Obama's Egypt Policy Makes Perfect Sense

No, seriously.

The only thing that's really clear about U.S. Middle East policy these days is its stunning lack of clarity. Neocons and liberal interventionists alike protest the confusion loudly, and a great many others with less ideological baggage silently scratch their heads.

Anomalies, contradictions, confusion, and more than a little hypocrisy abound. The United States intervenes militarily in Libya to support the opposition, but not in Syria. It supports serious political reform and democratic transitions in Egypt and Tunisia, but not in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, where oil, bases, and friendly kings prevail. It will engage the Taliban and Iraqi insurgents who have killed American soldiers, but it steers clear of any dialogue with Hamas. And it rationalizes away a military coup and brutal crackdown in Egypt to maintain ties to the generals, undermining its own democratic values by continuing military aid.

Still, even while it seems confused and directionless, Barack Obama's Middle East policies have logic and coherence. Indeed, they follow strict directives that the president has imposed. I call them BHO's Five Commandments, and they tell you all you need to know about why the president does what he does from Cairo to Damascus.

Commandment No. 1: Care more about the middle class than the Middle East.

Obama may not be able to fix either one. But there's no doubt he'd rather be remembered as a president who tried to repair America's broken house than one who chased around the world on a quixotic quest to fix somebody else's. Immigration reform, the budget, making Obamacare work, continuing to focus on infrastructure, education -- these are things that are important to the American people and to the legacy of a president who is of one of only 17 elected to a second term. Time's running out. Why squander it on problems he cannot fix, like Syria?

Commandment No. 2: Pay attention to Afghanistan and Iraq.

Obama's critics argue he's already paid too much attention to the wars, drawn the wrong lessons from both, and as a result overcorrected and abdicated U.S. leadership. But you really can't pay too much attention to the two longest wars in U.S. history -- wars that cost more than 6,000 American lives, thousands of serious casualties, trillions of dollars, and a great deal of U.S. credibility.

Obama's current approach toward Syria and even Egypt has in fact drawn the right lessons from these wars: he's intuitively grasped the limit of U.S. influence in changing the nature of Middle Eastern societies caught up in internal conflict. If we couldn't reshape what happens in Kabul and Baghdad with hundreds of thousands of troops and trillions of dollars, how are we going to have an impact on what Egypt's generals do or don't do with a trifling $1 billion or so?

He's also understood the need to be careful about the use of American military power in these situations -- that power is a means to effect a political end. And when that relationship is dubious, out of whack, or just not achievable, risk aversion is more appropriate than risk readiness. In Syria, the danger isn't the false Afghanistan/Iraq analogy of boots on the ground; it's the more apt lesson about using U.S. military power in a situation where the political objectives are unclear and the costs truly unknown. This caution has also informed the president's view of how to deal with Iran's nuclear weapons program and the importance of trying diplomacy before war. Some believe this is the lack of leadership, but it may well be the sense of proportion and judgment that defines it.

Commandment No. 3: Kill America's enemies.

Where the president hasn't been shy and retiring or risk averse is on the national security side, particularly when it comes to counterterrorism. And despite the rhetorical shifts hinting a change in priorities -- an emphasis on diplomacy over war, a reduction in drone attacks -- this commandment will continue to dictate the broad outlines of the administration's approach.

Whatever doubts the president has on the wisdom and utility of drone strikes that have killed thousands, however thin the legal and moral arguments may be, this wartime President takes seriously his number one mission: keep America safe. That means preventing another 9/11-style attack. If the previous administration believed in preventive and preemptive war using invasion and regime change, this president has narrowed the prevention to counter-terrorism. The attacks on 9/11 were the second bloodiest day in the history of the continental United States, surpassed only by a single day in the battle of Antietam in September 1862. And Obama plans to keep it that way. The president's war on terror -- whatever his own rhetorical nuances -- won't be over until the day he leaves the White House. And as the risk he took in the operation to kill Osama bin Laden demonstrates, he's prepared to do much to prosecute it.

Commandment No. 4: Stay with the devil you know.

Obama may want to think of himself as a transformative leader, but he's really very transactional and status quo when it comes to foreign policy -- doubling down in Afghanistan, keeping Gitmo open, avoiding diplomacy with the mullahs, rationalizing away his own redlines on Syria's chemical weapons, and now trying to walk the fine line between changing and sustaining traditional U.S. policy on Egypt.

Obama wants to be on the right side of history and uphold U.S. values, but he's increasingly confused on what that actually means. It is the cruelest of ironies that America's relations with the status quo Arab kings are the best ties Washington has in the region. But maybe it shouldn't come as a surprise. We are a status quo power during a time of great upheaval. And instead of breaking with the past we're looking for a way to ride it safely into the future.

I think we're probably heading for a suspension of assistance to Egypt, but the president will try to avoid it, just as he's slow-walked military assistance to Syria and opposed an Israeli unilateral strike on Iran. From Obama's perspective, changing the status quo -- cutting ties with the generals and risking U.S. military overflight privileges, losing cooperation on counterterrorism, and unilaterally removing the United States from the Egyptian-Israeli Camp David process -- outweigh the risks of maintaining it. When it comes to what's left of the Arab Spring, the president seems pretty comfortable with the familiar and at ease with the notion that this region will need to be sorted out by those who live there. The United States should simply hunker down and ride out the storm, if possible.

Commandment No. 5: Protect our core interests.

For Barack Obama, the Middle East is divided into five core interests and two discretionary ones. What really counts is getting out of Iraq and Afghanistan; keeping the country safe from attack; weaning America off Arab hydro-carbons; carrying out the U.S. commitment to Israel's security; and trying to prevent Iran from acquiring nukes. From his vantage point, he's checked the box in at least four so far; and he's working on the fifth -- the success of which is far from assured.

The two interests of choice, if you will, are pursuing Arab-Israeli peace and making the Middle East safe for democracy. Those are desirable but really not critical, whatever John Kerry may think about the importance of an Israeli-Palestinian deal, and the president has shown very little inclination to risk much on either of them.

You may think the Middle East is a mess and Obama's approach a complete muddle. But I bet you, given his domestic priorities and where he thinks the American public is on these issues, he doesn't. Whatever the president is worrying about these days (and there's no shortage of troubles), I'd be surprised if he's tossing and turning at night over Egypt and Syria. Governing is about choosing, and for now the president has made his choices clear.

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Reality Check

In Praise of the Middleman

Let's face it: When it comes to peace talks, face-to-face negotiations don't work.

Now that Secretary of State John Kerry has succeeded in getting Israelis and Palestinians together so they can talk face to face, he probably won't be surprised to learn that direct talks have almost never delivered an Arab-Israeli agreement that lasted.

In almost all of the breakthroughs in Arab-Israeli peacemaking over the last 50 years, direct talks without a mediator have delivered only one agreement that has endured. The rest of the time, Americans played the critical role in actually brokering the accord.

Indeed, if the United States wants an Israeli-Palestinian agreement, not only will Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas have to own these talks, but John Kerry and Barack Obama will too -- big time.

One of the most intriguing urban legends of the peace process is that the way to Arab-Israeli peace is through direct face-to-face negotiations. The myth has a very compelling and heroic cast to it, particularly for many Israelis who seem to believe that all they really need is an empty room, no preconditions, some Palestinians ... and poof ... we can reach an agreement.

The logic appears compelling enough. Only when Arabs and Israelis sit face to face, work out their problems, and build trust and confidence can the magic of an agreement happen. Isn't the best way to get things done to eliminate the third party and deal directly with one another?

No. The problem with this reading of history is that the facts show that these sort of interactions were, more often than not, a peace process fairy tale. Sadly, the set of near misses and successes in peacemaking isn't a terribly large one. So we can evaluate the historical record pretty easily. And here's what it shows.

The much-ballyhooed notion of direct negotiations in which the parties themselves did most, if not all, of the heavy lifting really succeeded only once. And that was the odd case of an Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty whose territorial, security, and political issues paled in comparison with those on the Syrian, Egyptian, or Palestinian fronts. When you combine strong and committed leaders (Yitzhak Rabin and King Hussein) who like, respect, and trust one another with real, tractable issues, the chances are that a DIY approach will work. But there's also a very good chance that the Israeli-Jordanian situation can't be replicated. And guess what? It hasn't been.

In fact, the only other example of a process driven by direct talks with little third-party involvement, at least for the first four years, was Oslo. And Oslo was a veritable poster child for the imperfections of a negotiation that could have used, at critical points along the way, timely third-party intervention.

It is true that mutual recognition between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization could only have been done directly by the two sides themselves. And direct secret talks did form close relationships between Israelis and Palestinians. Given the odds against Oslo succeeding, the interim accords were remarkably creative.

But to expect agreements worked out between the occupier and the occupied and then to imagine a smooth transition to different roles (let alone negotiating thorny issues such as Jerusalem and borders -- when neither side had fulfilled the expectations of the other on the interim accords), was a bridge too far. Perhaps no third-party broker could have managed it. But clearly the two sides doing it themselves never had a chance.

Two of the three remaining successes in the history of Arab-Israeli peacemaking -- the Kissinger Disengagement accords between Israel and Egypt; Israel and Syria (1973-1975); and the Madrid Peace Conference (1991) were driven by the United States with almost no direct contact between the parties. Not surprisingly, both came in the wake of regional military conflicts in which the Arabs and Israelis were prepared to accept major U.S. involvement and Washington had the will and skill to deliver.

It is very true that the third success -- the Egyptian-Israeli peace process and treaty -- began with direct and secret contact between Anwar Sadat's and Menachem Begin's emissaries that paved the way for the Egyptian leader's 1977 visit to Jerusalem.

But within weeks, the process would enter what became a chronic state of dysfunction over differences small and large. Indeed, it would take not one but two major interventions by President Jimmy Carter to rescue the breakthrough and to sign an Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty two years later. Indeed, the Camp David accords that lead to the treaty were the mother of all U.S.-mediated agreements -- a 12-day summit in which Begin and Sadat met only a few times. Carter drove the process with a great deal of help from their Israeli and Egyptian subordinates. Sadat and Begin made it possible. Carter made it real.

If nothing else emerges from this quick romp through the history of Arab-Israeli diplomacy, it's that agreements, particularly ones that purport to define the end game, will need more than just putting the two sides in a room and hoping for the best. The odds against Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas reaching an accord on the key issues, let alone a conflict-ending agreement on their own are zero.

Active U.S. mediation will be required to accomplish anything substantial. And this doesn't mean "facilitating," a strange word that roughly falls somewhere between doing nothing and making sure that lunch arrives on time.

It would be nice if Netanyahu and Abbas were able to make dramatic concessions to each other own on the core issues and thus enter into their own negotiations. In fact, it would be ideal. But that's unlikely.

For now, the U.S. may be best playing the role of the facilitator: Give Israelis and Palestinians a decent interval to see what they can do on their own; see where the gaps are; and for political reasons give direct talks between the two sides space and time without crowding them.

But if these talks have any chance of succeeding, they will require hands-on American involvement; and not as facilitator but as broker -- helping to set terms of reference, proposing ideas and bridging proposals that are fair, and controlling the text of an agreement, not to mention monitoring implementation.

And one other thing too. John Kerry may be the set-up guy who narrows the gaps between the Israelis and Palestinians and builds the bridge between them. But Barack Obama will need to be hands-on, 24/7, for the end game -- and the guy who gets them both to cross it. This is likely going to require ample doses of honey (and vinegar, too) because the president will likely have to push both sides further than they thought they were willing to go; and this will mean more than a little unpleasantness, particularly with the Israelis.

Right now, nobody should discount the Kerry effort. But nobody should think cavalierly in terms of an expansive Israeli-Palestinian agreement either. If an agreement is to emerge, direct negotiations will be necessary but not sufficient. Netanyahu and Abbas will have to stretch very far. And the Americans sooner rather than later will need to be involved in the stretching.

There's no making Israeli-Palestinian peace on the cheap, none created by spontaneous combustion, and it doesn't grow in a bell jar. It's going to take some major doing in Washington. Indeed, if Barack Obama wants to earn his Nobel Peace prize, I've got a pretty good idea of how he can do it.

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