Why Obama Failed in the Middle East

From the Arab Spring, to Syria, to Iran, to the peace process, President Barack Obama's actions have yet to live up to his high-flying rhetoric.

It is the cruelest of ironies that President Barack Obama's legacy in the Middle East -- a signature issue for many U.S. presidents -- now lies in the hands of two of his most intractable adversaries: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. It also probably doesn't make him sleep any easier that the third major player is a man with whom he has a famously dysfunctional relationship: Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu.

It's cruel because saving Syria, resolving the Iranian nuclear issue, and achieving Israeli-Palestinian peace seem well beyond the president's capacity -- even if he boasted the support of willing and trusting partners. And it's ironic because Obama set out not to preside over catastrophes in the Middle East but to transform the region for the better. He now risks being the president on whose watch it all became so much worse.

Is this unhappy tale primarily Obama's fault? No. But on the four key issues that will likely define the president's legacy in this region, his critics have already reached a very different conclusion -- and history may too.

A regional order transformed

It was both Obama's luck and misfortune to have been president during a historic, once-in-a-century transformation of the Middle East. You don't get to be a doer of great deeds unless you're confronted with great events and are then able to help shape them (see: Lincoln, FDR).

Obama was lucky enough to have the first, but he couldn't -- his critics allege -- produce the second. Unlike the period from 1986 to 1992, when Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush were perceived as proactive players in shaping events after the crumbling of the Soviet Union, Obama may be seen as more the bystander.

The comparisons to the end of the Cold War are perhaps a bit unfair. The president was indeed on the right side of history in the early acts of the Arab Spring: He recognized the inevitability of the end of America's authoritarian friends in Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen -- and to his credit, he was proactive in helping get rid of Libyan autocrat Muammar al-Qaddafi.

But subsequent inattention in Libya and the Benghazi debacle, Obama's vacillation about how to deal with Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy and the Muslim Brotherhood, a hesitancy to speak out more forcefully against the Brothers' exclusivist and arbitrary policies in Egypt, and acquiescence to Saudi-backed repression in Bahrain raised doubts about whether he had indeed moved to the right side of history.

Yet the "who lost the Middle East?" debate is really a silly one -- the region was never Obama's to lose. America cannot dictate the course of events there, even if it wanted to. It was, after all, Arabs' ownership of their own politics that gave the Arab Spring its authenticity and legitimacy.

But the strange marriage of neocons and liberal interventionists has hammered home the theme that the president has lacked vision, leadership, and strength in responding to these historic transformations. Where was the appointment of the "super envoy" to oversee America's strategy toward the Arab Spring, the task forces to monitor regional developments around the clock, and the strategic use of incentives and disincentives to reinforce positive change and lay down markers in the face of negative behavior? Or was it all just too much -- too fast and furious to keep track of?

Had the Arab Spring moved in the right direction, Obama would have been hailed as a strategic genius for his smart, low-cost management from the sidelines. Sadly, it has moved the other way -- toward instability, violence, and dashed hopes. As a result, what people saw -- certainly those in the Middle East, where it's easy to blame somebody else for your troubles -- is a president who became strangely disconnected and who at best just seemed to have other things to do. At worst, he seemed to have simply stopped caring.

Syria: Exhibits A to Z

Nowhere is the charge of passivity and abandonment more likely to stick than in Syria.

I've supported the president's risk-averse approach on Syria, largely because the endgame the United States wants -- a liberal, secular, pro-Western Syria -- is beyond America's capacity to achieve from the outside and not worth the risk of a more muscular intervention that would require the United States to be on the inside. Splitting the difference by thinking America can get what it wants by arming this or that rebel group in a sea of competing rebel groups and external actors for which Syria is truly vital is, well, laughable.

History may prove much less sympathetic, however. Syria's isn't Obama's Rwanda. But the killing -- and the passive reaction of the entire international community -- will raise inevitable questions about what more could have been done.

It won't help the president's case that key members of his national security team recommended doing more and he overruled them. It may not be remembered that "more" would barely have altered the military arc of the conflict.

It's lonely at the top. And the president will be criticized on moral, humanitarian, and strategic grounds for not doing more. Plenty of circumstances could still bring America into Syria, particularly the use of chemical weapons on a large scale. But barring some heroic, improbable intervention that brings down the Assads and stabilizes the country, it's hard to see how Obama could create a counternarrative to the judgment history is likely to bestow on him.


Obama stands to be the U.S. president who either allows Iran to get a nuclear weapon, is the first to bomb the country, or becomes the guy who cuts an interim deal that keeps the mullahs a few years away from nuclear nirvana. That last scenario, by the way, comes with ready-made tensions with Netanyahu, with whom Obama just mended fences. The Israeli prime minister will wonder how a limited tactical deal on enrichment fixes Israel's strategic problem with prospective Iranian nukes. It also offers no real guarantees that the Israelis -- unhappy with a diplomatic outcome -- don't at some point resort to military action on their own. If he's really lucky, he gets out of town before Iran gets the bomb, and then it's the next president's headache.

Not a terribly appetizing menu for the legacy buffet. A military strike could make Obama look strong, but there are those pesky, unpredictable repercussions, including plunging financial markets, skyrocketing oil prices, and escalating regional tensions. A grand bargain in which the mullahs gave up their nuclear weapons ambitions and began to work with the West toward a more stable Middle East would make the president look like a genius. But it's an outcome he's unlikely to see.

The reality is that Iran -- followed by North Korea -- is probably the most difficult puzzle in the international system today. There are no happy endings or comprehensive solutions. And for this president, who has publicly vowed not to allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapon, the ironies abound. Think about this: His predecessor went to war against Iraq, a war Obama strongly opposed, because of imaginary weapons of mass destruction, only to strengthen and embolden an Iran that could cross some significant nuclear threshold on Obama's watch.

The much-too-promised land

Obama's hopes for burnishing his legacy don't improve when it comes to Arab-Israeli peacemaking. Will he become the president on whose watch the two-state solution finally expires?

Here, perhaps, there's more time, leeway, and even some hope to improve the odds of leaving a meaningful legacy behind. Sure, the possibility of a big, conflict-ending accord seems pretty remote, but in between doing nothing and the full monty, there's much to be tried. And Secretary of State John Kerry -- the new, very smart and savvy Energizer Bunny of U.S. diplomacy -- is well suited to the task, if the president gives him the latitude.

Kerry has a lot of options as he attempts to kick-start the peace process. He can try to first define the borders of a provisional Palestinian state. He might try to focus on terms of reference to guide a negotiation. He could even sprinkle in some resonant confidence-builders for both sides and a kind of code of conduct during a negotiating period. And if he's really ambitious, he can see where the gaps are on all the issues, including Jerusalem and refugees, and try for a framework agreement that would garner support in the Arab world by tying it to the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative.

Given the uncertainties in the region and the gaps between the new Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority, I think Obama has no illusions about Israeli-Palestinian peace. That's why he has a Plan B in mind: the legacy initiative. And that's the Obama parameters -- laying out U.S. views on the big issues to define the negotiations. It's not a perfect approach: Kerry, I'm told, wants an actual agreement. If all else fails, however, you can lay out these parameters, and who knows -- with enough effort, maybe you can get one side to embrace them and then try to leverage the other.

But even if you can't, Obama can use them to demonstrate his commitment to the desirability and importance of a two-state solution. This kind of exercise is vintage Obama -- rhetorical, above the details, plenty of thematic altitude with no need for real follow-up. It's not great for U.S. credibility if there are no takers and the Obama initiative is left hanging, but it beats the alternative: a big, fat goose egg from a president who initially set the bar so high.

Might Obama's zero for three-and-a-half legacy be averted? Can't the next several years offer up a different and happier set of endings? Isn't it still possible for Obama to be the president he wanted to be: the transformer, the peacemaker, the visionary leader?

It's hard to see how. The issues in this region are so complex, the mistrust between the parties so deep, the number of moving pieces so many, that it's tough to imagine grand bargains and transformative change brokered by a risk-averse president.

The pull of doing great things that initially inspired Obama will continue to tug. At least when it comes to the Middle East, the president should do everything he can to mightily resist it. Big transformations require that the locals -- in this case, the Iranians, Israelis, and Palestinians -- share real urgency and ownership. Only then can a willful and skillful president exploit that urgency and ownership and turn crisis into opportunity.

Right now, the first isn't evident and the second is a still a thought experiment. Obama ought to think transactions, not transformations: Try a serious effort to broker a deal with the mullahs before going to war, and do the same with Israelis and Palestinians to preserve the possibility of peace. Such interim accords aren't sexy or the stuff of which legacies are made. They won't get Obama into the presidential hall of fame. But they are both desirable and possible.

And if Obama is really lucky, he just might be able to do something that seems pretty consequential right now: leaving this broken, angry, and dysfunctional region a little better than he found it.

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Reality Check

Been There, Done That

Let's hold the applause. Obama's trip to Israel was nothing new.

Forgive me if I don't join the parade currently marching down Constitution Avenue.

Barack Obama's recent trip to Israel was indeed a brilliant success. Low -- or perhaps more precisely, no -- expectations helped. Had it occurred earlier, we might have avoided the soap opera that has passed for U.S.-Israeli relations during the president's first term.

Powered by terrific speeches and wonderful visuals, Obama succeeded in recasting his image in Israel -- and America too -- as a genuinely pro-Israeli leader. He even managed to convert his press availability with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu into a more relaxed event, which could have convinced the casual observer that these two men actually like one another.

But before we get sucked down the rabbit hole into some wondrous Middle Eastern fantasy world, let's take a collective deep breath. Until we have a lot more information, it might be better to see the president's inaugural visit to Israel as more about managing old business and checking boxes than as a determined leap into the wonderful world of two-state diplomacy.

A woman I met at the Baker Institute in Houston last Friday got it right. "That Obama isn't gonna waste a lot of chits on the Palestinian issue," she said, in smart and direct Texas style. Maybe he won't. But if he does try, he's going to need a much better sense from Israelis and Palestinians that he has a chance to succeed.

Obama's no fool. He's a busy guy with a full domestic agenda. He didn't make up with Bibi only to go to war with him again over the peace process -- unless there's a real chance to get something big done.

For now, the president's trip to Israel still has the ring of a "been there, done that" exercise. And here's why.

Politics: Check the old box

As he began his second term, Obama had a problem he needed to fix. His own naive effort to get Netanyahu to freeze settlement growth had collided with the will of the tough-minded Israeli prime minister. Obama's detached, emotionless style and Bibi's previously existing suspicions only exacerbated tensions. These factors combined to produce one of the most dysfunctional pairs in the history of the U.S.-Israeli relationship.

That broken personal relationship was both unnecessary and politically harmful. It gave Republicans a hammer to hit the president, made Democrats nervous, and just wasn't good for business all around -- particularly if Democrats wanted a chance to take back the House in 2014. And so, even though presidential visits by sitting presidents are rare --only four of 11 have visited Israel since 1948 -- going to Israel early in his term was smart and necessary.

Policy: Manage the new challenges

The trip was smart policy too. Right now the Middle East is as complex, angry, dysfunctional, broken, and impervious to American influence as I've ever seen it. Americans are sick of the region and don't care much about it now, but things can get much worse.

The president needed to get an oar deeper in the water, to manage things as best he can. After all, it's not 2009 anymore. The clock's ticking down on Obama's presidency -- before you know it, the reality of lame-duck status will undermine his effectiveness.

As it stands now, in addition to Syria, Obama could be the president on whose watch two catastrophes befall the region. First, Iran could get the bomb, or he could go to war to stop it. Second, the window for a two-state solution to the Palestinian issue could slam shut. Whether Obama can actually fix either of these problems isn't the point. If he's to have any chance of dealing with them effectively, he needs to develop a much more functional tie with Netanyahu, who will play a central role in each.

That effort began last week, and by all appearances was largely successful. The president clearly bought time and space from Bibi for U.S. diplomacy with Iran, and in not pushing the settlements issue, may have built up some credibility to press the prime minister later on the bigger issues. Orchestrating the call between Netanyahu and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was a nice touch to boot.

Whether Obama's reset and his newfound popularity in Israel can help convert Bibi to the president's view of the world -- that it's necessary to use diplomacy with the mullahs and launch negotiations with the Palestinians to promote peace -- is an arguable proposition. After all, this isn't one hand clapping. Israel is only one actor -- no matter how vital. There are these other people called Palestinians and Iranians too with their own politics, agendas, and needs.

The re-reset?

The affable, even semi-affectionate tone in the Bibi-Obama press conference, as well as the warmth with which the president was received in public, masks some inconvenient truths with regard to the leaders' policy differences. For instance, if Obama tries to sells the Israelis on a deal with the mullahs on uranium enrichment, he'll likely find real skepticism.

If he pushes too hard on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, however, he may well run into open opposition and hostility. No matter how well this visit went, there are fundamental differences between Bibi and Obama on the core peace-process issues -- particularly on territory and Jerusalem, where Obama is much closer to Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas. Moreover unlike Iran, progress on the peace process could fracture Netanyahu's own party, bring down his government, and set up another test of wills with the United States.

Obama knows the score, and has seen the movie. The glow in the aftermath of this reset will vanish quickly the harder he pushes Israel on the Palestinian issue. The real issue is this: Is the reset functional? Can Obama work toward a process that brings Netanyahu along without triggering a crisis, and still keep the Palestinians on board?

Right now, it seems like a circle that's very hard to square. The gaps on the core issues don't seem bridgeable, at least between Bibi and Abbas. And an Obama maneuver for regime change -- using his newfound popularity in Israel to undermine Bibi in hopes of getting a better government -- seems pretty fanciful. Is it plausible that Obama made nice to Bibi only to be in a position to push him harder?

And exactly how much is Obama prepared to pile on? If there is a deal with the mullahs on the nuclear issue, the president will need every ounce of persuasiveness to sell it to Netanyahu. And if the United States attacks Iran, he and Bibi will become even more closely aligned if Iran or its proxies retaliate. We're nowhere near any of this now. But it's clear that Obama isn't looking for a fight with Bibi so soon after trying to patch things up. It's really hard to see Obama getting tough with Israel the way Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, and George H.W. Bush did, particularly after that lovefest in Jerusalem.

The Kerry canary in the coal mine

I've said repeatedly that Obama is the most controlling foreign-policy president since Nixon -- and he won't change easily, particularly when he's convinced his foreign policy has been pretty successful.

But he must, in at least one regard. Specifically, he should let John Kerry actually be in charge of the Israeli-Palestinian brief. The brief should come with two presidential caveats -- don't undo my fledgling reset with Bibi (yet), and don't demand a lot of time from me (now). The president should tell his secretary of state that he will gladly be available for the guts-and-glory phase of the peace process end game, but Kerry (and his team, which he must be allowed to build) have to set it up.

Give Kerry the mandate. It's perfect. Let him shuttle. That's what secretaries of state are for. Indeed, it's going to take months of conversations, hundreds of hours of meetings, and thousands of miles of travel to even test the proposition that some kind of agreement can be reached. And at this stage, it's no loss for the president so long as Kerry doesn't undo the reset. If it works, the president will be viewed as a managerial genius. And if it doesn't, well ... it's John Kerry's peace process, right?

Success, not domestic politics

People have it wrong. The real reasons presidents get involved in tough issues like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not just because they're important, but because they think they can actually succeed. It's not the absence of second-term political constraints, it's the presence of real opportunity that drives presidential involvement.  

The potential for progress is what's currently missing. Right now, the administration has no strategy -- or at least not one that holds a lot of promise. The current approach seems to be pressing for negotiations that lead to a provisional Palestinian state, based on a tradeoff between security for Israel and sovereignty for the Palestinians. Borders first, so to speak -- and then negotiation of a more general character on the identity issues, Jerusalem, and refugees.

I'm not critical of this approach, because frankly there doesn't seem to be a much better one right now. But we're deluding ourselves if we think it can work quickly, or perhaps at all. It's a very pro-Israeli approach, in that it calls for direct talks without preconditions, says nothing on settlements, and doesn't include a timeline to resolve the final status issues. And it really does presume an enormous amount of trust between Netanyahu and Abbas, which currently doesn't exist.

The answers to all these uncertainties will come in the weeks and months ahead. But one thing is clear: This president isn't going to repeat the mistakes of his first term -- setting goals he can't deliver, pursuing a settlements freeze, and having pointless fights with Netanyahu over issues that won't make him an historic peacemaker. Hopefully he won't be fooled into thinking that successful telephone diplomacy between Bibi and Erdogan means he's got a career as a Middle East negotiator.

Obama doesn't want to be the American president on whose watch the two-state solution expires. But he won't rush to be its midwife either, without a much greater sense that he can succeed.

So, Israelis and Palestinians, take notice. You want the president to help produce a two- state solution? Give him a reason to believe you have a real stake in one too. Otherwise, stop whining: Barack Obama has more important things to do.

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