When in Doubt, Give a Middle East Speech

In the cruel world of Israeli, Palestinian, and U.S. politics, talk is cheap.

The looming U.S.-Israeli tensions over who says what first about Israeli-Palestinian peace obscures the broader question on which any successful American initiative depends: Are Israelis and Palestinians ready for a conflict-ending agreement? And if not, is there anything Washington can do about it?

The wise former secretary of state, George Shultz, used to say that when you don't have a policy, the pressure builds to give a speech. These days, that appears to be the focal point of the current efforts on all three sides. In short, if you can't or won't do, then at least talk. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is going to pre-empt the United States with his own plan; President Barack Obama is considering pre-empting the prime minister with his own; and the Palestinians, well, they're planning to counter with their own U.N. gambit on statehood.


The problem with all these initiatives is that none have a strategy to move from words to deeds. The Palestinians actually come closest with their U.N. initiative, but this is, under the best of circumstances, a dangerous leap in the dark unlikely to produce real statehood -- and more likely to generate trouble. All these budding initiatives have the feel of a game of "gotcha" or musical chairs designed to deflect or pre-empt pressure and put it on someone else -- to see, in effect, who's the odd man out when the music stops.

Negotiations remain the only realistic path forward, but the gaps on the core issues are too large to bridge at present. Or to put it more explicitly, Israeli and Palestinian leaders are too constrained to bridge them; the Arab world is too distracted to bring much focus to the problem; and the United States is too unsure about how or what to do about any of the above. As Shultz noted, it's the perfect time to give a speech.

That the Obama administration is thinking about laying out its own views on borders, Jerusalem, security, and refugees when there's no chance of actual negotiations tells you how virtual the peace process has become. The sad reality is that right now the default position is the declaratory one. Unless Netanyahu comes up with something really credible on borders upon which Obama can build, like a chain of falling dominoes we will be drawn inexorably toward more (and unhelpful) Palestinian declarations in New York, and likely more unilateralism and violence.

The only conceivable logic in the president laying out detailed positions on borders, Jerusalem, security, and refugees would be to first improve American credibility in the Middle East, though how a speech that Israelis and Palestinians reject or accept with reservations helps the United States isn't altogether clear. In fact, it could undermine America's influence, becoming the foreign-policy equivalent of BP's Deepwater Horizon disaster: day 80 and nobody's plugged the leak or accepted the Obama plan. The only other possible utility of such a speech would be to attempt to pre-wire it so that the Palestinians accept the parameters for negotiations and are willing to come back to the table on that basis.

Netanyahu would then be forced to choose, or face the consequences in Israeli domestic politics (should ties with the United States fray) and internationally. Washington has never played this hand particularly well, and if the perception is that Obama is trying to set the Israelis up, it certainly won't help the president as he heads into a reelection campaign. But this gambit isn't about getting the two sides to the table soon; it's about regime change in Israel -- never declared of course, but like U.S. Libya policy, an unstated goal.

This unhappy state of affairs is a result of what happens when you face a truly tough problem that nobody has the will or determination to take on. And when unilateral solutions (Gaza disengagement) and bilateral ones (a decade of negotiations on permanent status) backfire; when interim solutions (along the lines of the Oslo Accords) no longer pass muster; and when violence (the 2006 Israel-Hamas war) can't seem to change the calculations of the parties, you arrive at a nasty impasse.

The short answer to whether the Israelis and Palestinians are ready for a conflict-ending agreement is no. And can Washington do anything about it? Not much. Obama could travel to Israel and Palestine to lay out his ideas, appearing with Arab leaders (if there are any left) in both the Knesset and the Palestinian Legislative Council; he could commit millions of international dollars in the service of Palestinian statehood. But the chances that he would actually risk this, or that such a gambit could work under the current circumstances, are slim to none.

Or in the less-than-bold category, Obama could simply give his speech laying out the core positions on the key issues with no real expectation that talks would begin, try to work with Israelis and Palestinians on economic and security matters, and wait for reelection to try something more dramatic. But the simple fact is that Washington needs the locals to buy into something for there to be a real breakthrough; and that's unlikely to happen.

So let the speeches begin. Who knows? Maybe in some turn of phrase or dangling participle lurks the key to Middle East peace. Certainly, talking is a lot better than shooting.

But tragically, history has shown that when the speeches are over, there will be plenty of time for that.


America's Best Worst Partner in Africa

The African Union is hardly an exemplary organization. But ignoring its concerns about Western intervention in Libya is a recipe for disaster.

Once the Arab League was firmly onboard, U.S. President Barack Obama probably thought he'd cleared the major diplomatic hurdles to Western military intervention in Libya. But it is the African Union (AU) that has been the most uncomfortable with it. The AU called for an immediate halt to allied air operations hours after they began, and in a March 10 communiqué it resolutely expressed its "rejection of any foreign military intervention, whatever its form" while also recognizing "the legitimacy of the aspirations of the Libyan people." As the military advantage has seesawed between rebel and government forces and the U.S.-led coalition has hardened its insistence on regime change, the AU has tried to engineer a cease-fire, sending a delegation to Libya to talk to both sides. The rebels duly rejected the AU's proposal, which would have left Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi in power and did not require his forces to withdraw from besieged cities.

Yet the United States should have expected AU pushback. Not without justification, the organization is often seen as a shambolic club for dictators whom Qaddafi himself has enriched. But the AU, at least by default, is also the continent's most effective multilateral institution. For that reason, the United States should broadly embrace its effort to resolve the Libyan conflict on African terms as a salutary attempt to take ownership of an African problem.

More is at stake here than just the future of Libya. The Libya intervention constituted the first major combat operation led and largely executed by U.S. Africa Command (Africom), the United States' newest combatant command, established in October 2008. Before it became operational, tone-deaf U.S. statements conjured images of American bases sprinkled throughout the continent and operational hyperactivity to match. African leaders and populations were so fearful of the neocolonial militarization of U.S. Africa policy that the Pentagon could not find a willing regional host for Africom and instead has had to locate the command's headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany.

During its first two years, Africom was able to address America's two most important African security concerns -- ensuring access to oil and gas and checking a rising transnational Islamist terrorism threat -- while keeping a self-consciously low profile and small footprint that calmed African nerves. The U.S. military's only "kinetic" actions on African soil were selective airstrikes and commando raids on terrorists in Somalia. Africom worked alongside the State Department to built African security capacity through multilateral regional initiatives and groups. The Africa Partnership Station -- a group of U.S. Navy ships dispatched to ports in West Africa and later piracy- and terrorist-plagued East Africa to train local maritime forces -- quietly became an exemplar of enlightened gunboat diplomacy.

The Libya operation has reinvigorated African fears about American power. In 1992, African countries largely welcomed the United States' humanitarian military intervention in Somalia and its promise of a post-Cold War "new world order." Back then, however, the AU did not exist. The reigning continentwide body was the feckless Organization of African Unity (OAU), emasculated by the superpowers' geopolitical domination of the continent and the political decadence that it conditioned. In the event, "mission creep" in Somalia led to an ignominious U.S. withdrawal in 1994, American inaction with respect to the Rwandan genocide, and an impression among Africans that the United States had no taste for African challenges.

With Africa strategically neglected, it was Qaddafi who laid the foundation for more substantial African regional assertiveness in world affairs by spearheading the fin de siècle creation of the AU to replace the OAU. In particular, he doggedly reinforced the AU's guiding proposition -- echoed loudly by Western governments -- that Africans should start solving African problems. His generous investment of Libyan oil revenues around the continent, of course, was a more venal inducement to African fealty. But principle as well as self-interest helps explain, if it does not excuse, South African President Jacob Zuma's term of endearment for Qaddafi -- "Brother Leader" -- and African officials' wish to ease his burden.

However mortal the sins of its godfather, given its severely constrained resources the AU has done a reasonably creditable job of advancing liberal African multilateralism since its inception in 2002. To be sure, the AU is partly composed of brutal, kleptocratic dictators. But institutionally, it is not overtly sympathetic with them or with military coups. It has, of course, opposed an international war crimes trial for Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir. But the AU has also, for example, imposed sanctions on Togo to compel democratic (albeit flawed) elections, pushed for former Chadian dictator Hissene Habre to stand trial for war crimes, and marshaled large contingents of continental troops to thwart ethnic-cleansing militias in Darfur and jihadi militants in Somalia. And it has worked closely with the United States and other outside powers to establish regional African "standby forces" for peacekeeping operations. Although a deeply flawed and unquestionably hypocritical organization, the AU easily beats its sorry predecessor. And it's all we've got.

While it would be irresponsible for the Obama administration to completely disown the Libya operation, it also needs to allay the AU's worries about American militarism and encourage the AU's disposition to rise to its geopolitical responsibility. It should be open to any AU plan consistent with regime change. Beyond that, Washington has to maintain good relations with the AU to ensure the effectiveness of Africom as a key instrument of U.S. energy and counterterrorism policy. Much as Washington might not like the AU, it cannot ignore the AU, nor afford to turn the AU into a diplomatic adversary.

Sub-Saharan Africa is only slowly democratizing. The typical African head of state -- a relatively evolved one like Botswana's Seretse Khama Ian Khama nearly as much as Zimbabwe's retrograde Robert Mugabe -- remains attuned most sharply to threats to his continuation in power. Revolutionary populism does not have the steep trajectory that it does in the Middle East. Although opposition to illiberal leaders can be robust, it is usually channeled -- often effectively -- through existing political institutions. For the United States to overtly encourage the rapid acceleration of democratization with intimations of armed support could engender continental instability when the rest of the world is turbulent enough.

This is not an argument for cynically coddling African dictators, as the United States did during the Cold War. But Washington does need to appreciate the nuances of African politics and security and to articulate compatible limits on the Libyan precedent. Otherwise, it risks diminishing access to oil needed to reduce American dependence on Persian Gulf suppliers, security cooperation needed to combat potential al Qaeda franchises like Somalia's al-Shabab, and indeed the influence required to promote further political reform and shape development in Africa. Furthermore, the United States simply does not have the resources or the wherewithal to police a continent as vast and troubled as Africa; nor do its European allies. It needs an institutional partner, warts and all.

Accordingly, the United States' "strategic communication" to Africa about Libya should emphasize that Africom will continue to be employed mainly to consolidate military-to-military relationships with existing governments and regional organizations while encouraging reform, to enhance Africa's institutional capacity, and to improve its governance. But the administration cannot be disingenuous or obtuse. Especially if the war yields the intended results -- regime change and a viable democratic process in Libya -- the United States must also acknowledge its standing inclination to actively support popular African political movements demonstrating a credible commitment to democratization.

The crucial piece of the message would be what kind of support would be given under what conditions. The administration should cast Libya as a case, in lawyer's parlance, limited to its circumstances. That is, the United States would intervene militarily in support of a popular insurgency only if the insurgency appeared to want, but didn't have realistic resort to, a democratic process; faced a leadership in power determined to use excessive military force; and was decisively overmatched in military terms. Washington should further declare that as a general rule, U.S. support would be political rather than military, overt rather than covert, and preferably extended through and coordinated with the AU.

Thus qualified, the new U.S. policy emerging from the Libya intervention would accord due respect and authority to the AU -- no more, no less. At the same time, it would leave incorrigible strongmen like Mugabe at some direct risk -- as it should -- while reassuring the majority of African leaders, who have embraced tentative democratic experimentation if not full-fledged democracy, that the United States' business with them would proceed as usual. In Africa and elsewhere, it might then be easier for Obama to replace the ominous neoconservative foreign policy narrowly focused on jihadi terrorism that he inherited, Africans fear, and he has found hard to jettison, with a coherent liberal realist policy distinguished by American military restraint and strategic wisdom.