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Hillary Visits Middle East: Sky Still In Place

Written by Barry Rubin

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March 09, 2009
By Barry Rubin

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited the Middle East and the sky didn't cave in

Two very large groups spun the story to the contrary: the purveyors of the conventional wisdom on the region (that is, academics, media, and other opinion-makers) who were speaking out of wishful thinking that the number-one item on the Obama Administration's agenda is to bash Israel, and those opposed to that government who fears this outcome.

Yet the virtually identical narrative of the two rival sides paid little attention to the reality of the new administration, its situation or thinking, its priorities or direction. Here for example is how the New York Times described the visit in a March 5 editorial:

"Whatever the eventual composition of a new, and presumably more hawkish, government after Israel's last election, Mrs. Clinton made clear that America's compelling interest lies in a two-state solution anchored by a broad regional peace. She advanced that interest by announcing diplomatic re-engagement with Syria and strong American support for the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas."

The implication is that these were somehow anti-Israel, or at least against an Israeli government led by Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister. In fact, these positions don't at all phase Israel and presumably Netanyahu. Here is a brief primer on the Obama administration and the region:
  • --Since this was Clinton's first visit it was aimed at becoming familiar with the current issues and attitudes.
  • The administration knows that the government in Israel is still in formation. Therefore, at present it is impossible to do anything in policy terms.
  • The U.S. government, or at least most of its high officials, know that given the situation-they'd say on both sides; I'd say on the Palestinian side-no real progress will be made this year on Israel-Palestinian negotiations toward a comprehensive solution.
  • While aware of the unlikelihood of success, they want to show they are doing a lot. Hence, there will be many visits, reports, and chat but little in the way of serious initiatives or energetic campaigns.
  • The administration's main priority is the domestic economic situation and other changes at home. Inasmuch as it is concerned with the Middle East, the main emphasis is on Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran, not Arab-Israeli or Israeli-Palestinian issues.
  • Clinton has no doubts about the extremist and anti-American dimensions of Hamas and Hizballah. She and the administration have no intention to deal with these groups.  On any return by Hamas to joint activity with the Palestinian Authority (PA), Clinton said that the United States would only deal with Hamas if it accepted the peace process framework, something Hamas will never do.
  • The secretary of state reaffirmed a tough position on Iran. There will be engagement but the focus will be on finding out Iran's intentions and to press it to stop its nuclear weapons' program. In this framework, little is likely to change in U.S.-Iran relations. Tehran knows this which is why it is focusing attacks on President Obama.
  • While Clinton is pursuing engagement with Syria, she sent two tough envoys to Damascus who will not be fooled by Syrian games. The Syrian government knows this and its bullying tactics and arrogant words are likely to make things worse between the two countries. In addition, Clinton promised the moderate Lebanese forees continued U.S. support.

Moreover, for better or worse, most Israeli leaders favor talks with Syria. This is not because they think they will succeed in negotiating a comprehensive deal. Rather, it's because they want to give Syria an incentive to hold Hizballah back from attacking and be less aggressive if Israel ever attacks Iranian nuclear facilities.

  • The United States withdrew from the Durban-2 anti-Israel fest.
  • Despite some bad choices, pragmatic professionals have generally been appointed.


  
  This does not mean there are no problems but the outcome is, so far, better than might have been expected. The reasons are a combination of recognizing reality, extremist behavior by regional enemies, and good appointments to key positions in Washington, especially that of Clinton herself.
The negative side includes some significant points but less immediate in terms of U.S.-Israel relations:

  • The administration is pouring money into the Gaza Strip which, despite its good intentions, will end up bolstering the Hamas regime there. If the day comes when Israel feels another ground operation is needed to protect itself from Gaza, the administration might oppose it.
  • The new U.S. government seeks engagement with Iran. Even if this does not bring U.S. concessions, Tehran will gain enough time to obtain nuclear weapons. And, again, how would the administration respond if Israel felt military action would be necessary to protect itself?
  • The one issue where U.S. policy might press Israel is on settlement expansion but there are ways to handle this. Dismantling outposts might defuse the issue as might slowing construction or building only among existing buildings.
  • The emphasis on being popular rather than being respected and defending allies. At times, it seems as if the war on terrorism has been replaced by a war on anything that might offend enemies.

Most dangerous of all, however, are two potentially huge problems that have not yet manifested themselves.

First is failure to recognize coming crises. Few in Washington see how an Islamist government is consolidating control, steering the country closer to Iran than to America. Fewer still are ready to do something to ensure Lebanon's government doesn't soon fall under Iranian, Syrian, and Hizballah control.

Second is a legitimate doubt on the administrations' ability to manage a serious crisis in the region, given its tendency to renounce force and overlook the tools and concepts of realpolitik.

The Obama administration should be closely watched and constantly evaluated. As with every government, its policies and views should not be assumed on the basis of public statements or stereotyped expectations.
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