Obama Can’t Get No Respect

World leaders don't lose any sleep after snubbing the president. Here's why.

The late Rodney Dangerfield (formerly Jacob Cohen of Deer Park, New York) made a successful career out of getting no respect. "Last week I told my wife we needed a home improvement loan; she gave me  $1000 to move out," was the comic's sort of gag.

These days President Obama might consider taking his own no respect routine on the road. Last week he was playing a pretty convincing Rodney Dangerfield.

In as many days, two American allies, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli premier Benjamin Netanyahu, delivered back-to-back snubs to the President. Abbas rebuffed U.S. efforts to prevent the Palestine Liberation Organization from pushing for non-member observer state status at the United Nations, and Bibi plowed ahead (literally) with plans for new settlements in East Jerusalem -- including the radioactive E-1 project, which would effectively cut the West Bank in half by separating Ramallah and Bethlehem from Jerusalem. Last week's string of no's should hardly have come as a surprise to anyone following the course of Obama's foreign and domestic policy during his first term.

Over the last four years, the nadas have come fast and furious -- from friends and foes alike. Iraq's Nuri al-Maliki said no to a status of forces agreement, the Iranian mullahs said no to stopping enrichment, Putin said no to any U.N. Security Council resolution on Syria, and Pakistan continues to support the Taliban and oppose American goals in Afghanistan. The one no that actually helped Obama -- but hurt the country -- was the Republican "Just Say No" platform to every facet of the White House's agenda, which  cost the GOP big-time at the polls.

Nor is there much prospect that the no's are going to end anytime soon. From wrangling with Republicans on the edge of the fiscal cliff to wrestling with the Russians,  Chinese, and the Iranian mullahs, Barack Obama seems trapped between his "Yes We Can" hopes and the "No You Won't" realities. 

But is anyone really surprised? It's a cruel and unforgiving world out there and America doesn't control it. Indeed, in my favorite part of the world -- the angry, broken and dysfunctional Middle East -- we have even less influence these days.  Our old friends (dependable autocrats like Hosni Mubarak, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, and Ali Abdullah Saleh) have gone the way of the dodo. And the new rising Islamists (Mohamed Morsi, Hamas, and even the Turks) don't care much for our policies.

It's no wonder that the most successful aspects of Obama's foreign policy are those areas where the United States acts unilaterally and doesn't have to depend on the naysayers (see: The withdrawal from Iraq and soon Afghanistan, and the drone war). Obama abroad can we summed up in one phrase: no spectacular successes and no spectacular failures. Anything more in the win column will depend on a cast of characters (Putin, Abbas, Morsi, the mullahs, Netanyahu) who have little interest in giving in to American persuasion or pressure.

But saying no to America is a more complex business than you might imagine. There are different ways of saying no, and the reasons behind the rejections are often more nuanced than they appear at first glance. However they are delivered, they still come out as negatives, of course, -- never a great thing for a great power's street cred. Here's a definitely politically incorrect guide to the art of rejection.

Abbas: The "I Don't Trust You" No

Here's the blunt truth: Mahmoud Abbas's willingness to push ahead with his U.N. statehood bid over strong U.S. objections will not advance the two-state cause. But his reasons for doing so are perfectly understandable. 

Abbas is weak and feckless. But he has given up the gun and is likely the best partner Israel has ever had. Negotiations aren't an option right now, and we'd be foolish to push him back to the table when Netanyahu is sure to offer only embarrassment and inevitable failure. Hamas is rising and the Palestinian Authority's cred is falling after having failed to deliver either an end to Israel's occupation or economic prosperity. Abbas is long in the tooth and thinking about his legacy, even if it's only a matter of symbols.

Abbas would like to work with the United States. But he just doesn't trust Obama -- and he shouldn't. If the key American talking point to block the recent Palestinian initiative at the United Nations was "don't move, I'll gin up a big peace initiative, just be patient," I can see why Abbas went to New York.

Netanyahu: The "Screw you and the Pony you Rode In On" No

Bibi is feeling pretty good these days - and the Israeli premier is usually on his guard about something. The Gaza operation worked out pretty well. He got Egypt and the United States to hold his coat while he conducted an intense air and missile campaign. He's got no serious challengers in the upcoming elections.

Isn't it the time for magnanimity, or at least a little forbearance, you ask? Have you ever met Bibi? It's a perfect time to stick it to both Abbas and the Americans. Abbas has just delivered a speech at the United Nations that doesn't mention two states for two peoples, talks about Israel's racist colonialist policies, and leaves the Israelis guessing about the Palestinians submitting war crimes charges to the ICC.

So let's build, Bibi thinks. Not only housing units in east Jerusalem -- but why not take additional steps on the controversial E-1 master plan? Bibi knows this is an American red line. But he likely figures he can shore up his right-wing base and get away with it in Washington. He's testing Obama early in the second term and figures that the president won't push back against Israel -- particularly now that he's approaching the end game on the fiscal cliff with Republicans who are looking for vulnerabilities they can exploit. 

Putin: The "What Do You Expect from an ex-KGB Leader of a Fading Great Power" No

We've seen Putin in three different terms so far -- two as a president, one as prime minister. And while he's not above cutting deals with Obama, what's come through more strongly is his need to stand up to the United States and use it as his punching bag. Whether it's on missile defense, Syria, expelling USAID, or blasting America's ambassador to Moscow, Putin has launched a full-fledged assault on U.S. interests and values.

This kind of behavior isn't just tactics, it's deeply ingrained in the nature of an obsessively suspicious former intelligence agent whose distrust of the West is as firmly anchored as his love of Russia, and his grieving over the loss of status and prestige of the Russia that used to be.

Putin just can't help himself. His first inclination is to believe the worst about U.S. motives. The marriage of insecurity and grandiosity in his own personality -- and in Russia's national identity -- guarantees it. Getting Putin to say yes may be possible, but it's bound to be a long and painful process. Any reset of relations will continue to be hostage to Russia's own authoritarian system and Putin's authoritarian and controlling personality.

Morsy:  The "Yes That Really Means No"

Barack Obama had it right the first time when he asserted back in September that he wasn't sure the new Egypt under Mohamed Morsy was an ally of the United States. I hope in the wake of Morsy's domestic power grab -- and even after the positive role he played in the Gaza ceasefire -- the president hasn't forgotten that.

We tend to conflate tactics and strategy, ends and means. And we tend to look on the bright side of things, or even search for Hollywood endings. This was the case with the Tahrir Square narrative -- and we're doing it again with Morsy.

The Egyptian president's figurative yes - commitment to democratization -- isn't an endorsement of real power-sharing.  Nor does his role in the Gaza ceasefire signal Morsy's emergence as a peace process devotee.

Morsy found himself in a tough spot as the prospect of an Israeli ground incursion into Gaza loomed. This crisis would have been a needless distraction from his bid to consolidate power and secure badly needed international assistance, and he might have been forced to place Egypt in a destructive confrontation with the United States.

But Morsy isn't about to become Obama's proxy on the peace process. Unlike Mubarak, he doesn't support a two state solution, hadn't mentioned Israel once publicly until the Gaza crisis, and as a Muslim Brother can hardly be expected to push for the concessions on Jerusalem required for an Israeli-Palestinian deal. Nor should he be confused for a democrat: The party whose interests he represents is authoritarian and exclusivist. He'll share power if he's forced to -- and then likely only with the military, another anti-democratic force in Egypt.

Until proven otherwise, Obama needs to be wary of the short-term tactical yes that is really long-term strategic no.

The Mullahs: "The No that Really Means No -- or Maybe ‘Yes, But...'"

The Iranians have been saying no to Obama on the nuclear issue since he came into office. And the reason isn't hard to divine: Iran's conviction that it has the right to enrich uranium is a matter of national identity and pride. I also believe that because Iran is a state driven by profound insecurity and grandiosity, it also wants a nuclear weapon to guard against the first and enhance the second, though this is eminently arguable proposition.

Can Iran's no become a yes? For the right price, maybe. Under the right circumstances the mullahs may be prepared to say yes...but.

A deal with the Iranians will involve a very high price -- enrichment of uranium at higher levels than the Israelis or the United States may be ready to accept and major relief on sanctions, at a minimum. Iran is hurting: Sanctions and the threat of force are taking a toll on Tehran, and the fall of the Assads in Syria will be another blow. At the same time, that result could also toughen Iran's terms for a deal and even accelerate its desire for a weapon as fear of Sunni encirclement intensifies. 

We better get used to this parade of no's. You can choose your reasons why -- the world is a cruel place, we don't control it, Obama is weak, saying no to America isn't new, or all of the above. 

But one thing is clear. Saying no to the United States may not be new, but it seems to have gotten a whole lot easier. And that's not great for our credibility and deterrence. There just doesn't appear to be much negative cost or consequence for saying no to the world's greatest power any more - unless, of course, you find yourself on the wrong end of a Predator drone.


Reality Check

The Peace Process Tooth Fairy

How Morsy, Hamas, and Bibi stole the peace process.

I'd love to believe in the peace process tooth fairy. I really would.

In the wake of the Israeli-Hamas ceasefire in Gaza, I'd love to believe:

That the Egyptian government -- backed by the Turks, the Saudis and the Qataris -- would put its money where its mouth is and press Hamas to give up its deadly and indiscriminate arsenal of unguided rockets.

That Hamas would meet the Middle East Quartet's conditions, including the renunciation of violence and the recognition of Israel, and enter into a dialogue with the Israelis.

That Hamas and Fatah would reconcile -- forging one gun, one authority, and one negotiating position. This unified Palestinian national movement would then settle on terms for a deal with Israel that belongs to this world, not some fantasy galaxy.

That Israel would cease settlement construction in the West Bank and understand that its long-term security and its character as the democratic nation-state of the Jewish people depends on a meaningful peace with the Palestinians.

But back on planet Earth, this wish list remains as realistic as the tooth fairy's business plan. And instead of progress toward a two-state solution, another more realistic and less transformative trend is underway.

Like Grinches who stole the peace process, the three most important regional actors -- Israel, Egypt, and Hamas -- have indirectly aligned at the expense of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to take the two-state solution in a completely different direction. The members of this informal cabal are pursuing policies that cannot possibly guarantee long-term stability, let alone produce a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian problem. But that may just fine with them, and it may even be all that the peace-process traffic can bear right now. Here's why.


It took almost a quarter century for the Palestine Liberation Organization -- the secular manifestation of Palestinian nationalism -- to recognize Israel and to engage in a peace process with Israel. One can only surmise how long it will be before Hamas -- the religious manifestation of Palestinian nationalism -- follows the same path. Hamas officials, such as the organization's head Khaled Meshaal, have flirted with the idea of coming to terms with Israel's existence (for now). But not recognizing Israel, as Arafat and Abbas have done.

But all of this is really beside the point. Hamas has other objectives right now -- consolidating its control over Gaza, ending economic restrictions on the Strip, continuing to spread its influence in the West Bank, and deepening its relations with other Islamists in the Arab world.

None of this is served by a continued fight with Israel, nor by a peace process that forces Hamas to violate its own ideology and split its ranks. Indirect talks with Israel that leading to a long-term truce, or hudna in Arabic, would do nicely.


We need to distinguish between President Mohammed Morsy's tactics and his strategic objectives. Like Hamas, he may have radical end goals, but he currently has other priorities -- namely, consolidating power and securing economic aid from the West.

His ownership of the recent ceasefire between Israel and Hamas had less to do with wanting to play a central role in Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts than a means to achieve those other ends.

The recent escalation in Gaza threatened to trap Morsy in a no-win situation. If the conflict worsened, it would have placed him in an escalating crisis with Israel and the United States and forced him to respond aggressively against fellow Islamists if the Israelis launched a ground incursion.

Once Israel and Hamas gave him enough room to broker an agreement, he saw an opportunity to cover a move on the domestic side -- his assault on the judiciary -- through the goodwill he'd earned from the Americans and others.

Morsy is not like Egyptian presidents of yesteryear -- Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak --when it comes to the peace process. He has other objectives right now, and reaching out to Israel or pressuring Hamas or Abbas to accept concessions aren't among them. As a Muslim Brother (once a BRO always a BRO), Morsy will have a tough time accepting major concessions on Jerusalem. Indeed, he can barely bring himself to talk about two states. But in the short term, he too benefits by stability in Gaza and a longer-term ceasefire.


For Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Gaza ceasefire offered a lifeline: He demonstrated two months before an election that he has functional relationships with U.S. President Barack Obama and Morsy, avoided a costly incursion into Gaza, and restored quiet to Israel's southern communities -- all without making any major concessions.

The current Israeli government cannot afford a big peace-process effort right now. Barring some event we cannot divine, Netanyahu will be in a position to form the next Israeli government. The ceasefire agreement ensures it.

But Bibi won't want a bold peace-process move next year, either. Moving forward on borders, Jerusalem, and refugees will divide his coalition and confront him with agonizing choices he doesn't want to make. And besides, his major priority in 2013 won't be the peace process, but Iran. It may well be that no Israeli premier would be in a position to make major concessions on a Palestinian state until there's much more clarity on the Iranian nuclear issue. A long-term de facto agreement with Hamas serves his purposes too.

Abbas, America, and the two-state solution

There's no need to belabor the obvious. The current alignment of Egypt, Hamas, and Israel will come at the expense of Abbas and the peace process. And there's little he can do about it. Pushing for observer state status this week at the United Nations may be critical for Abbas -- but it counts for very little given what's happening on the ground.

Abbas will remain relevant because the two-state solution is too important to fail even though it's too complex to implement. And besides, the current Egypt-Hamas-Israel troika won't hold forever. Hamas will rearm and reload, and there are limits to the economic concessions Israel is prepared to make in Gaza. Sooner or later these two will come to blows again, and Morsy will find himself forced to push for more from the Israelis.

Still, if left to its own devices, the current alignment may well conspire to shape the political landscape of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict away from a conflict-ending solution toward a series of provisional outcomes -- some more manageable than others.

One thing is clear. There will be no meaningful peace initiatives coming from Egypt, Hamas, Abbas, or Israel. That leaves the Obama administration -- perhaps the only conceivable peace process actor now -- to contemplate changing this new status quo.

And because this president has either convinced himself or been convinced by others (perhaps rightly) that the two-state solution may well expire on his watch if nothing is done, I suspect he'll try to do something significant -- regardless of the odds against success.

There's no stopping it: Beavers build dams, teenagers talk on the phone, and American presidents and secretaries of state conduct very serious diplomacy on the Arab-Israeli peace process. It's in our DNA. We can't help ourselves -- nor, in the minds of many, should we control ourselves. The peace process and its imagined outcome -- a two-state solution -- has been sainted and canonized in America's foreign policy.

Even so, the holy grail of Middle East peacemaking seems to recede further from our grasp with each passing year. One can only hope that, this time around, the president's foray into the peace process is better considered, better timed, and more thoughtfully conceived than his first.