The Second-Term Illusion

Or, why Barack won't be beating up on Bibi next year.

It's 2013. Barack Obama has just been re-elected, the Democrats have retained their majority in the Senate. And the American president, freed from political constraints in a second term, decides to take on an issue that stymied him so badly in his first.

"Israeli-Palestinian peace is critically important to our national interests," Obama tells his new secretary of state (Kerry, Rice, Donilon -- take your pick). "If we don't move now, the two-state solution is dead." 

"It means taking on Benjamin Netanyahu," the secretary responds.

"I'm ready for that," Obama shoots back. "And besides, it's time to find out whether I really deserve that Nobel."

According to popular legend, an American president, unshackled by the politics of reelection, is more willing and able to do forceful Arab-Israeli diplomacy (read: pressure on Israel) during a second term. Over the years, this notion and its rallying cry ("Wait until after November") has encouraged and sustained the hopes, dreams, and fears (in some cases) of Americans, Israelis, Arabs, Palestinians, assorted Europeans, and anyone else frustrated by the lack of progress and persuaded that domestic politics is the albatross around the president's neck.

But of all the urban legends swirling around the presidency and America's Middle Eastern policy, few are as compelling (or as wrong) as that of the empowered two-term president. Like the belief in the existence of a peace-process tooth fairy, it's more myth than reality, and here's why.

No precedent:

That something has never happened doesn't mean it can't happen. Life's full of uncertainties and surprises. But the fact that the second-term fantasy has never played out makes you wonder about the viability of the whole idea. Why is it that in 50 years of U.S. involvement in the peace process, that fantasy has never been tested, let alone realized?

History tells a different and more grounded tale. Most of the toughest diplomacy, particularly with the Israelis, occurred in a president's first term, not the second.

In 1975, barely a year into his short presidency, the much-underestimated Gerald Ford used very tough diplomacy with then Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to secure a second Sinai disengagement agreement between Israel and Egypt.

Three years later, Jimmy Carter pushed early in his first term on Arab-Israeli diplomacy partly because he believed that the odds against a breakthrough would grow longer if he waited. He was encouraged in this view by his National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, who reckoned that it was better to have a battle with the pro-Israel community sooner rather than later.

Likewise, the tough diplomacy leading to the 1991 Madrid peace conference, including the denial of housing-loan guarantees to the Shamir government, also occurred during George H.W. Bush's first and only term -- he never got a second one to test the proposition (and no, Israel wasn't the reason -- it was the economy, stupid).

Of all the second-term diplomacy undertaken by various American presidents, none really fits the model of the empowered, tough-minded two-termer.

Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger's diplomacy (two Arab-Israeli disengagement agreements in 18 months, from 1973 to 1974) did occur in the president's second term, but under very strange circumstances. The October 1973 war created the opportunity, and Nixon, weakened by Watergate, wanted to show that American foreign policy was still vibrant and effective.

In 1988, Secretary of State George Shultz pushed a peace initiative during Reagan's second term, but you'd be hard pressed to call it forceful. Shultz did help engineer a late-in-the-game second term recognition of the Palestine Liberation Organization, but only after its leader Yasser Arafat had met U.S. conditions. And Bill Clinton did undertake a serious diplomatic effort in his second term at Camp David, but it certainly wasn't tough and determined, and certainly wasn't designed to squeeze the Israelis. If anything, he pressed the Palestinians, whom he judged to be evasive and withholding.

The fact is, there's just no historical basis to the proposition of an empowered second-term president getting tough on Arab-Israeli peacemaking or pushing the Israelis around. Regional conditions matter far more than those in Washington.

Same old, same old:

Let's assume for the sake of this thought experiment that Obama does decide that nothing is more important to his second term than Israeli-Palestinian peace (a dubious assumption, but I'll humor myself). And let's further stipulate that he's determined to find a way forward. Domestic politics will be the least of the obstacles that stand in his way, truly more a speed bump than a Mount Everest.

A willful president is critical to success. But more important is the situation in the region and the calculations of Arabs and Israelis. Today, three challenges impede a two state solution: an Israeli prime minister who's very far from either Obama's or the Palestinian position on a deal, a divided Palestinian national movement, and the uncertainties of an Arab Spring that will further limit Israel's flexibility. All will still be there in 2013.

And then there's Iran. Assuming we get through the end of this year without an Israeli military strike (a pretty good bet) or a negotiated solution (another safe wager), the nuclear issue will be front and center in January 2013.

The president's effort to buy time and space to allow sanctions and diplomacy to work to preempt a military solution may be a good idea, but it has created a longer-term problem. In shifting from the rhetoric of containment to prevention, Obama has laid the groundwork for making Iran's nuclear program an American problem and maybe paved the way for a military solution too.

With Israel and now America focused so much on the mullahs' putative nuclear capacity, it's hard to see how any Israeli prime minister -- particularly this one -- would make any concessions on peace with the Palestinians until the Iran situation were much clearer. Add to that the southward-bound direction of the Israeli-Egyptian relationship and you have 1,001 reasons to avoid decisions on the Palestinian issue.

What you see is what you get:

I believe Obama really cares about the Israeli-Palestinian issue; I also think he's terribly frustrated by the lack of progress and holds Israel, specifically Netanyahu, primarily responsible. He'd really like to get tough.

At the same time, Obama has proven himself to be a cautious, pragmatic, and deliberate man. Like FDR, he wanted to be a transformative political figure and alter the trajectory of American domestic and foreign policy. But his nature is more the transactor and the dealmaker. That's who he is.

The president isn't a man of any extreme -- the community organizer, campus radical, alien president trope is a bunch of partisan mumbo jumbo. What's important about Obama's storyline is Harvard Law School, the U.S. Senate, two best-selling books, and succeeding in American politics. To do so, let alone become president, he had to be a man of the system.

When it comes to the Arab-Israeli issue, a second term is more likely to see Obama the unchanged, not the unchained. He's plenty frustrated by Netanyahu. But Obama lacks FDR's partisan toughness and fight; public anger doesn't come naturally, nor does going for the jugular. Instead, he's a compromiser always looking for middle ground and balance, even when it seems naive. That's where his vision of the truth (and solutions) lie.

He has gotten emotional on one issue and that's health care, and he was prepared to fight for it. As for Israelis and Palestinians? He'll take a look in 2013, see where the lay of the land is, and carefully calculate the odds of success or failure. Remember, for a two-term president, legacy cuts both ways: You want to be remembered as the hero, not the goat, and that means leaving a vapor trail of kudos, not stumbles, let alone outright failures. And going all out on Arab-Israeli peace when the conditions just aren't there has failure written all over it.

The reality of the second term:

Every administration is different, but there's a reason the second term doesn't produce unchained presidents throwing their weight and influence around.

First, they don't have as much of either. The first day after Inauguration 2.0, two clocks start ticking: the legacy clock and the lame-duck clock. The first measures what a president can accomplish in the time he has left with the street cred and reputation he's developed; the second watches those assets slip away. It's a race, really.

Presidents and their staffs also get tired, are scandal-prone, and start making mistakes in a second term (see: Reagan and Iran-Contra; Clinton and Monica Lewinsky). And then there's the problem of how America's allies and adversaries perceive the president's waning power. Arafat's decision to pass up Clinton's proposals on final-status deals in December 2000 was clearly driven partly by his galactic miscalculation that he'd get a better deal and a tougher line against Israel from the son of George H.W. Bush.

The fact that Obama won't get a third term may even work against him. Beginning Jan. 21, if not Nov. 5, the Arabs and the Israelis will begin to take the measure of a president who now has a guaranteed expiration date.

If there's anything the locals are really good at, it's evasion, delay, and maneuver in the face of initiatives they don't like. And they'll be taking Barack Obama's measure to see how serious he really is.

What they'll conclude, of course, depends on how the president behaves. But the obstacles standing in the way of a two-state solution are formidable and growing. More than likely, the second-term illusion will remain just that. And in assessing Obama's intentions, credibility, and drive on Middle East peace, the Arabs and Israelis may well conclude that if it swims, has feathers, and quacks, it's more than likely a duck -- and a lame one at that.

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Reality Check

Five Reasons Americans Should be Happy (In a Very Unhappy Middle East)

Cheer up. It's really bad. But all's not lost.

Bad news abounds. The purveyors and prophets of doom and gloom proclaim the broader Middle East to be Dickens on steroids: It's the worst of times squared.

In Iran, the centrifuges spin ever closer to acquiring enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon. In Egypt, Islamists crowd out the liberals and the Google generation. In Syria, the Assads maintain their bloody grip on power, defying the international community and the will of their own people. As for the Israelis and Palestinians, well ... they don't even pretend there's a negotiation in sight, let alone an end to their conflict.

And in the middle of this muddled mess sits the United States. Like some modern-day Gulliver, America seems tied down by small powers whose interests are not its own, and tied up by its illusions.

I'm here to tell you: Cheer up. It's really bad. But all's not lost. Without too much whistling past the graveyard, here are five reasons Americans can smile -- at least for a while -- in a region where things usually get worse before they get worse.

1. We're out of Iraq and soon out of Afghanistan.

It's not pretty, but America is out or getting out of its untenable combat role in the two longest wars in its history, neither of which now seems worth the terrible price we have paid in American lives, crushing traumatic injuries, resources, and credibility.

Winning -- defined as two cohesive stable countries with legitimately elected and accepted governments, the end of sectarian violence and a semblance of respect for democratic principles, human rights, transparency, etc. -- was never possible.

But leaving is. Staying in Afghanistan in significant numbers beyond the decent interval for extrication President Barack Obama has created makes little sense. Honor those who made the sacrifice and respect the good fight they waged. Don't rush for the exits. But do not let anymone guilt you into believing that the current glide path toward the exits will fundamentally betray the Afghans or diminish our credibility.

The notion that we'll be less secure if we don't stay longer is absurd logic. We can't fix Afghanistan -- not in a year or 10. The future of this so-called graveyard of empires will be determined less by anything we've done while there, and far more by events after we depart. But who ever thought otherwise?

The tipping point for extrication has been crossed. The American public rightly senses all too clearly -- as evident in recent polling -- that we can't win or even tie there. The purpose, urgency, and clarity of this war disappeared long ago. The president wants out, and even the Republicans increasingly sense that the game is up. We should be looking forward to the day when no more brave Americans need be killed or injured there, and be happy that soon America will be freed from the consummate great-power conundrum of the past decade: being stuck in places we can neither fix nor leave.

2. America and Middle East oil: the way of the dodo?

Don't say it too loudly: We don't want to jinx it, but the United States is slowly weaning itself off Arab oil.

That doesn't mean we're not still drunk on liquid hydrocarbons. (I have two SUVs, and am still trying to figure out why.) And even if we can free ourselves from Middle East oil, there's still the problem of energy security. For all practical purposes, the price of oil is determined in a single market, vulnerable to global disruptions; nor can we afford all those Middle East reserves falling into unfriendly hands.

But I'll take what I can get. In 2011, the United States imported 45 percent of the liquid fuels it used, down from 60 percent just 6 years earlier. As energy guru Daniel Yergin points out, a new oil order is emerging. And for America, that means the rise of Western Hemispheric energy at the expense of the Middle East. Between new oil in Brazil, oil-sands production in Canada, and shale-gas technology here at home, by 2020 we could cut our dependence on non-Western hemisphere oil by half. Combine that with the rise in national oil production and greater focus on fuel efficiency and conservation, and the trend lines are at least running in the right direction.

Don't get too excited: It's not time to pack up the bases and troops in the Persian Gulf quite yet. But as we become less dependent on Arab oil, those who still are (China, Japan, South Korea, the Europeans) ought to shoulder more of the financial burden for keeping that area stable and secure. Lucky for our fledgling economic recovery that the Arab kings and oil producers, namely the Saudis, have (so far) fared much better than the Arab presidents in weathering the Arab Spring and Winter.

Oil still reigns supreme. But at least be happy that Middle East oil is slowly being dethroned. If we're dedicated, disciplined, and lucky, it will be become less of a lubricant for why we act in this region. And hopefully as a result our own relationships and diplomacy will become a little less greasy too.

3. The Arab Spring did America a big favor.

I have many worries about the Arab Spring, which, in places like Bahrain, Syria, and even Egypt looks too much like winter.

But there's one thing we should be celebrating. In taking to the streets, Arabs did something for us we'd never be able to do for ourselves: Break the devil's bargain we cut with Arab authoritarians decades ago.

Don't get me wrong: Those deals -- you support our policies and we'll support you (and look the other way on bad governance and human rights abuses) carried American policy quite far. We got some Arab-Israeli peace agreements, continued access to Arab oil, sold a lot of military hardware, and procured stability.

But it proved a false stability. Like so much in the world of power politics, these arrangements were made with extractive regimes that were out of touch with their publics and simply couldn't endure. The Middle East may have warranted low expectations in the good-government department, but at some point the same forces of change that were transforming the rest of the world were bound to visit there as well. There was no way the United States would ever have pushed meaningful reform, let alone broken our ties with the authoritarians, unless the street did it for us.

Great powers don't pivot, or in this case let go easily. Indeed, we haven't yet in Egypt, where we're trying to maintain some influence with the military; nor in Bahrain where we tread carefully on regime change and human rights so as not to anger the Saudis or destabilize them. And we may need the Gulf autocrats' help not only to keep prices low at the pump, but also for the looming confrontation with Iran.

Let's be clear: There will be no revolutionary epiphanies here, no transformations in American policy. Our commitment to genuine democratic reform, particularly if we don't like the new democrats, will be slow and gradual. More likely, America will be dragged along and forced to deal with the new realities that emerge, particularly the rising power of the Islamists. If we're lucky, it will produce a more honest conversation between the Arabs and the United States, and just maybe an opportunity to bring America's values into greater alignment with its policies. But we also shouldn't kid ourselves: The process will be long and messy and may well not turn out the way we want.

4. We can't fix everything. Be happy.

America may be the world's indispensable nation, but these days it's with a small "i." Expectations for American power in this region have always run fantastically high. We've had moments of dramatic success, against the backdrop of decades of unspectacular or even failed diplomacy. The good news -- even though it's come at the expense of popping this inflated bubble -- is that the Arabs (and Israelis) too may be finally getting it: We can't, won't, and have no intention of saving them.

The jury is still out on the Iranian nuclear issue. If Israel doesn't bomb, we might. But on almost every other issue -- fixing Iraq and Afghanistan, promoting democratization, solving the Arab-Israeli conflict, bailing out the Arab economies with American dollars -- we really lack leverage and motivation to do much.

The Israeli-Palestinian issue is the poster child for how we have infantilized the Middle East and how it has become too dependent on us. I must have drafted scores of "next steps" memos in the peace process when there really were no next steps, truly.

We clearly still have an important role to play in maintaining security ties with the Gulf states, encouraging political and economic reform, and yes even on the peace process. But that role will depend on a good deal more ownership and responsibility on the part of the locals.

There will be no more 911 calls to save the peace process. And it's about time. We should have long ago tired of whining Israelis, Palestinians, Arabs, and Europeans asking us to do things when they wouldn't or couldn't do their fair share. The two-state solution isn't dead, but the good news is that at least there's an honest recognition now that America alone can't deliver it.

5. We're learning (maybe).

Failure is one of life's great teachers. I know from personal experience, dealing with the Middle East for a few decades. And the United States has encountered plenty in recent years. Much of it has been heartbreaking.

The Middle East is still a mess. Lately, to be sure, it's also seen a great deal of rare promise and hope. But it continues to be marred by violence, economic misery, sectarian strife, religious extremism, conspiracy theories, and leaps of logic and rationality that should worry us all.

Still, I think we're learning a few things. The Obama administration has done pretty well in this regard. No spectacular successes, but no galactic failures either. Our approach is steady and deliberate. It's focused on getting priorities straight: seeing the threats and opportunities clearly and thinking matters through before throwing American military or diplomatic resources at a problem when there's no real strategy to guide it. If that's "leading from behind," so be it, particularly if leading from the front gets you Iraq and Afghanistan.

America doesn't need prophets, ideologues, or geniuses to run its Middle East policy. Just give me a smart president, an empowered secretary of state, and a lot of folks to help them who know history, can find their way around an atlas, and have common sense and good judgment about how American power can be best utilized. It may not guarantee a lot of success, but it will reduce our failures. And that, to be sure, is something to be happy about.


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