international analysis and commentary

The Middle East viewed from Washington: the cautious way


Ahead of US President Barack Obama’s recently-concluded trip to the Middle East, the White House had managed to set expectations so low – inviting everyone not to hold their breath for any major policy announcement – that his difficult balancing act in Israel, the West Bank and Jordan ended up being relatively well-received even in Washington’s highly divided political circles. As anticipated by the administration, nothing much came of the President’s visit to the region, but at least no new controversy broke out and, on the plus side, Obama’s charm offensive with the Israeli government and public seems to have at least partially worked. The cherry on top of this rather unsavory cake was Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to offer, upon prodding by Obama, an official apology to Turkey with regard to the 2010 raid on a Turkish vessel bound for Gaza that killed nine people.

Traveling to this area of the world without opening yet another can of worms can be considered a success in and of itself. But Obama’s reluctance to go all in does beg the question of what shape the US’s involvement in the issues at stake – the stalled peace process, Iran’s nuclear enrichment program and the civil war in Syria – will take in the future.

“I think they [the White House] were quite upfront on what they wanted to achieve, a ‘reset’ of the relationship with the Israelis – perhaps more with the people than the government,” says Leila Hilal, Director of the Middle East Task Force at the liberal-leaning New America Foundation. “I’m not sure if the President changed public opinion substantially but I think he went to great lengths to demonstrate his commitment to the State of Israel. It will now be much harder for anyone to question that commitment.”

Obama’s 26th foreign trip as President (the 1st one to Israel in this capacity) was clearly orchestrated with an eye toward domestic politics, as a response to all those who have criticized him for being too cold with this long-standing US ally.  

“From what I saw there were no explosions, nobody threw grenades and that in itself is an achievement because Obama and Netanyahu have a very contentious relationship,” says Ariel Cohen, Senior Research Fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “For domestic US reasons and the sake of the US-Israel relationship, that needed to improve and I hope it did.”

To avoid upsetting the Israelis, Obama even changed his language on the settlements that are constantly being built in the West Bank. While he had previously questioned their legitimacy and demanded a freeze as a pre-condition for negotiations, this time around the President toned down his rhetoric, recognizing that they are not “constructive” or “appropriate”, but falling short of calling them “illegal”.

With the majority of Obama’s time and attention devoted to Israel – without a doubt the centerpiece of the President’s trip – Palestinians became more of a sideshow, and remained largely disinterested in the events. Nevertheless, says New America’s Leila Hilal, Obama’s speech to Israeli students in Jerusalem should be viewed as “quite groundbreaking, in that Obama used the terms ‘occupation’ and ‘expulsion’ in addressing the two major experiences the Palestinians associate with the Israelis, words that US presidents typically don’t use, and he should get credit for that.”

The other issue on the table was Iran’s nuclear program, which Tehran insists is for peaceful purposes only, while the US and Israel (and much of the international community) claim is also geared to developing nuclear weapons capabilities. But while the Americans and the Israelis generally see eye to eye as to the real goal of Iran’s enrichment efforts, they have long disagreed on how advanced the program is and the urgency of the threat it poses. “I think Obama convinced the Israeli government to stay the course on Iran and to let sanctions do their work,” says Marwan Muasher, Vice President for Studies at the Carnegie Endowment in Washington and an expert on the Middle East. “Prime Minister Netanyahu seems to have backed off his hard line position and, if I had to bet, I’d say that there will not be a US strike on Iran at least this year.”

Muasher, who was Jordan’s Foreign Minister between 2002 and 2004 and Deputy Prime Minister in 2004 and 2005, also doesn’t foresee any policy change from the White House on Syria. According to him, Obama’s stop in Amman, where he met with King Abdullah II precisely to discuss the neighboring country’s civil war, was meant to reassure the Jordanians, who are dealing with a massive refugee crisis and fear that ongoing instability might spread to the rest of the region, that they will continue to enjoy US support. It was not aimed at discussing a possible American intervention in Syria.

Overall, then, this was a status-quo trip by the US president, aimed at defending current policy on Iran and Syria and reiterating the White House’s willingness to work as a mediator in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict if needed. For the time being, Washington has no intention of taking new aggressive unilateral steps.

At this point, with the US-led war in Iraq over and with American troops progressively withdrawing from Afghanistan, Obama is eager to launch that “pivot to Asia” he has been talking about for years but which he hasn’t got around to yet because he got stuck in the Middle East for longer than he had planned. Undoubtedly he would be happy to help the peace process along but, having failed to make any progress on this issue at the beginning of his first term, he no longer appears interested in staking his legacy on it.

Rather, it will be the new Secretary of State John Kerry, who is itching to dive into action, to shuttle back and forth between Washington and the Middle East in the months ahead. But despite Kerry’s enthusiasm and experience, observers doubt he will have the authority to try out grand new approaches. As the tenure of Hillary Clinton taught us, major foreign policy decisions and overall strategy remain firmly in the hands of the White House, which does not seem to be looking for breakthroughs in the Middle East.