From ‘Yes We Can’ to ‘No We Can’t’: Obama’s Middle East Speech Lowers Expectations of American Power

In a relatively low-key speech on his administration’s Middle East policy, deliberately short on high-flown rhetoric and, in terms of grand design, more Heath Robinson than Isambard Kingdom Brunel, President Obama set out to lower expectations of American power.

In recent times, American presidents have believed that their country could shape the world simply by the powerful exertion of its will. Today, America can state how it would like things to be – that is, if only it knew; in today’s incredibly complex world, it has become increasingly difficult for the administration to make up its mind and craft a vision that is coherent and hangs together for more than a week. But even when Obama presents a vision, the truth is that he can no longer do very much to make it a reality.

Judging by the tone and language of this speech, I don’t think Obama sees the limitations on American power as such a bad thing. In many ways, he’s stronger now politically than at any other time in his presidency, save for the first months. But he needs to use that strength to deal with major domestic problems and also to secure himself a second term in office. He may have achieved foreign policy success of sorts with the killing of Osama Bin Laden and he speaks of Iraq in the past tense now that troops are on their way home, but it’s a fragile world out there and he needs to be careful not to leave himself exposed. The last thing he wants is to get entangled in any more risky overseas wars that America can’t win and that just produce dead bodies to bring home. He knows that power is shifting to the BRIC countries and other states are gaining in regional importance – take Turkey for example – and they, as well as the UN and the EU, need to step up to the plate and take more collective responsibility for world conflicts and crises.

So the upshot of his remarks on the Arab Spring imply very little in terms of concrete action. They are meant to give the impression of a coherent policy but rather resemble an unevenly sown-together patchwork quilt. No doubt he would dearly love to see democracy and gender equality instituted in Saudi Arabia, as well as regime change and the introduction of freedom of expression in Bahrain and Syria, but by saying that ‘we will continue to [pursue a set of core interests in the region]’, Obama is signalling that he intends to follow a course of ‘safety first’: giving modest encouragement of a non-controversial nature, but no hostages to fortune.

Many commentators have noted that he devoted about four-fifths of the speech to the Arab Spring and one entire fifth to Israel-Palestine, as if this reflected a deliberate, wrong-headed and continuing over-emphasis on America’s relationship with Israel. But it seemed to me that what Obama was doing was simply reflecting a historical reality that he was saddled with by previous administrations and to which he initially contributed – the investment of disproportionate efforts in engineering a solution to the conflict. The content signalled a major effort to reduce America’s involvement in peace-making to a manageable minimum.

I don’t doubt that he cares deeply, in his own way, about the fate of both Israelis and Palestinians, and fervently wishes that this long-running sore would finally be healed. But I would guess that he’d rather not say anything at all just now about the future prospects for peace and America’s role in achieving it. Given their experiences so far, he and his advisers have surely concluded that they can’t see any practical way forward to achieve a two-state solution at the present time; that they cannot actually change attitudes on both sides decisively enough to produce credible negotiations that would lead to the implementation of a two-state plan.

But much as he might prefer to be playing golf rather than playing a game that leads to a dead end, he could not avoid making a policy statement about Israel-Palestine at the present time. First, having had to say where America stands on the Arab Spring, he couldn’t then just ignore the Israel-Palestine issue, especially as it’s coming back into the frame in some of the key Arab countries that have experienced revolution and ongoing turmoil. Second, there’s the very strong likelihood that Abbas will go for recognition of a Palestinian state in September at the UN, an issue on which Obama has to have a clear policy.Third, and most important, he needs to park this issue in as safe a place as possible, while making it look as if his administration is moving the whole caravan forward, so that it does not interfere with his bid for a second term. This is not just to ensure that it won’t blow up in his face sometime between now and November 2012. It’s also to ensure that he secures the financial backing of major Jewish Democratic Party donors without whose support he could find himself seriously disadvantaged. And that means showing, as clearly ás possible, the depth of his support for the security, safety and Jewish character of Israel.

He approached this task in his speech in a manner that echoed his reserved stance on the Arab Spring. He basically set out a picture of what his administration would like to have happen, but he made no promises, no pledges, that they we’re going to do anything concrete to achieve it. He skirted the fundamental issues, trying to avoid giving offence to anyone more than was absolutely necessary. As the estimable Professor Rosemary Hollis said on BBC Radio 4’s ‘Today’ programme on Friday morning, this was Obama in his ‘City on a hill’ mode, but risking nothing. At one point he says: ‘What America and the international community can do is to state frankly what everyone knows – a lasting peace will involve two states for two peoples: Israel as a Jewish state and the homeland for the Jewish people, and the state of Palestine as the homeland for the Palestinian people, each state enjoying self-determination, mutual recognition, and peace. ‘ The operative word here is ‘state’. He doesn’t promise any action.

Anyone who thought Obama would appear more even-handed in his treatment of Israelis and Palestinians was naive in the extreme. He unequivocally referred to Israel as a ‘Jewish state’ and acknowledged the validity of its concerns about ‘delegitimization’. He spoke of the ‘demographic threat’ to Israel if the status quo continues and set his face against the Palestinian plan to secure UN support for the declaration of an independent Palestinian state in September: ‘actions at the UN in September to isolate Israel won’t create an independent state’, he said. ‘Israel’s security concerns will be met’, he added.

While it’s true that he went further than any of his predecessors in his statement of support for the creation of a sovereign Palestinian state, this was hardly ground-breaking since, from the beginning of his presidency he had declared that a two-state solution was the only just was of resolving the conflict. And if, by clearly stating that agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority should first be reached on territory and security, with the issues of Jerusalem and refugees to be dealt with later, he thought this would go down well with both sides, he miscalculated. Abe Foxman, the National Director of the Anti-Defamation League, and usually a reliable bellwether for assessing how US policy will play with Israeli leaders, broadly welcomed Obama’s remarks on Israel-Palestine, but he did not like the bracketing of Jerusalem with Palestinian refugees Ron Kampeas of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported. Obama doesn’t get what the stakes are for Israel, he said. ‘Jerusalem is emotional, yes. Refugees is not emotional – it’s strategic.’ While this will go down well in Jerusalem, it’s an astonishingly insensitive assessment of what ‘return’ means for so many ordinary Palestinians. As Peter Beinart tweeted: ‘Has he met a Palestinian?’

Palestinians will surely feel let down by the tenor and implications of some of Obama’s remarks. He said that America will speak out for a set of core principles, including ‘the right to choose your own leaders’ – except of course when to comes to Gaza and the choice people made to vote for Hamas. He spoke of every state having a ‘right to self-defence’, but then said Palestinians will assume responsibility for their security in a ‘sovereign, non-militarized state’. While it’s understandable that Obama would want to allay Israel’s fears about its security – although subsequent Israeli insistence that troops would have to be kept stationed along the Jordan river after any peace settlement shows how inadequate Netanyahu feels this formulation to be – putting it this way looks like giving something to the Palestinians with one hand and taking it away with the other. Especially galling must have been the passage in which Obama said ‘Our own nation was founded through a rebellion against an empire’, and then went on to extol the virtues of nonviolence: ‘ I would not be standing here today unless past generations turned to the moral force of nonviolence as a way to perfect our union’. Coming so soon after Israeli security forces dealt brutally with nonviolent demonstrators over the Naqba weekend, this statement was detached from the reality he was supposed to be addressing. A word of admonition concerning Israel’s disproportionate and repressive response would not have gone amiss. And he also said he was not happy with Fatah’s pact with Hamas. Altogether, when it comes to self-determination for the Palestinians, Obama seems to treat them like a second-class nation.

Finally, the part of Obama’s speech that sparked greatest controversy was really one of its least contentious. When he said that ‘The borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognised borders are established for both states’, he was effectively reiterating something both of his predecessors had made a feature of US policy and echoing the fundamental principle of the ‘land-for-peace’ UN Security Council resolution 242, on which all attempts at peace-making since the 6-Day War have been based.  Although this clearly means that it would be possible for Israel to incorporate major settlement blocs within its final borders, following the meeting between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu on 20 May, Bibi reacted as if the president had ended his sentence after the word ‘lines’, thereby ‘announcing’ that these blocs would now be taken away. Ian Black shows convincingly that Netanyahu’s outrage was ‘tactical and synthetic’, clearly designed to placate the far-right members of his coalition and other right-wing Israeli and Diaspora Jewish forces.

Before the speech, the likelihood of meaningful negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians recommencing was virtually nil. After the speech and Bibi’s petulant, crass and insulting response, we can remove the word ‘virtually’. Obama can’t afford to allow his 1967 reference to be trashed by Bibi and buried. He’s forced to make an effort to appear to be pursuing it in his forthcoming meeting with other world leaders and, presumably, when he addresses the huge AIPAC gathering this week. But nothing is likely to come of it and the most probable outcome is an extended stalemate with occasional reiterations of America’s ‘new policy’, punctuated by a flare-up in September over the attempt to declare an independent Palestinian state at the UN. And if a resolution is passed, against the will of the United States, it will only make the Netanyahu government even more intransigent and push any dismantling of settlements and withdrawal from the West Bank even further away than ever.

In the medium term – that is, between now and the presidential election – Obama may well succeed in marginalising the Israel-Palestine conflict as a factor casting a shadow over his prospects for reelection. There’s nothing in this speech for the Palestinians. The few lukewarm words of encouragement are far outweighed by the humiliation of having Israel’s every concern acknowledged and every fear assuaged, and no compensatory empathy with Palestinian yearning for self-determination. And there’s enough material in this speech to provide the Israeli right and the AIPAC crowd with spurious reasons for manufacturing indignation. The simply don’t trust Obama, have no real interest in the establishment of a Palestinian state and are fully aware of the ticking of the presidential election clock making risky, high profile interventions by Obama in the conflict, in order to further a policy with no teeth, inconceivable.

This was an important speech because a more sober, realistic appraisal of what can and can’t be done with American power is to be welcomed. If Obama is reelected and he can lay more stress on soft power in America’s foreign policy, all the while confronting the country’s domestic problems, so much the better for the rest of the world. But putting any serious Israel-Palestine activism by the Obama administration on hold is likely to result not in a benign stalemate but a dangerous and unpredictable one.

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