Rudderless in the Desert

Five reasons Obama can’t will his way into fixing the Middle East -- even if he wanted to.

Several weeks ago, my fellow FP contributor Micah Zenko wrote a terrific column on "the L-word" -- a cri de coeur against those who saw U.S. leadership as the answer to just about everything that ails the world.

A good many journalists, talking heads, and former government officials -- who ought to know better -- have become attached to this notion like a barnacle to the side of a boat. And nowhere are they more active and annoying than in the Middle East -- the region of the planet they deem most lacking in U.S. resolve.

If only America would demonstrate leadership, they argue, it really could help overcome the region's problems. And there are a great many scenarios to which they apply this "if only" logic.

If only the United States would set up a no-fly zone in Syria and arm the rebels, we could end the Syrian crisis.

If only the United States would use military force against Iran or, alternatively, negotiate with the mullahs, we could solve the Iranian nuclear issue and contain Iran's regional ambitions.

And if only the United States would pressure the Israelis and Palestinians to accept a peace plan drawn up in Washington, we could have a two state solution.

In short, America holds the key to a transformed Middle East, if only it would just lead.

Much of this harangue about leadership (or the lack of it) is of course directed at our esteemed president, who's now seen as either a buck passer, a weakling, or a leader who's so paralyzed by Afghanistan and Iraq that he won't act. The "leading from behind" trope will forever be identified with Barack Obama's presidency.

Fortunately, there are cooler heads such as Zenko, the Council on Foreign Relations' Richard Haass, and Stratfor's Robert Kaplan, who understand that life isn't that simple -- particularly in the Middle East.

Nobody is arguing that America is or should be a potted plant. But thinking before acting, grasping the fundamentals of the neighborhood in which we plan to act, and setting priorities and having realistic goals are far more important than vacuous calls for U.S. leadership.

We don't need another chorus of America, the Indispensable. Nor should we allow the leadership groupies to push us into "yes, we can" policies in a largely "no, you won't" region. And here are five good reasons why.

1. Leaders need followers

And there aren't many in the angry, broken, and dysfunctional Middle East. An old saw applies here: A leader without followers is just a guy out for a walk.

America doesn't have a great many followers in the Middle East these days. Our street cred is way down -- not because we haven't led, but largely because the Arabs really don't like where we want to take them. And no amount of Madison Avenue "hearts and minds" advertising is likely to change that.

On Israel, settlements, counterterrorism (drones especially), Hamas, democratic reform, and support for the authoritarian monarchs of the region, we're out of step with popular and elite sentiment in the Middle East. It's true, some locals may hate us because of who we are. But far more don't like us because of what we do.

Forget followers, America is missing its traditional partners in the Middle East. We can't even decide whether Egypt -- previously America's most important Arab partner -- is an ally or an adversary. Even our friends -- the Israelis and Saudis -- wonder how reliable we'll be on issues critical to them, like Iran and Bahrain.

In this region, you really can't function effectively unless the locals are willing to cooperate in matters of war and peace. And even under the best of circumstances, small powers will seek to exploit bigger ones, and enlist us to advance their narrower agendas. Those agendas may include sectarian dominance (see: Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki), padding the family coffers (see: Afghan President Hamid Karzai), countering local rivals (see: Pakistan's intelligence services), using U.S. funds to advance policies contrary to American interests, like settlements in the West Bank (see: every Israeli government).

Usually, America gets played in this exchange. It's not the first time: The Middle East is littered with the remains of great powers who believed wrongly they could impose their will on these smaller powers. And as the latest great power, our track record in matters of war and peacemaking really isn't very good.

American influence in the Middle East may well be at an all-time low. Whether it's Syria, the peace process, or Iran, we don't have the local horses required to get a deal to stick. And we can't protect our interests without them. We're also dealing with a variety of regional and non-regional actors that are actively pulling the other way: Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah are bucking up Assad. And through their support for the Syrian regime, they may well prove that there are indeed second acts in Middle Eastern politics.

2. Leaders need opportunity

We have a ridiculously cardboard -- even cartoonish -- view of leadership. The great leader acts, wills this or that his or her way, and everything else falls into place.

Wrong. It's always been the crisis -- whether it's Anwar Sadat's visit to Jerusalem or Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait -- that sets the stage for smart and determined leaders to act.

The Middle East has plenty of crises. But these are slow, complex bleeds -- historic conflicts not ready for resolution, nation-building enterprises among ethnic and sectarian groups too busy trying to get a leg up on their rivals to worry about reaching truly national solutions.

Indeed, the Middle East today offers up only varying degrees of risk and traps, none of which are material for presidential glory and dramatic action.

3. Leaders need clarity

The leadership groupies want U.S. policies based on clarity, consistency, and finality in a region that rarely if ever offers it up. They'd have you believe that everything is so simple: Back the rebels and defeat Assad. What could be simpler?

And yet, the Middle East is a muddle. Syria isn't quite the morality play that some would have it. Assad is the evil dictator, to be sure -- but the opposition isn't exactly a bunch of secular democrats.

Nor does America call the shots. There are Russians, Iranians, and Lebanese Shiites who play the game too. And two years in, the United States may well find itself in the extraordinary position -- after repeated calls for Assad's end -- of accepting a negotiated transition. If that comes to pass, Assad would likely remain beyond the reach of an international war crimes tribunal. And who knows? He could even still be a resident in Syria.

The Middle East doesn't come in black and white -- it only comes in gray, and rarely produces clear-cut answers and outcomes.

I well remember an intelligence analyst in the 1980s trying to warn then Secretary of State George Shultz, former Special Envoy Donald Rumsfeld, and anyone else who'd listen about not turning Lebanon into a morality play which pitted the good, enlightened Christians against the bad Lebanese Muslims and the Palestinians. He couldn't get anyone to listen -- and Lebanon exacted a huge price from the United States, in the form of hundreds of dead Marines and two bombed embassies.

4. Leaders need focus

Focus is hard to come by these days, because there are so many problems and most are moving south at an alarming rate. Some see this as a green light and clarion call for U.S. action -- the wiser heads see red, or at least a flashing yellow.

Comprehensive solutions are hard to divine because the interests of the locals and ours diverge in many ways, and because it's by no means certain that a major U.S. investment will ameliorate matters.

Enter Secretary of State John Kerry. In such an environment, at least for now, it's management and transaction that's required -- not transformation. He's the manager-in-chief -- seemingly looking to put out fires everywhere, and identify opportunities so he can make the case to his boss that presidential leadership might actually make things better.

5. Leaders need to care

And I don't think Barack Obama does all that much. I don't mean that he's insensitive to the violence and tragedy that defines much of the Middle East these days. But I think he's made a calculation that America's overall interests are best served by staying out of some of these matters (Syria) and being cautious on others (the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, Iran).

Obama isn't Richard Nixon, who loved foreign policy and had Henry Kissinger by his side while he played the great game. He's not Jimmy Carter, who got emotionally wrapped up in the Middle East peace game. He's not Ronald Reagan, who saw the world as a stage and loved to show off America -- and had a transformational opportunity to do so with Gorbachev to boot. He's not George H.W. Bush, who had a longstanding interest in foreign affairs and a transformative moment, as the Soviet Union collapsed. And he's neither Bill Clinton, who genuinely cared about Israelis and Palestinians living in a more peaceful future; or George W. Bush, who set out to transform America's foreign policy in the wake of 9/11.

Obama does not have an emotional investment in foreign policy, nor does he relish its strategic dimension. Coming to office against the background of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, he was determined to fix America's broken house and extricate the country from others' problems. He remains tough on terrorism, but once he realized that the world wasn't going to change, he abandoned any pretense to transform it.

Obama is already a historic president, but if he wants to be remembered as a great one, he'll have to make his legacy on the domestic side. When it comes to foreign policy, particularly the Middle East, there is more risk than reward right now. And besides, that's what John Kerry is for. If his able secretary of state can set up a legacy issue or two, then and only then will Obama decide whether and what to risk. Indeed, unless pushed by some crisis that America cannot avoid, he'll be risk averse not risk ready.

Until then, the chattering class can talk all they want about U.S. leadership in the Middle East. There are no real opportunities here -- only migraine headaches and root canals carrying a lot of pain without much prospect of gain. And frankly, the country doesn't much care all that much about them. And Obama knows it.


Reality Check

Stepping Up to the Plate

Can Arab states get the peace process back on track?

Can the Arab states rescue the peace process? U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry seems to think so. Last week's announcement by the Arab League endorsing land swaps, the re-emergence of the Arab Peace Initiative, and rumors of a June summit meeting in Amman, Jordan, suggest we're seeing a reprise of that old canard.

Kerry is right to try. But we should have no illusions: The odds are the Arabs won't step up.

And here's why.

The Arabs love principles …

The pattern of Arab state behavior toward the peace process has been fairly predictable for a pretty long time. Identify big-picture concepts and principles, enshrine them in communiqués at summit meetings, wrap the Arab world in a safe lowest-denominator consensus, urge the United States and Israel to accept it, and hammer them when they don't.

This has now been the case for more than half a century. And it is quite natural, logical, and even understandable. After all, those Arab states that don't share common borders with Israel can't be expected to have the same stake in the conflict as those that do.

Two of the four sovereign states that share a border with Israel, Egypt and Jordan, have moved to protect themselves by cutting a deal with the Israelis. That has put Cairo and Amman in the anomalous position of defending those deals, even while they blast the Israelis in Arab councils. But unsurprisingly, both countries have traditionally played the most positive role in trying to facilitate an Israeli-Palestinian agreement.

Those Arabs states outside the conflict zone are another matter. By and large, most have been suspicious of the peace process, critical of Israel and America's pro-Israeli bias, and singularly uninformed about the details and logic of the negotiations.

There were exceptions. During the good old days of the 1990s, a number of Arab states -- including Morocco, Tunisia, Oman, and Qatar -- established diplomatic, economic, and political contacts with Israel. But their overall role and influence were still marginal.

but they're not so good on the details.

The 2002 Arab Peace Initiative is perhaps the most constructive approach the Arabs have ever taken on the peace process. Its tone is positive, and the implications of its central conceit -- peace between Israel and the Arab world -- is really quite historic.

Yet it remains a collection of slogans and sound bites, not a blueprint for peace. It only offers up a fuzzy quid pro quo: Israel fully withdraws from all territory occupied in the June 1967 war, and in return the Arab world declares the conflict over and agrees to diplomatic normalization in the context of a comprehensive peace. There, we're done.

What more do we expect from the Arabs? Israel isn't offering anything serious right now. And in any event, why should the Arabs get into the details of the negotiations? Leave those to the Israelis and the Palestinians to negotiate.

Those who urge the Arab states to offer more confidence-building measures don't understand the Arabs, how weak they really are, or their aversion to normalization with Israel. Indeed, the more the Israelis talk about their need to be accepted and recognized as a Jewish state, the more the Arabs see what a valuable card they hold. And the Arab states won't play that card easily or quickly, or maybe at all. Certainly not until they see what Israel and America are prepared to give.

Indeed, look at the Israeli and Palestinian reactions to the Arab League's endorsement of land swaps -- a move Kerry called a "very big step." To the Palestinians it was a big ho-hum, and annoying to boot, because they resent the Arabs speaking for them. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu didn't react directly, but he devalued the move by repeating his opposition to any preconditions. Don't expect much more from the Arabs for a while, particularly if the Israelis keep whacking Hezbollah and Syrian targets.

Islamists on the rise; kings on the run.

Getting the Arabs engaged on any peace process was hard enough back in the day. In these new circumstances, it's only going to be harder. Then, the Arab authoritarians called the shots; now public opinion plays a greater role than ever. Then, Yasir Arafat was in charge of the Palestinian national movement; now Hamas is contesting Fatah's control. And key Arab states, including Egypt, Qatar, and Turkey support the Palestinian Islamists.

Nowhere is the change more evident than with Egypt. From the 1991 Madrid conference to the 1993 Oslo Accords to the abortive effort to get Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Syrian agreements in the late 1990s, Hosni Mubarak was America's key partner. Today, Egypt is somewhere between an ally and an adversary.

So far, President Mohamed Morsy's government has proved to be either neutral on the peace process, or unfriendly. The Egyptian leader did broker the cease-fire in Gaza -- though more out of concern that Hamas would put Egypt in a bad spot than out of any concern for lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Morsy never talks about a two-state solution, he's hedging his bets on Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and he won't abandon Hamas. It's hard to imagine him hosting the signing of an Israeli-Palestinian agreement in Cairo, as Mubarak did in 1994. And given the Muslim Brotherhood's sympathies with Hamas and other Islamists, it's anyone's guess whether Morsy would be willing to endorse a practical solution to the status of Jerusalem.

Could Jordan's King Abdullah II replace Mubarak as America's key Arab partner? Kerry seems to be placing a great deal of focus on him, and if the pieces fall into place, the United States is considering a relaunch of negotiations at a conference in Amman. There's no doubt that King Abdullah's role in dealing with the sensitive issue of the Israeli-Palestinian border with Jordan and Jerusalem could be very important.

But King Abdullah isn't his father. He lacks the domestic street cred and regional reputation of King Hussein, and he's under considerable pressure from reformists, Palestinians, and the tide of refugees loosed in the wake of the Syrian crisis. A successful peace conference in Jordan could boost his prestige -- but one that doesn't will damage him.

We need to be careful about putting too much stress on the Jordanians. They're vulnerable, and the Egyptians and Saudis have always looked at them with suspicion. Even King Hussein couldn't serve as the linchpin on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. And neither can his son.

Kerry is courting the Turks too, but that's no easy sell. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is no American agent; he has his own regional agenda, which still includes support for Hamas and keeping his distance from Netanyahu. Erdogan's ear is finely attuned to Arab public opinion, and he won't risk much unless Turkey stands to gain.

Where the Saudis stand on these matters is also critically important, but not altogether clear. The Arab Peace Initiative was Saudi King Abdullah's initiative, but it's unclear how much effort the king is prepared to invest now, when conditions look so bleak. The Saudis are worried about succession, Iran, Egypt, Syria, and getting their own house in order. And they clearly wonder how serious the United States is on the peace issue. It's hard to see them risking much now, unless America does.

We'll stand up if you do -- maybe.

And that brings us back to Washington. The bottom line with the Arabs is this: If the United States takes the process seriously, then the Arabs may too. And that, of course, raises the question of whether President Barack Obama is willing to press the Israelis hard in his second term.

The Arabs' calculation is that if Washington isn't prepared to risk anything, then why should they?

And on this one, the Arab collective is probably going to be disappointed. Obama didn't reset his relationship with Netanyahu only to go to war with him again on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. The peace process may also be the victim of bad timing: Congressional midterm elections in 2014 will soon loom, and both the Syrian crisis and the looming crisis with Iran strongly suggest that the already close bond with Israel is going to get a lot closer.

The Arab hero?

The painful reality is that the Arab states' influence on the peace process has always flowed from individual Arab leaders who stepped up for their own reasons -- not from the Arab collective. You know the list: Anwar Sadat, King Hussein, even Arafat in the early stages of Oslo. Those leaders helped make the Israelis an offer they couldn't refuse. And those leaders had Israeli partners who responded: Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Rabin, and Shimon Peres.

It was those Arab leaders that also afforded the United States a good deal of leverage over Israel. Indeed, Secretary of State James Baker used Syrian President Hafez al-Assad's willingness to attend the Madrid conference as an inducement to get Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir to show up too. And Begin gave up Sinai in a deal brokered by President Jimmy Carter -- a deal that would never have happened without Sadat, period.

Those kinds of leaders are all gone now. And the idealized conception of the kind of peace Arabs and Israelis might make is gone too. When Kerry extols the virtues of 22 different Arab leaders making peace with Israel, he's talking to a changed region. Whatever peace means these days -- the absence of war, or political agreements that ameliorate conflict -- it's more of a cost-benefit business proposition than a sentimental affair. Arab and Israelis have never had real peace, they don't have it now, and they are unlikely to attain it anytime soon.

Kerry may yet be able to save the peace process, but he won't be able to rescue the peace. Only the Israelis and Palestinians can do that. And the Arabs can’t save it either. Indeed, given the direction the region is going, they’ll be lucky if they can save themselves.