Stuck in the Middle East

Obama's go get-'em diplomacy with Israel and Iran is on a collision course with failure.

Eight months into his presidency, Barack Obama is fast approaching his first real moment of truth on the Middle East. At the opening of the U.N. General Assembly session next week, the U.S. president will host a ceremonial summit between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in hopes of launching talks to achieve a final resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Then, a week later on Oct. 1, Undersecretary of State William Burns will join representatives of Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and China for the first talks with Iran's chief nuclear negotiator to see whether an agreement can be reached to curtail President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's nuclear weapons program.

This is the diplomatic offensive that Obama promised the U.S. public last year -- the investment in "soft power" that the president's supporters deemed lacking during the George W. Bush administration. But the White House is facing tough prospects on both fronts. All that fantastical thinking about the transformative power of diplomacy is now headed straight for the iceberg that is the Middle East.

One immovable object is Abbas, who has participated in hundreds of peace negotiations over 15 years with six previous Israeli governments -- all while Israeli settlement construction was proceeding at a brisk pace. Now, Abbas says that he won't accept the partial freeze that Netanyahu has declared; he'll wait to join peace talks until Israel bows to Washington's unprecedented demand for a total freeze on construction, including in Jerusalem. But that is a condition that no Israeli government is going to accept. Even if Abbas softens his stand and agrees to begin talks, negotiations will still be in their throat-clearing phase when the Palestinian president's term ends Jan. 10. With Hamas controlling Gaza there is no agreed electoral mechanism to empower a successor Palestinian president to make concessions on behalf of the Palestinians. Far from achieving transformative success, Obama will be lucky if he can just keep negotiations alive for more than a few weeks.

The Iranian talks look even more likely to end without resolution. On what seems like a daily basis, Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei reaffirm their determination to accelerate Iran's nuclear program and add to the rapidly growing stockpiles of low-enriched uranium. The talks are not likely to throw them off this path.

When both of these diplomatic initiatives grind down, then, and hopes for change fade, the U.S.-Israel relationship will face new strains. Obama can tolerate an impasse on the Iranian front for some time, but Netanyahu cannot. Although Obama and his advisors certainly do not want to see a nuclear-armed Iran, some find the prospect of an attack against the Islamic Republic even more frightening. As the countdown to a nuclear Iran draws ever near, many top Netanyahu advisors have a different view.

On the Palestinian file, the opposite is true: It is Obama who cannot live with an impasse and the Israelis who can. Since 2005, when Israel withdrew every soldier and 8,000 settlers from Gaza, only to be rewarded by a Hamas coup and thousands of Qassam rockets, Israelis have been skeptical that further Oslo Accords-type agreements can enhance their security. The idea of negotiating with the Palestinians to pull the Israeli army out of the West Bank, for example, doesn't inspire much public enthusiasm. Trouble is, many Americans do still believe in the Oslo idea. And a breakdown of Israeli-Palestinian talks would put enormous strains on Washington's relations with Arab countries like Saudi Arabia that need diplomatic movement to quiet domestic tensions. Allowing the talks to fail would also be unacceptable to the European Union and profoundly unsettling to important parts of Obama's own political coalition. Without a peace process, there will be more pressure for anti-Israel resolutions at the United Nations, leaving Obama with a bitter choice between using the U.S. veto to prevent them or allowing them to pass, imperiling an ally and inflaming demands for U.S. sanctions against Israel.

There is yet one more wild card in all of this: Obama's door is open to advisors who want to break with Israel. Many on the left of the Democratic Party believe that Israel is the obstacle to peace and that a breakthrough could be achieved if Obama just twisted Israel's arm. Of course, this was always the view of some of the storied Arabists in the State Department, but today, it comes more influentially from Jewish American critics of Israeli policy who depict themselves as pro-Israel and pro-peace. Faced with the reality that only the 3 percent of Israelis who vote Meretz share such views, and that the dovish camp led by Yossi Beilin has no prospect of winning an election in the actual Jewish state, the Beilinist Israeli left has moved to Washington. Their goal is to lobby the U.S. president to "save Israel from herself" by imposing terms on Israel that the great majority of Israelis would reject.

Obama is poorly positioned to reach over Netanyahu's head to persuade the Israeli people to embrace this agenda. A Sept. 12 poll put Bibi's approval rating at 65 percent, while similar polls by Haaretz and the Jerusalem Post found that only 12 and 6 percent of Israelis, respectively, think that Obama is pro-Israel. If elections were held today, Likud would gain five additional seats, and Bibi's coalition would grow at the expense of the left, which has already been decimated by a public rebuff.

Some Netanyahu advisors think that Obama is himself a man of the left and that top aides like Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod are closet J-Streeters in the White House. Instead, however, Obama and his top advisors are instinctively drawn to the center-left, like Bill and Hillary Clinton. He is more likely to take advice from the National Security Council's Dennis Ross than from more-leftist deputy Mideast peace envoy Mara Rudman or the ubiquitous peace pundit Daniel Levy.

In short, all that is clear is that Obama's big Mideast moment is coming. Now the world waits to see what kind of U.S. president he wants to be.



The New Defense Realism

Obama's missile defense decision represents the victory of pragmatism over ideology.

The Obama administration's decision announced today to cancel the deeply flawed antimissile systems in Eastern Europe is sound policy based on the best intelligence and technical assessments. U.S. President Barack Obama replaces a system that did not work against a threat that did not exist with weapons that can defend against the real Iranian missile capability. Better still, he NATO-izes the system to strengthen the alliance, not divide it.

This is not Munich; it is Prague. It is not appeasement; it is the new defense realism, the triumph of pragmatism over ideology.

The system that former President George W. Bush was rushing to build in Eastern Europe did not work. The interceptors slotted for Poland have not yet been built, let alone tested, and their sister systems deployed in Alaska have demonstrated serious operational problems. The radar intended for the Czech Republic has been shown to have major shortcomings, as documented by Theodore Postol of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and other independent experts. In short, it could not see the warheads it was suppose to track.

There was no "shield." There was no defense capability to "give up." It did not exist. Fortunately, neither did the Iranian missile threat that the system was supposed to counter. Iran does not have a long-range missile that can strike Central Europe, let alone the United States, and is unlikely to develop one over the next 10 years, if ever. Nor does it have a nuclear warhead to put on a future missile.

The official U.S. intelligence assessment is that Iran would not have the material for a warhead -- highly enriched uranium -- before 2013. It would probably take years more to develop a warhead and test it. U.S. intelligence agencies would likely be able to detect this activity, certainly a nuclear test.

Independent assessments, such as that done by an EastWest Institute panel of American and Russian experts, agree. These rocket scientists concluded earlier this year:

Iran will not be able, for at least ten to fifteen years, to master independently the "critical technologies" for advanced mobile or silo-based IRBMs [intermediate-range ballistic missiles] and ICBMs [intercontinental ballistic missiles] because it does not have the scientific, economic, and industrial infrastructure for developing these critical technologies.

This means that Iran could not build modern intermediate-range missiles (3,000 to 5,500 kilometers) that could strike Europe, or intercontinental-range missiles (5,500 to 10,000 kilometers) to strike the United States, for at least 10 years. The scientists concluded that Iran might be able to build a 2,000-kilometer, or medium-range, missile that could strike parts of Europe within eight years, but that missile would be highly vulnerable to counterstrikes while it was assembled on its launchpad. Importantly, the scientists also applied a common-sense filter to this technical assessment: Iran would be highly unlikely to undertake such a suicidal attack if it did have such a weapon. Iranian leaders would know that a devastating counterattack would certainly follow any missile launch. Deterrence, not antimissile interceptors, is still the best defense.

Meanwhile, the costs of the proposed system were skyrocketing to an estimated $4 billion, but the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) has warned that these estimates were not credible and could be overrun by billions of dollars in extra construction and operations costs.

The GAO has more bad news for the Defense Department. A Sept. 16 report slams the entire missile-defense operation of the past eight years. The oversight agency concluded: "DOD [the Defense Department] lacks the comprehensive analytic basis needed to make fully informed decisions about the types and quantities of elements and interceptors it needs." This confirms independent expert views that the Bush administration threw money at these programs, dropped normal defense-testing requirements, and pushed deployment over development with the expected results: an incoherent set of dysfunctional systems.

We should be clear: There is an Iranian missile threat. It is a short- and medium-range threat, however, and one that worries Iran's immediate neighbors, including NATO member Turkey. Obama's decision is to replace nothing with something. He has told his military to consider deploying existing THAAD and SM-3 interceptors in Turkey or other countries. These systems should have some capability against Iran's existing Shahab-3 medium-range missiles (which have about a 1,200-kilometer range).

In the end the Polish and Czech sites were not about security; they were about politics. Bush officials and their supporters on the right were trying to box in the next president. They wanted to establish facts on the ground that a future president would find too costly to remove. They were trying to institutionalize missile defense into the U.S. military and security system. The fact that nothing worked was an inconvenience they hoped to overcome by force of will.

Obama has called their bluff. He has replaced nothing with something. Better still, he has turned this into a NATO project, not shady deals struck with this country or that. The new plan announced today promises to provide a real defense capability against an existing threat and strengthen U.S. alliances in the process.