The Avoider

Barack Obama's State of the Union address makes one thing clear: The world is no longer America's problem.

If you want to know what an American president's foreign policy is likely to be, particularly in a second term, don't listen to his State of the Union speech. You'd probably have more luck playing with Tarot cards, or reading tea leaves or goat entrails.

But not this year. Barack Obama's fourth such address left a trail of foreign-policy cookie crumbs that lead directly to some pretty clear, if hardly surprising or revolutionary, conclusions. His first term contained no spectacular successes (save killing Osama bin Laden), but no spectacular failures either. And more than likely, that's what the president will settle for in a second, even as the Arab world burns and rogues like Iran and North Korea brandish new weapons. He's nothing if not a cautious man.

Behold: I am the Extricator in Chief

Afghanistan -- the "good war" -- has been pretty much MIA in Obama's speeches since he became president. He's alternated between spending a few words on the mission there (2009) or a paragraph (2010, 2011, 2012). If his words have been brief, the message has been stunningly clear: It's about the leaving. And tonight was no exception. Not more than two minutes in, the president spoke about America's men and women coming home from Afghanistan.

Obama's signature is indeed that of the extricator. And he broke the code early (the 2009 surge was designed politically to get in so that he could get out with a clearer conscience). He is the president who has wound down the longest and among the most profitless wars in American history, where victory was never defined by whether we can win, but by when can we leave. It is his legacy, and one about which he has reason to be proud. Obama has left himself and his military commanders plenty of discretion about the pace of extrication. But that's fine with the president so long as they're heading for the exits.

Not the Destroyer and Rebuilder of Worlds

Surprise, surprise: There was scant mention of Syria in the president's speech -- just one throwaway line about supporting Syria's opposition. Obama did not disengage from Iraq and Afghanistan only to plunge America into new black holes in the Middle East.

Obama isn't worried about boots on the ground in Syria. That was never on the table. Instead the question is this: Given the uncertainty about the end state in Syria and the risks of providing serious weapons to the rebels (and a no-fly zone) that might alter the arc of the fight against the regime, the president saw and continues to see no purpose in America providing arms of marginal utility. That course would either expose him to be truly weak and ineffectual or lead to calls to do more. So he's going to provide non-lethal support and is apparently prepared to take the hits from critics who see the president's policy as passive, cruel, and unforgiving, particularly now that we know that members of his own cabinet clearly wanted to do more.

The Iranian nuclear issue, the other potential tar baby in the SOTU, followed a pretty predictable rising arc of concern in the list of presidential foreign-policy worries. In 2009, in Obama's address to a joint session of Congress (a speech some regard as a SOTU), Iran wasn't even mentioned. In the 2010 SOTU, Obama threatened that if Iran ignored its international obligations, there would be consequences; in 2011, he did the same; and in 2012, he made it clear that he would prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon and take no option off the table.

Obama repeated half of what he said in 2012 about preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, but instead of saying all options were on the table, he spoke of the importance of diplomacy. I suspect he'll go to extreme lengths to avoid war, and won't greenlight an Israeli attack either until the arc of diplomacy has run its course. And then Obama would likely act only if the mullahs push the envelope by accelerating their uranium enrichment program and other military aspects of the nuclear enterprise.

Seizing the Nuclear High Road with Little to Lose

Even as he confronts a real bomb in North Korea (very bad options there) and a potential one in Iran (bad options there too), Obama is trying to make good on a longstanding commitment to reduce America's own nuclear arsenal. Backed by the military chiefs and likely by the public too (getting rid of nukes equals saving money), but opposed by Republicans in Congress, Obama will try to work around the political obstacles by seeking a deal with yes ... you got it ... his old friend Vlad Putin. It's worth a try. If Putin balks or Republicans get in the way, the president can always advocate unilateral cuts -- not something he wants to do. But if he can't have his way on nukes, he can always blame it on the Russians and the Republicans with little to lose. The road to getting rid of nukes is a long one. Let the next guy (or gal) worry about it.

A Little Leg on Palestine?

Obama hasn't mentioned the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a SOTU speech since 2009. And that's no coincidence. His own poorly thought-through initial effort crashed and burned, leaving the president pretty frustrated and annoyed with both Israelis and Palestinians, particularly Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

But hey, that was then. A second-term president has committed himself early in 2013 to a trip to Israel and has an Energizer bunny in Secretary of State John Kerry, who wants to do the right thing and keep the two-state solution alive.

Obama clearly kept his distance from the issue again on Tuesday night. He spoke of standing with Israel to pursue peace, but didn't mention Palestinians or the peace process. He mentioned his own trip to the Middle East, but missed an opportunity to give what might be a trip to the region by his new secretary of state higher profile.

It's just as well. The paradox of the Israeli-Palestinian issue is that it's too complicated to implement right now and too important to abandon. It's in this space that Obama will be forced to operate. And while the odds of success are low, Obama will be tempted in his final term to do something bold, perhaps laying out a U.S. plan of parameters on the key final-status issues.

It's the Middle Class, Not the Middle East

Spoiler alert: Barack Obama might still be a consequential foreign-policy president if he's lucky, willful, and skillful. But it's his domestic legacy that will make or break his presidency. Health care -- his signature legacy issue -- will look much better if the economy improves, driven by a revived housing market and rising employment, and of course if some broader deal can be struck on entitlements and taxes. Immigration reform and gun-control legislation driven by a functional bipartisanship would cement that legacy. He'd be an historic rather than a great president.

Two clocks tick down in a president's second term: the drive for legacy and the reality of lame duckery. Obama's political capital will diminish quickly. Where, how, and on what he wants to spend it is critical. The Middle East is violent and volatile and may yet suck him in, but if he can avoid it, he'll try. This was a State of the Union address that stressed fixing America's broken house, not chasing around the world trying to fix everyone else's. The future of America isn't Cairo or Damascus; it's Chicago and Detroit.


Reality Check

The Peace Processor

An interview with Palestinian negotiator-in-chief Saeb Erekat.

Other than Mahmoud Abbas, Saeb Erekat could be the most recognizable Palestinian on the planet. The chief Palestinian negotiator is certainly among the most passionate in promoting the cause. And nobody on the Palestinian side knows the substance of the issues or the negotiating history better.

I first met Erekat in the late 1980s, while working on the Palestinian issue for then Secretary of State George Shultz. Back then, the U.S.-educated diplomat was already showing the brashness and outspokenness that would make him one of the most memorable -- if exasperating -- of the Palestinians with whom we dealt.

He annoyed then Secretary of State James Baker by wearing his kaffiyeh around his shoulders at the opening of the Madrid Peace Conference in October 1991. And over the years, he continued to annoy the Israelis too with his fiery performances on CNN -- though to this day, key Israeli negotiators, such as Isaac Molho, continue to praise his pragmatism at the bargaining table.

It was Erekat's academic bent, analytical chops, and capacity to write in English that would make him so indispensable to the only Palestinian who really counted in those days -- Yasir Arafat. Erekat was a unique figure -- neither a fighter (no nom de guerre for him), nor a PLO insider, nor an organization man from Tunis. Rather, he was a West Banker from Jericho, and he succeeded in maintaining his relevance in a Palestinian political scene dominated not by fellow academics, but by hard men defined by struggle and intrigue. During the heady days of the peace process, he became a key point of contact for the Americans, the Israelis, the Arabs, and much of the rest of the international community.

I came to know Erekat not only as a negotiator, but as a person. He sent his kids to Seeds of Peace, a conflict resolution and coexistence organization that I ran briefly after leaving the State Department, and my daughter befriended his and stayed with the Erekats in Jericho. Saeb and I have yelled at each other, defended our respective positions, laughed, and mourned opportunities that were never adequately explored. But through it all, what he said about himself was true: He wasn't as pro-Palestinian or pro-Israeli as much as he was pro-peace.

That peace has proven elusive to this day. But with all our differences -- and there are many -- I believe Erekat believes in its possibility. Who else would list as an "objective" on his resume: "Solve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict based on a two state negotiated solution through diplomatic offices"?

If, or perhaps when, another effort to negotiate a deal is made, one thing is clear -- Erekat will be in the middle of it. Last week, he agreed to answer my questions on the past and future of the Israeli-Palestinian problem.

FP: What were your best and worst moments in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, and what was the greatest missed opportunity?

Saeb Erekat: Though I was not the chief negotiator at that moment, the connection between [then Prime Minister Yitzhak] Rabin and President Arafat made everyone around them, including myself, feel that peace was possible. There was significant progress in all tracks until Rabin's assassination by an Israeli terrorist -- after he was killed, no Israeli leader had the vision to understand that the window of opportunity for a two-state solution would close as fast as they continued their colonization policies.

The missed opportunity has definitely been Israel throwing away the Arab Peace Initiative, which offers normalization of relations of 57 countries with Israel in exchange for Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 border. They threw it away by bombing Gaza, by intensifying collective punishments, and by increasing settlement construction all over the occupied West Bank, particularly in and around Occupied East Jerusalem.

FP: 2013 is the 20th anniversary of the Oslo negotiations. What was Oslo's greatest success, and its greatest failure?

SE: The fact that, two decades after Oslo, we are still a nation under occupation shows that Israeli governments did derail it. The interim accords were not supposed to last for 20 years but only five. After that, we were going to enjoy freedom and sovereignty.

But Israel increased its settlement expansion. In fact, within 20 years, the number of settlers almost tripled. The institution-building efforts led by the Palestinian government have been completely undermined by the lack of freedom. This situation cannot continue. Oslo succeeded in bringing back 250,000 Palestinians from the diaspora and building the capacity for our state. The international community failed though, by granting Israel an unprecedented culture of impunity that allowed them to use negotiations as a means to continue rather than stop colonization.

FP: What is the most important thing Israelis don't understand about Palestinians?

SE: That we are not going anywhere. As simple as that. We are not going to disappear just because their government builds an annexation wall around us.

They should close their eyes and imagine their state within 10 years time. What do they see? If they continue their policies, they are going to officially adopt the form of an apartheid regime, which I think is not what many Israelis want.

FP: What is the most important thing Palestinians have learned about Israelis? 

SE: That Israelis will not take back the ships that brought them here to leave somewhere else. We got to understand that we have to live side by side. The rules of engagement, though, cannot be those of apartheid, but those of freedom.

FP: What do you expect from the next Israeli government on the peace process?

SE: I don't think there is room for optimism, but our position hasn't changed. We don't see any other solution than a two-state solution. Any Israeli government that recognizes this fact and respects what previous governments have agreed upon should become a partner for peace.

FP: Is Hamas-Fatah unity possible, and what would the impact be on the future of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations?

SE: We expect to have progress in the near future, with Hamas allowing the Central Elections Commission to register new voters in Gaza. I believe there is political agreement -- in fact, there is a signed agreement. We expect to have elections as soon as possible, which is the right way to solve our differences: Let our people decide, those in Palestine as well as our people in the Diaspora.

Having said so, Hamas has recognized the Palestine Liberation Organization as the sole and legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, including its mandate to negotiate a final status agreement with Israel. Once that is achieved, we expect to hold a national referendum.

FP: How would you describe Egypt's role in the peace process now? What do you expect from President Barack Obama's administration with regards to the peace process? 

SE: Egypt has played a central role, and continues to do so. We trust that Egypt, under President Mohamed Morsy's leadership, will continue to play a strong role because Palestine and Egypt have a common interest in achieving peace.

President Obama had stated that he has a personal commitment to bring peace to the Middle East. We, the Egyptians, and the rest of the Arab world tell him that we are ready for peace. We have the Arab Peace Initiative. This goes in line with the stated U.S. national interest. Washington's failure to explicitly say that Israel is to blame for choosing settlements over peace has contributed to Israel's culture of impunity.

FP: Can America be an effective broker in negotiations?

SE: If the U.S. decides to be an honest broker, it could not only be effective but in fact could bring real peace to the region, a just and lasting one. The U.S. has a moral obligation toward the Palestinian people, who have been under occupation and living in exile for decades.

FP: Is a two state solution still possible?

SE: Yes, but only if there is a political will. So far, Israel's will is about colonization, and the international community has failed to put an end to decades of double standards by treating Israel as a state above the law. We don't see any other solution than a two-state solution, though Israel is taking us to a one-state reality.