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.