Time for Realpolitik in the Near East

Presidents Barack Obama and Mahmoud Abbas of the United States and the Palestinian Authority talk at the White House in Washington DC, June 9
Presidents Barack Obama and Mahmoud Abbas of the United States and the Palestinian Authority talk at the White House in Washington DC, June 9

The Obama Administration’s Middle East policy appears to have swung from the slightly idealistic to the definitively realistic in recent weeks, with the opposition continuing to denounce the supposed naiveté of the president’s intentions.

Barack Obama began his offensive in Cairo, Egypt last year where he called upon the Muslim world to end “the cycle of suspicion and discord” that nonetheless still frustrates American efforts in the region. He appointed special envoys for Israel-Palestine and Afghanistan-Pakistan, signaling both his commitment to revive the peace process as well as his recognition that the war in Afghanistan is intrinsically linked with the forces at play within the borders of its eastern neighboring state.

Since, little progress has been made while the threat of a nuclear Iran became all the more alarming. His outreach does allow Obama to garner support from many countries to impose sanctions on Tehran but this modest success is overshadowed by recent hiccups in Israel and, so far, no astounding results from Pakistan. The unrelenting attitude of the White House toward the former led The New York Times to declare in November of last year already that the president’s influence with what is traditionally the country’s staunchest of allies in the region had diminished, and that was before this month’s, properly covered up, feud with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Where to go from here? The Times‘ Peter Baker notes that the past year was spent mostly on showing the world that Obama was not George W. Bush. The world got the message. “If there is an Obama doctrine emerging,” he writes, “it is one much more realpolitik than his predecessor’s, focused on relations with traditional great powers and relegating issues like human rights and democracy to second-tier concerns.” Take out the “traditional” from “great powers” and that seems to sum things up rather nicely.

Neoconservatives, unsurprisingly, are lambasting the president for neglecting what they believe should be the cornerstone of American foreign policy: exporting American values of freedom and democracy. Obama, however, is a Jeffersonian. He believes that the best way to encourage westernization is to provide a good example. He said so much in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech when he declared that United States should be the “standard-bearer” of civilization.

What this means in more practical terms is that under President Obama, the United States will pursue a foreign policy designed to protect and promote America’s position in the world. This can take the form of economic protectionism at times but typically, it should be one of pursuing America’s rational self-interest.

When it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, for instance, the president echoed General David Petraeus’ warning of last month that violence there has a direct effect on the situation in Afghanistan and Iraq — and thus, on the safety of American forces stationed in those places. Vice-President Joe Biden was more blunt: he told Netanyahu at the time that Israel’s settlement activity “undermines the security of our troops” and that it “endangers regional peace.”

According to the president himself, “It is a vital national-security interest of the United States to reduce these conflicts,” because, “one way or another, we get pulled into them. And that ends up costing us significantly in terms of both blood and treasure.”

The first push of this renewed commitment is apparently coming though the United Nations. Alejandro Wolff, the Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN issued a forceful statement at the Security Council on Wednesday in which he called upon all parties — “both inside and outside this Council” — to help revive the peace process. The status quo, said Wolff, “has neither produced long-term security nor served the interests of the parties” and is “not sustainable.”

The ambassador was surprisingly specific, claiming that the “two-state solution is the best way forward” while outlining concrete steps to end the conflict: the establishing of a Palestinian state within its 1967 borders; land swaps and “secure and recognized borders” for Israel “that reflect subsequent developments and meet Israeli security requirements.” Wolff condemned Israel’s settlement activity as well as the “glorification of terrorists” by the Palestinians, “either through official statements or by the dedication of public places,” once again signaling a break in American rhetoric which previously oftentimes refrained from criticizing Israel explicitly.