Elliott Abrams
The Council on Foreign Relations (Blog)
January 19, 2011 - 1:00am

There will be many assessments of what President Obama has achieved in the Middle East during his two years as President, and few will be positive.

Twenty years of negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians were scuttled by the obsession with a construction freeze in settlements and in Jerusalem. The one ray of light, Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s reforms and constructive programs on the ground in the West Bank, continues to get more American lip service than real dedicated effort. George Mitchell’s uninterest in the actual progress on the ground in the West Bank has been glaringly obvious, all the focus instead on imaginary negotiating tables.

Repeated efforts to “engage” Syria produced no change in Syrian internal or external conduct. David Schenker summed it up last month:

In the face of blandishment, reckless and destabilizing Syrian behavior has only increased. For example, a year ago, after Washington tried to re-establish border security cooperation with Damascus on Iraq, car bombs—courtesy of Syria according to Prime Minister Al Malaki—killed over 100 in Baghdad. Then, in March 2009, just weeks after the Administration nominated the first US ambassador to Damascus since the 2005 murder of former Lebanese premier Rafiq Hariri, President Asad hosted Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmedinejad and Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah, and publicly mocked Secretary of State Clinton. The dinner in Damascus effectively scuttled the confirmation of a new US ambassador. More recently, Administration officials expressed concern that Syria had transferred SCUD or Fatah 110 missiles to Hizballah in Lebanon.

The recent decision to send an ambassador to Damascus through a recess appointment was described in a tough piece by Michael Young of the Beirut Daily Star as “remarkably foolish.”

In Lebanon, the March 14 forces feel abandoned and with varying degrees of speed reflecting varying levels of courage most have made their peace with Syrian and Hizballah dominion over the state and nation. Now Hizballah has brought down the government to protect itself from expected indictment by the UN’s Special Tribunal for Lebanon for killing former Prime Minister Hariri in 2005. “American diplomacy has become the butt of jokes here,” The New York Times’s Beirut correspondent reported. In Damascus the Syrians, Qataris and Turks just met to guide Lebanon’s future. The absence of the United States at that meeting is suggestive of our diminished role, as the Times described in detail:

It is yet another episode in which the United States has watched — seemingly helplessly — as events in places like Tunisia, Lebanon and even Iraq unfold unexpectedly and beyond its ability to control. The jockeying might be a glimpse of a post-American Middle East, where the United States’ allies and foes, brought together in the interests of stability, plot foreign policies that intersect in initiatives the United States must grudgingly accept. “There is a sense that the regional players have gone up as the United States has gone down in terms of its presence, its viability, its role,” said a high-ranking Lebanese official allied with the American-backed side in the crisis, which erupted last week.

The early Obama efforts at engagement with Iran went aground as that regime stole the June 2009 elections and has since become increasingly repressive as it tries to crush the “Green Movement.” Diplomatic efforts to stop the Iranian nuclear program continue, but any deal is more likely to concede to the Iranian regime some limited right to reprocess and enrich uranium than to stop the Iranian bomb. Americans can only blink twice when the French are, as now, the hard-liners who must urge Washington against further concessions. Sanctions and sabotage have slowed the Iranians down and credit is due to some combination of the EU, the United States, and Israel, but the Iranian centrifuges continue to spin.

Democracy activists in the region have been steadily weaker during these two years, and their oppressors have been feeling less beleaguered—the very opposite of what American policy should produce. Egypt is one case in point, where last Fall’s parliamentary election was far worse than its predecessor in 2005. The Administration barely reacted. Is there one country in the region where there is more respect for human rights since the Obama Administration took office?

Two weeks ago the answer was no; today it is “yes, Tunisia,” for a spontaneous revolt pushed the rapacious Ben Ali apparat out of power. Will the Administration now do a 180-degree turn and embrace the call for democracy in the Arab world? When Secretary Clinton spoke at a forum on reform in Qatar, she did not even utter the words “democracy” or “freedom” or “human rights.” And that was the very day after Ben Ali had fled Tunis.

What led to the adoption of the policies that produced these results, and what might lead to new ones in the second half of Mr. Obama’s term?

Alas, there is no evidence of a fundamental rethinking by the president; his Middle East policy is the product of his view of America and the world. In this take, America has (worst of all under George W. Bush) been too aggressive, insisting on its culture and interests rather than reaching out to “engage” and bending to accommodate the interests of others. And those “others” turn out to be regimes, for in the Obama perspective individuals too often tend to fade away. We seek “engagement” with the Asad regime in Syria and the Mubarak regime in Egypt, and with the ayatollahs in Iran, not with the people who live under their thumbs.

Inherent in this policy is a deep contradiction. The president places great store in multilateralism (as opposed to the allegedly excessive nationalism, the “go it alone” approach, the disrespect for international organizations, inaccurately said to have marked the Bush Administration); he believes in the UN Security Council and the Human Rights Council, in treaties like the NPT and START, in the IAEA, in multilateral cooperation. But the regimes with which he wishes to engage do not, so that Asad tries to ruin the UN’s Special Tribunal for Lebanon and Iran’s nuclear program threatens to destroy the Non-Proliferation Treaty and the IAEA. The president is in this sense in the position of those who for decades sought “world peace” primarily by engaging with the Soviet Union, which did not share that goal.

So the question for the next two years is whether the president will remain wedded to policies that cannot achieve his stated goals. Unless shaken out of the current rut by events—terrible ones like Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons, or even worse a terrorist attack in the United States, or positive ones like more revolts against Arab dictatorships—the best bet is that there will be no significant change in policy despite the lack of achievements. None of the personnel changes thus far announced involves anyone with a new and different perspective on the Middle East. No doubt there is some rethinking going on at the White House, but there is no sign that the President believes things have gone wrong. As William Quandt (who served in the NSC in the Nixon and Carter years) wrote in his book Peace Process, “Wishful thinking is a particularly potent way to resolve uncertainty.”


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