs? And indeed, regardless of his sentiments one way or another, how do budget cuts for missile defense development square with defending Arabs in the Middle East against Iranian missiles at all?
We should note, before turning to other points, that Obama making secret communications to Russia is the action most likely to give those in the Middle East grounds for suspicion. The appearance created is that Obama is either in league with Russia in the region (or wants to be), or that he is simply a fool. One hates to employ such words, but in this case, there really is no other. If Obama sincerely sought the good offices of Russia in dealing with Iran, that approach seems to argue that he actually does not understand Russia’s energetic existing efforts to both arm Iran, make Iran pay through the nose for that benefit, and advance on the Middle East on multiple axes – through Turkey, Syria, and a resumption of naval influence in contiguous waters, as well as through her uneasy partnership with Iran.
Russia is not a disinterested outsider in the Middle East: she wants in in the worst way, and moreover has been at pains to repudiate joint action with the United States for some years now. It would require no more than marginal competence for Obama’s advisors to understand that, and apprise him of it; yet he made a secret overture to Moscow anyway, essentially seeking to secure the cooperation of the fox in sorting out affairs in the henhouse – and offering to remove the fence around the next henhouse down the road, as the enticement. Russia’s interests in the Middle East are directly antithetical to America’s. Either Obama deals deceptively, or he has no idea what he is doing.
Yet another ambiguous signal has been Obama’s statements regarding Iraq. While he has announced that the US will not pull troops out any sooner than Iraq’s internal security situation allows, he also made it one of the first acts of his presidency to proclaim a date certain – August 2010 – on which American forces there would no longer be on a “combat” footing. He placed great rhetorical emphasis, in his speech about this topic, on the fact that combat would end at a specified time; it was not a signal that required interpretation or analysis.
I was surprised, myself, at how relatively few Americans seemed to understand the strategic failure it represents, to inform the enemy (e.g., jihadists in Iraq, and their state sponsors in Iran and Syria) of the date on which you plan to stop fighting. But we may be certain that there is no lack of understanding of this point in the Arab capitals – as there most certainly is not in Tehran. It does not matter in the slightest that Obama probably did this as a gesture to his domestic political supporters: he probably did, but that fact does not mitigate in any way the strategic shortsightedness of it. That he would say something, at all, so guaranteed to give hope, and a pragmatic planning factor, to the enemies of stable democratic government in Iraq, speaks poorly of his statesmanship, his understanding of foreign conflict, and his commitment to Iraq’s security and integrity under her new government. The anxiety level of the Saudis, as they nurture their effort to counter Iranian influence in Iraq, would have accelerated upward with Obama’s unsound approach to communicating on this head.
It is in the context of these peculiar signals that we must judge the effect, on Arab nations’ propensity to unify and energize, of Obama’s signals regarding Israel. As recounted in the introduction, Obama’s administration has held up Israeli arms requests, implied a possible withdrawal of diplomatic support for Israel in the UN, and refused to comment on the US commitments from the 2004 exchange of letters between Bush and Sharon. Obama himself has warned Israel explicitly not to surprise him with a strike on Iran (a clear signal – very possibly a CYA – that if it happens, it was done without his consent), and, perhaps most significantly, has insisted categorically that Israel must stop all expansion of the West Bank settlements.
Without any collateral regard expressed for “defensible borders” for Israel, that demand amounts to insisting that Israel acknowledge an outside veto on her national security. Obama has not qualified the demand in any way. While we would not normally expect a statesman at his level to speak in terms of specific settlements, or criteria for measuring “expansion,” it is entirely proper to watch for an acknowledgment from him that this is a national security issue for Israel. The standard reference for that, in diplomatic shorthand, has become the nod to “defensible borders.” With all his bowing, no such nod has been detectable from Obama.
So Iran and the Arabs are left to make what they will of that set of circumstances. Ironically, if he were deliberately trying, Obama could hardly have sent a series of signals better suited to encouraging the Arab Middle East to realign for a struggle with Iran, over regional hegemony and the conquest of Israel.
With his unique overtures to Arabs as Arabs, and as Arab Muslims, Obama appears to be implying that Arab actions will have his a priori approval more than has been the case in the past. Apply that principle in conjunction with his apparent disengagement from Israel’s security, specifically on the matter of settlements, and one consequence is certainly the perception of a green light to attack Israel by proxy, through the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.
With his conciliatory posture toward Iran, his softening posture on missile defense, and his ambiguous signals on Iraq, Obama appears to be implying that whatever may stand between the Arab nations and Iranian intimidation, it is less likely than it once was to be American force. If American disengagement from Israeli security is a carrot to Arab realignment, the stick is American disengagement from the Middle Eastern stability on which the Arabs rely for their security against Iran. The leaders of the Middle East are not nearly as interested in being flattered and understood by America’s president as they are in benefitting from his nation’s determination to prevent a hostile hegemon from emerging in the region, and to keep its tradeways open and accessible to all.
Finally, with his overall policy ambiguity, superficial iconoclasm, and tentativeness – e.g., regarding longstanding Middle East policy, saber-rattling by North Korea, personal relations with hostile leaders like Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales – Obama appears to be signaling that he might not view activism in the Middle East, by rival great powers, with the reflexive disfavor of (most of) his predecessors. The short and blunt way to put this would be that he looks like a squish, to Russia and China.
But this is not merely due to tics and quirks in his personality: it is due far more to the overall trend of his actions and words since he took office, and to his ineffectiveness in policy leadership even among America’s allies. In key attempts to gain concrete action from Europe, for example – in committing fresh troops to Afghanistan, and in pursuing his economic stimulus policy in the EU – Obama has struck out. His attempts to leverage China in addressing threats from North Korea have likewise produced nothing tangible. Within weeks of his assuming office, Russia sounded the death knell for any US hopes of Moscow being “helpful” in negotiating with Iran on her nuclear program. Bush did not cover himself with glory in that regard, but it was not until Obama took office, and made his back channel offer to Moscow on the missile defense sites in Europe, that Medvedev’s ambassador to the US officially stated that Russia doesn’t think Iran’s nuclearization poses a threat at all. No threat – no need for negotiation, incentives, or leverage. Door closed.
We must not miss the significance of this latter development. It matters that Russia decided, in April, to cease evincing even pro forma respect for the US position on Iran’s nuclear aspirations as a threat. The wording used by Ambassador Kislyak should also not be missed. In stating that Iran does not pose a threat to the US, he implied both that the Iranian missile threat does not warrant missile defense sites in Europe (which would serve a dual function, defending North America against missiles launched from Iran, as well as Europe), and that the US does not have interests in the Middle East – interests that would be threatened by a nuclear-armed Iran – that are acknowledged by Russia.
This statement puts an exclamation mark on a nearly year-long campaign by Russia to overtly supersede – perhaps even disrupt – the world order that has been centered on US leadership and American alliances. I developed this theme in “Not Your Father’s Cold War,” in February, with a reference to a Russian proposal made to the Atlantic Defense Council (the NATO political body) in July 2008, to organize a broader-based security mechanism that would supervene NATO. Russia has been sounding this note in her foreign policy signals ever since, pushing overtly for new security arrangements in which the US is subsumed, and Russia is ceded an equality of influence and leadership she would not attain otherwise. That Russia seeks to shift the relative influence of herself and America in the Eastern hemisphere is unquestioned; and Russian statements that cease, even by increments, to acknowledge formally-declared US interests there, have to be viewed in that context.
Arab nations regard the prospect of Russia dismissing declared US interests in the Middle East with disquiet. If respect for the US position does not hold Russian activism in check, there is nothing much else that will. Russia has appeared in the guise of Iran’s chief arms patron for the last decade, and is well understood to be seeking to leverage that relationship for strategic access to the Persian Gulf. Riding in on Iran’s coattails cannot recommend Russia to the Arab nations.
But that is only a one-dimensional view of the problem. Russia had, during her years as the Soviet Union, well-established ties with Egypt, Syria, and what was then South Yemen. Moscow was a key supporter and arms supplier of Nasser, and became one of the Assad regime, and of Qadhafi, in Libya. Russia is also, as noted in “Turkey for Dinner,” making overtures to Turkey – and Turkey to Russia – that imply today an incipient divergence of Turkish priorities from the NATO security regime she is otherwise integral to. The Russians are, in short, no strangers to others in the region besides Iran – and none of the other nations of the Middle East, with the exception of Israel, is so concerned about liberal Western values as to consider it unthinkable to look for new, perhaps concessionary arrangements with Russia, if that should begin to seem prudent. The catalysts for such liaisons to emerge would be a growing centralized threat, such as Iran, and a decline in the security value of ties to the United States.
What Americans need to be aware of is that if the security regime that is based on our power and commitments recedes, everything in the Middle East goes up for grabs. The Arabs will not wait and wonder what their fate is to be, any more than the Israelis will. They will seek to shape their fate. Some, like the small Gulf nation of Qatar, are likely to seek their future in accommodation with Iran. Others – Saudi Arabia, the other Gulf Emirates, Egypt, Jordan – will hope to form a countervailing bloc, one that can hold Iran in check. Iraq, in the difficult position of Iran’s nearest neighbor, and between Iran and much of the Middle East, will seek the arrangement that best protects her against exploitation and subjugation by either Iran, or Iran’s enemies.
What the whole region will present is a group of nations ripe for outside partnership and alliance. The political and diplomatic mêlée, and the squaring off of client-patron blocs implicit in this situation, are what US hegemony of the region has been preventing since the end of the Cold War. The Cold War and its regional contests are a partial guide to how events would be likely to proceed, if the perception grows that US interests in the Middle East are no longer concrete, reflexive, and enforceable. But the discomfort is likely to be extreme, if what develops is actually a situation in which the US is not one of the outside powers exerting an effective influence. If we are not there checking Russia and Iran, others – like China – will see both necessity, and opportunity.
What, then, might we expect, if the perception of our declining effective interest does indeed grow? One of the first things is likely to be Israel-focused, and ugly: an increase in terrorist violence in Israel, the West Bank, and probably Gaza as well. With his unqualified call for a cessation of all settlement expansion, Obama has signaled a sympathy with the Palestinian side – if not with a negotiating position officially articulated by Palestinians – that can easily be seen as a green light to conduct more guerrilla attacks on Israelis, and blame their political provenance on the settlements.
If Israel is increasingly perceived to be on her own, the cost of attacking her will be perceived to decrease. Maneuvering Israel into an offensive position in the West Bank and Gaza – one that an Obama-led US does not back her in, and might lead an effort to jockey her out of – could be a high-payoff approach. There are a lot of moving parts in a scenario of this kind, making it difficult to orchestrate or control – and its level of energy would depend on some of the transformative momentum in the region shifting to the rival Palestinian terrorist groups, Fatah and Hamas.
There has been greater momentum, until this week’s Lebanese election, with the factional rivalries to the north, where – as discussed in Part 3 – Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Syria have been going all out to cultivate the winning team. It remains to be seen if Iran accepts, with Hizballah’s poor showing, a set-back in Lebanon, at least for the time being, and chooses to put more into the Hamas angle in Israel. It should come as no surprise if Tehran does judge now to be a good time to make this shift.
As events proceed, it will become clearer whether the chief concern Iran’s leaders would have, in such an endeavor, would be not US opposition, but Saudi initiatives to block Iran on this avenue. Such initiatives could take the form of countervailing support to Fatah; but for the time being, the Saudis would probably prefer to control Fatah and blunt Hamas, rather than see either of them actually destabilize Israel. Riyadh is not in a position to dictate or guarantee outcomes in that event – and if the US is not going to do it, the ready alternatives are all bad, from the Saudis’ (and indeed most Arabs’) standpoint.
A Saudi counterweight to an Iran-backed Hamas offensive could well take the form of a peace initiative designed to preserve existing boundaries, at least for now. As positive as that sounds, we must keep in mind that it would be put in play in the context of bloody terrorist violence being inflicted on Israel; little or no requiting of the Arab Islamic world’s longstanding priority of eliminating Israel; and Saudi Arabia trying to fend off an Iranian-backed campaign without backing of her own from the US. It would be a desperation maneuver, and invite the emergence of dangerous trends and influences.
One of these is another potential development, ensuing on perceived US disengagement from the hegemon role: improved opportunities for extremists to attain state power in the region, particularly in Egypt. Other possible venues are Saudi Arabia and even Iraq, the latter depending on how the US force drawdown goes, what Iraq looks like by August of 2010, and what else is going on in the Middle East over the next year. I do not view an extremist takeover in Saudi Arabia as likely at all, given the character of the small population there – but the outside chance cannot be dismissed, because of the deeply-held antipathy of Al Qaeda to the Saudi regime.
A more likely and more dangerous possibility is Egypt. The Mubarak regime is despised by the Muslim Brotherhood Salafists as corrupt and sold out to the West; but has also managed to cultivate discontent in many of its regular citizens – particularly the young – with its political repression and disregard of human rights. Mubarak has put in place a succession plan for his aging regime, but if it meets with subversion – as it well could – there is a serious question how loyal the people would be to it. Up to now, internal opposition to Mubarak has not been powerful or well-organized enough to undermine his hold on Egypt. But the combination of his demise, and the urgent opportunity presented by a receding US profile in the Middle East, could create the conditions for a political radicalization of the country’s leadership, if not of the majority of the people. In the event of such radicalization, Israel would have to anticipate some repudiation of Camp David, and increased support from Egypt to Palestinian factions, as a starting proposition. Jordan would become particularly important real estate, and more of a field for competing regional influences than she has been, under those circumstances.
Radicalized Egyptian policies might even be a catalyst for such a trend in Iraq – if the profile of the US there is not reassuring, in the face of regional activism by Iran. Iraq cannot help being located next to Iran: the more variable factor will always be the quality and endurance of American interest. All signals about that interest matter, any unintentional ones perhaps more than the others.
Iraqis are not inherently as motivated to participate in deciding the fate of the “Zionist entity” as either Saudi Arabia, with her unique national position of Sunni leadership, or the nations contiguous with Israel. Baghdad’s motivations will be centered on her proximity to Iran, her need for access the port complex on the Shatt-al-Arab, and the leveraging of interest from outside powers – Russia, China, perhaps even India – for her security benefit.
Russia and China are actors that will also involve themselves, more and more, in a Middle East that is less perceived to be the subject of US interests and guarantees. Russia and China both want the US out of the Eastern hemisphere, except as a tribute-paying customer of their hegemonic arrangements. For Russia, the US is the principal competitor, and the geographic approach is direct. Strategically, the Middle East is very close to being on “interior lines of communication” with respect to Russia. Looking at a map, we see that the territory of Iran and Turkey are key approach vectors from the Russian heartland. Russia also needs to control the entire Black Sea coast and the Balkans, to control her lines of communication to the Middle East.
For China the situation is different. Her principal competitor – for the Middle East – is really Russia, because Russia will be there whether we are or not. From Beijing’s perspective, America in the Middle East serves the function of preventing Russia from consolidating a hold on it, until China has established an un-dislodgeable presence, in her signature manner. For that reason, China is not as anxious to squeeze the US out of the region as Russia is. Her higher priority is breaking the US-brokered security regime in East Asia, to increase her latitude for action across the board.
So we should not necessarily expect to find China as forward-leaning as Russia in terms of regional maneuver, whether the issue is directly supporting political factions and promoting their ascent to power, or dramatically increasing military ties. Geographically, China’s approach is a longer-sighted one than Russia’s, involving converging on the Middle East from positions gradually established further away. It is not a surprise that we find China involved with arms shipments to the Mugabe regime in Zimbabwe, or dealing pragmatically with Sudan, and the Horn of Africa nations, not just to sell arms and obtain oil concessions but to establish herself in warehousing, shipping, port services, and rail transport, as she does in other strategic junctures like Central America.
China’s approach from the East is equally measured, as outlined here, and as reflected in her conventional military sales to Pakistan and Iran, and her competition with Russia, through the early 2000s, to sell services to Iran’s nuclear program. In the approaches on both vectors, east and west, China’s pace and energy are likely to be driven as much by how “squishy” US commitment looks, as by what Russia may be doing.
And what will Russia be doing? Seeking to balance picking the winners in the Middle East, with gaining the greatest access and control, as compensation for her patronage.
As mentioned above, Russia has had, at different times, broader-based ties in the region than she has today. Her activism in the Middle East has included military presence, direct factional support (e.g., to Nasser in Egypt, and to the Syrian and Iraqi Ba’athists), arms sales, general great-power patronage, and support to terrorism. We should not, therefore, expect Moscow to be shy in the face of softening commitment by the US there. Every signal that America’s line on regional issues is weakening will be seen in Moscow as an opportunity to leverage those issues: to influence political outcomes and gain greater regional access and influence.
Russia is likely to welcome the opportunity to broaden her client base there. The position she has had with Iran is too narrow a wedge into the region, both geographically and politically – and that constraint improves Iran’s negotiating position with Russia. Overtures by Russia to Saudi Arabia and Egypt would offer benefits to both parties – if they assume that the outside patronage of the US is of declining worth to regional security. Neither the Saudis nor the Egyptians are strong enough, alone, to direct regional outcomes; but with Russian patronage, the situation changes. Russia, for her part, would gain a better negotiating position with Iran by cultivating the Arab nations, and would also promote a realistic counterweight to Iran in the Middle East. Russia does not want to have to fight Iran for hegemony there. Iran is useful to Russia for the purpose of pushing the United States out of the region, but Russia has no interest in helping to create a Middle East-wide Shi’a caliphate on her southern doorstep.
The position to be achieved by controlling the Horn of Africa should not be forgotten in all this. This is the area in which we could expect the most evidence of direct competition between Russia and China. But another prospect is of the nations not courted by Russia (and perhaps some who are) going out of their way to invite China into the Middle East, as a great-power counterweight. One such nation might very possibly be Israel, which has already established a variety of ties with China. Indeed, if Israel were increasingly on her own, she would be driven to take even more interest in influencing the regional balance of power, through patron-client relationships, than she already does.
Outside of the stability of the Pax Americana, Israel’s geographic position is of as much interest as her religious and cultural distinctiveness in the Middle East. If any aspiring world power is likely to regard it with strategic enlightenment, it is China. The salient feature of a post-Pax Americana Middle East would be that the stasis in which threats are posed today would evaporate; and at different times, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, and even China could well consider it to be in their interests to not see Israel driven into the sea – at least not yet.
We should note, before concluding, that Russia is already initiating moves on the Middle East on two vectors, through Iran, and through the Black Sea. I have discussed those moves at greater length in the pieces linked earlier, “Not Your Father’s Cold War” and “Turkey for Dinner.” A perception that US commitment to Turkey’s strategic NATO position is declining would serve to encourage and accelerate developments for which the potential already exists, and about which Turkey has already thought. Ankara cannot help thinking about them: if Russia controls the rest of the Black Sea, Turkey cannot, on her own, maintain an independence from Russia that has any major elements antagonistic to Russian policy. With Islamic radicalism on the rise in Turkey, moreover, Turkey’s longstanding strategic calculus may well be changing. Where once her concern was independence from Russia, achieved through affiliation with the West, her concern may increasingly be the satisfaction of Islamic political aspirations in her people – achieved through alignment with, and perhaps leadership of, Sunni Islam in the Middle East. A loss of confidence in US regional commitment can only push that calculus in one direction.
The three potential centers of regional Islamic leadership would most probably shape up to be Iran, Turkey, and some combination of Arab nations that includes Saudi Arabia (and cannot well exclude both Egypt and Iraq). To leverage other nations, and patron-client relationships, in reordering the Middle East, we could expect a number of the nations involved to find it convenient for Israel to continue to exist, at least for the time being. Anti-Zionism is a tremendous rallying point and pretext for alignment, and would not be lightly done away with by any of Russia, China, Turkey, or the Arab nations.
On the other hand, neither the wellbeing of the Israeli people nor the condition of the Palestinian Arabs would be a priority for the key players in this post-Pax Americana Middle East. Their priorities would center on their own advantage, which at times may be best served by a waxing of violence in the Levant. Where there is no “enforcer” to align around and depend on, there is little that nations will not do to secure their own advantage.
It is not, by any means, only with respect to Israel that the signals sent by Obama about American commitment will be interpreted abroad. Foreign observers will be watching closely to see what happens with Afghanistan and Iraq, the Somali piracy situation and North Korea – and certainly to see whether Obama’s America seems to have any clue what is going on to the south of us, with Iran, Hizballah, and Russia.
But in terms of signals about shifts in Middle East policy, Obama’s statements on the West Bank settlements are actually his most unequivocal to date. They have been unattended by qualifications that acknowledge the significance of the settlements to Israel’s security, in spite of numerous press questions (at least 21, as summarized here) designed to elicit those qualifications. The importance of Obama’s line on this issue must not be missed. In every other facet or issue of foreign policy, he has given lip service to well-worn formulations that have become shorthand representations of consistent US posture – even on Iran, the outcome of whose nuclear weapons program he pronounces, as his predecessors did, to be “unacceptable.”
It is in the one area of policy on Israel that he has deviated from familiar bromides, and from at least the appearance of honest impartiality, and insisted, abruptly, on a precondition for Israel. In light of his explicit disavowal of preconditions for Iran, the contrast with his policy on Israel could hardly be starker. Arabs are not likely to make too much of Obama’s expressed admiration for them. But they, and others, have not missed the significance of his temporizing signal on defensible borders for Israel. Game on.