Empty Promises

Can Obama deliver on Israel and Iran -- or is he overreaching?

When it comes to the Middle East and perhaps foreign policy in general, Barack Obama is a curious president, a leader deeply ambivalent and seemingly at war with himself.

Last week, I argued that Obama may well be the first president to preside over a shrinking U.S. role in the Middle East. His actions on almost every issue -- getting out of old wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, avoiding new ones (Syria), avoiding interventions in lands visited by the Arab Spring, and resetting his relationship with Israel -- reflect a general attitude of risk aversion in the region.

And yet, the president himself doesn't seem to realize it, or at least he's not tuned in to the implications of his own words. Last month at the U.N. General Assembly (UNGA), in front of much of the world and all of its relevant diplomatic players, without the slightest hesitation, Obama committed himself to near-impossible overreach on two of the most intractable issues in the region: resolving the Israeli-Palestinian issue and Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons. As Mitchel Hochberg, my research assistant, quipped the other day, you don't set high expectations in a region that eats them for lunch.

What's really going on here? Does the president actually mean that he's planning to resolve the two most challenging diplomatic puzzles in the Middle East? Or were these throwaway lines, rhetorical preludes to real American diplomatic initiatives, or just a "caught up in the moment" wish list?

For a guy who's remarkably disciplined when it comes to acting in the Middle East, the president is remarkably undisciplined when it comes to talking about it. You may remember the 2009 settlements freeze, the Cairo speech of the same year, the 2011 "Assad must go" comment, and the 2012-2013 chemical weapons red lines in Syria.

Sure, every president engages in rhetorical excess from time to time. But it's no small matter for American credibility -- already in short supply -- when the president's own words leave a huge disconnect between his intentions and his capacity to deliver.

Let's look at some of the disconnects between intent and capacity on these particular issues -- in other words, the reasons Obama's ambitions in the Middle East are not likely to come to fruition.

(1) The negotiations would be a nightmare.

Just carrying out a negotiation with Iran on the nuclear issue or mediating another between Israelis and Palestinians would be hard enough. But balancing two sets of negotiations that could come to decision points at roughly the same time? It's a negotiator's nightmare however you look at it. First, U.S. domestic politics are at play in both. Even in Obama's second term, freed from reelection constraints, that will impose serious limits on American margin for maneuver. Second, the substantive challenges are formidable enough that even months of negotiations will not conclusively resolve them. These are evolutionary, not revolutionary, agreements -- no one is going to transform the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or the Iranian nuclear issue in a single accord. Finally, the president is dealing with a tough and suspicious ally in Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and a tough and suspicious adversary in Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. There will be little sentimentality, benefit of the doubt, or magnanimity in either process.

(2) You won't get a Palestinian deal without an Iranian one.

But the worst thing about these two negotiating challenges is that they're tied together, sequenced in the mind of the one regional player with a primary stake in both -- Netanyahu. Netanyahu's laws of political gravity don't allow him to make historic decisions on the Palestinian issue without a stronger sense for where Iran is headed. For the Israeli prime minister, the Palestinians are a long-term ideological problem. Iran is short term and very much in his threat-oriented comfort zone. For Netanyahu, liberating Israel from the shadow of the Iranian bomb squares much more with his own self-image than dividing Jerusalem. So the only chance for Obama to succeed in both negotiations would be to pursue Iran first and then move to the Palestinian deal.

Unfortunately, addressing Iran first carries major risks for Obama. If he fails, either producing no agreement with Iran or worse, producing a bad agreement, U.S. leverage over Israel is reduced to near zero and Israel has no incentive to move on the Palestinian issue. Not to mention the obvious: Without an agreement that substantially reduces the Iranian nuclear threat, Israel might actually strike Iran -- making an Israeli-Palestinian agreement in the near term all but impossible. It would be very hard to negotiate a Palestinian state with thousands of Hezbollah and Hamas rockets flying about and Israel responding. A successful agreement with Iran on the nuclear issue, meanwhile, wouldn't guarantee an Israeli-Palestinian accord. But it would at least increase Obama's capacity to press for one and reduce Bibi's capacity to resist.

(3) Time is not on Obama's side.

Neither negotiation can drag on interminably. On the Israeli-Palestinian issue, even though expectations are below zero, there will come a point when folks will start to wonder whether there's truly anything there. We're already into the second three months of Secretary of State John Kerry's informal nine-month clock for making a deal.

On Iran, the pressure won't come from any fixed clock as much as it will from an impatient U.S. Congress, hard-line mullahs and security types within Iran, and even an American administration that has all but committed itself to expedited talks. Indeed, the minute Rouhani and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif talked to the U.S. president and Kerry in late September, this process wasn't on mullah time anymore.

Ticking clocks can be good if they build urgency to make a deal. But as early as spring of next year, talks on these serious issues will start hemorrhaging credibility if there's nothing to show. And given what's at stake, second chances may not be possible.

(4) Resolution isn't possible right now.

Granted, we're the fix-it nation, and we really believe that trying and failing is better than not having tried at all. Clearly the president is right to try. But Obama could have been somewhat more temperate in his UNGA speech, particularly when it came to the use of the word "resolving."

Netanyahu isn't a resolver; neither is Khamenei or Rouhani. But surprise, surprise, neither is Obama. He's a transactor if there ever was one, balancing between the desirable and the achievable, between the possible and the probable. His entire presidency -- as his critics from the left complain -- reflects that fact. Obama is a man of the left, but he's also a man in the middle, always trying to reconcile his views with the other guy's. There is no conflict-ending agreement available between this Israeli prime minister and this Palestinian president where each stands publicly and says: While we don't have reconciliation, on all the core issues all claims have been adjudicated, all irredenta have been abandoned, and our conflict is over. Nor are we talking about some permanent end state where Iran abandons its right to enrich uranium or gives up its capacity at some point to weaponize. Obama needs to think outcomes, maybe even good outcomes. But not solutions and resolutions.

(5) There is no strategic grand bargain.

If this were Hollywood, the story line would be quite different and far more heroic. A strategic grand bargain might emerge.

The heroic American president would say to the visionary Israeli prime minister: Let's make history. Make my day on the Israeli-Palestinian issue; give me some real flexibility in negotiations with Iran too; and if the mullahs can't or won't address our needs on the nuclear issue, I'll make your day and ensure that Iran will not get nukes.

But this isn't the movies. It's planet Earth. And these sorts of grand trade-offs and neat bargains just don't appear very often or at all.

Instead what usually emerges is the tendency to end up neither here nor there, sometimes with half a loaf, sometimes with a big mess. If Barack Obama is lucky he'll avoid the latter. And if he's really willful, skillful, and even luckier, he'll get something on each issue that stabilizes matters, avoids conflict, and creates a real basis for more progress and perhaps -- over time -- even the "resolving" he identified in his UNGA speech. But he ought to dial down the rhetoric. The whole enchilada anytime soon? Not a chance. As the late, great Yitzhak Rabin used to say, cigarette in one hand as he dismissively waved the other, "You can forget about it."

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Reality Check

The Shrinking

Why the Middle East is less and less important for the United States.

Does the Middle East really matter anymore?

I'm just kidding. Of course the Middle East matters. Just look at the headlines: Not a day goes by without a new crisis in Syria, Iraq, or Egypt or a statement by an Israeli politician or Iranian mullah predicting that we're headed either to war or peace. This week, world leaders met in Geneva to discuss Iran's nuclear capability. Last month, President Barack Obama gave a speech to the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) devoted entirely to the Middle East. Then there are the petroleum reserves, the iconic Suez Canal, and the all too narrow Strait of Hormuz. There's also the never-ending saga of the Arab-Israeli conflict and, of course, September 11. That terrible event -- the second bloodiest day in U.S. history, exceeded only by a day during the Battle of Antietam -- came from the angry, grievance-producing, broken Middle East.

But, with all that said, the Middle East is not nearly as important as it used to be. The traditional reasons for U.S. involvement are changing. Once upon a time, it was all about containing the Russians, our dangerous dependence on Arab oil, and a very vulnerable Israel. Then it was all about the threat of Islamic extremism and terrorism, and the desire to nation-build in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Much of that is now gone. Some of what remains has gotten more complex and limited the role the United States can and should play in the Middle East. On other matters, the fact that some situations have gotten simpler may actually be further limiting what America wants and needs to accomplish there.

Could it be that, in coming years, we're going draw back even more from the place? Perhaps. And here's why.

(1) There's no new cold war or bogeyman.

It was the famous trio of Russians, oil, and Israel against the backdrop of a declining British empire that brought the United States to the Middle East in the first place, and some would like to believe there's still a cold war on. After all, Putin loves to stick it to America every chance he gets, and he's seen the United States remove Russian clients one by one (Saddam Hussein, Muammar Qaddafi) and even threaten unilateral action against Bashar al-Assad, Moscow's last man standing in the Middle East.

But Putin is not interested in an expanded proxy war with Washington in a region he knows is rife with Islamic extremism and a messy trap for Russia to boot. He would like to preserve the influence and assets he has, some of which involve billions in unpaid Syrian debt and contracts with Assad's name on them, as well as the naval base at Tartus. Putin also opposes a Pax America. However, as the recent U.S.-Russian framework agreement on Syrian chemical weapons reveals, Putin's aims can involve cooperation as much as competition. With Russia a part of the P5 +1, I also suspect Putin would sign on to a deal on the Iranian nuclear issue, rather than risk Israeli or U.S. military action.

In other words, the Russians and the Americans are hardly allies in the Middle East -- but they're not quite enemies either.

So, if the Russians aren't the principal threat to draw the United States into the region anymore, who or what is? In the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, a lot of smart people had questions about what new organizing paradigm for U.S. foreign policy would replace the Cold War. After a decade, the answer came literally out of the blue on a beautiful but deadly fall day in September 2001.

The attacks on the Pentagon and the Twin Towers generated a frenzy of activity, much of it focused on the Middle East. This would come to include two of the longest and among the most profitless wars in U.S. history, a global war on terrorism, an industrial-size homeland security complex, and a continuing struggle to find the right balance between America's security and the rights, privacy, and civil liberties of its citizenry.

But, another decade later, the signs of retrenchment and withdrawal from the hot wars that replaced the cold one are pretty clear. We're out of Iraq, and, by 2014, we'll be heading for the exits in Afghanistan, too. As for the so-called war on terrorism, we are getting smarter and more economical. The United States has been quite effective in dismantling al Qaeda's central operations and keeping the homeland safe from another sensational attack. We've been lucky for sure, but effective, too. The danger now appears to be more from extremist-inspired, lone wolf episodes like we saw at Fort Hood and in Boston. In any event, Americans dying in terrorist attacks remains an unlikely situation: Last year, only 10 Americans died in terrorist attacks. You're more likely to die in a car accident.

Meanwhile, drones are hardly an ideal counter-terrorism strategy from a legal, moral, or political point of view, but, along with the use of U.S. Special Forces, they do reflect a much lower-profile approach to dealing with terrorists than invading nations and trying to rebuild them. Ideal or not, these kinds of tactics reflect the sort of retail approach to terrorism that the United States is likely to continue pursuing in the future.

To be sure, the threat from Islamic extremism has not gone away. But the notion that the Islamists and their Sunni or Shiite arcs are poised to take over the Middle East and require some new grand interventionist strategy is another example of threat inflation. Osama bin Laden is dead. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood is a shadow of its former self. Hamas is contained in its tiny Gaza enclave. Nasrallah and Hezbollah have been weakened by Assad's travails. And the prospect that a small al Qaeda offshoot is going to take over and govern large parts of Syria is fanciful at best.

Indeed, the problem for many of the lands visited by the Arab Spring isn't that some new ayatollah or mullah is going to create a modern day Caliphate, but that there will continue to be weak and ineffective governance in the region, with those in charge incapable of coming up with truly national visions for their countries or leading in a way that addresses the basic political and economic needs of their people.

(2) Nobody wants America to play Mr. Fix-It.

One thing is clear: We've likely seen the last of the big transformative-interventionist schemes to change the Middle East from the outside in the name of U.S. security, a freedom agenda, or anything else. I say this knowing that there's little historical memory here, that the military gives a willful president all kinds of options, and that the world is an unpredictable place. But watching the public, congressional, and even expert reaction to the prospects of a limited U.S. strike against Syria, there's clearly zero support for intervening militarily in somebody else's civil war.

The alliance of the liberal interventionists and neocons who bemoan the Obama administration's lack of will, vision, and leadership and its abject spinelessness in the face of 100,000 dead (a full half of whom are combatants belonging to one side or the other) is simply no match for a frustrated public promised a reasonable return on two wars who instead got more than 6,000 American dead, thousands more with devastating wounds, trillions of dollars expended, a loss of American prestige and credibility, and outcomes more about leaving than winning.

To believe anyone in the United States is ready to invest additional resources in tilting at windmills in the Middle East is utterly fantastical. Who can blame them? Last week in Libya, the one successful example of U.S. intervention in the Arab Spring, militias kidnapped the prime minister. Car bombs kill scores weekly in Iraq. And, in Afghanistan, one can only despair about the gap between the price we have paid there and what we can expect in terms of security and good governance in the years ahead.

(3) An energy revolution is coming.

Energy independence isn't around the corner. But there's a revolution brewing in North America that will over time reduce U.S. dependence on Arab oil. U.S. oil production is increasing sharply for the first time in almost a quarter-century. And natural gas output is rising, too. Some people even predict that, within a decade, America will become the world's largest producer of oil and gas. Indeed, Saudi Arabia currently produces 10 million barrels a day, while the United States churns out six million. If you add another two million in natural gas liquids, you can -- without straining the bounds of credulity -- see the potential. According to Council on Foreign Relations oil guru Michael Levi, even the cautious U.S. Energy Information Administration predicts that, by 2020, U.S. production could get close to 10 million barrels a day.

The point is not that the United States is becoming the new Saudi Arabia. As Levi points out, we're not in a position to manipulate and play politics with our oil production to affect supply and price. But we are going to become less reliant on Middle East energy. In 2011, we imported 45 percent of our energy needs, down from 60 percent six years earlier, and the share of our imports from Western Hemisphere sources is increasing. Between new oil in Brazil, oil sands production in Canada, and shale gas technology at home, by 2020, we could cut our dependence on non-Western Hemisphere oil by half. Combine that with the rise in national oil production and greater focus on fuel efficiency and conservation, and the trend lines are at least running in the right direction.

As long as oil trades in a single market, we're still vulnerable to disruptions, and the security of the Middle East's vast oil reserves will continue to be a key U.S. interest. But our own independence and thus freedom of action as it relates to the Saudis and other Arab producers will only increase. Given the fact that this month is the fortieth anniversary of the 1973 oil embargo, that's a good thing to contemplate.

(4) Arab Allies are estranged.

Part of the reason the United States is losing interest and influence in the Middle East is that we're sort of running out of friends -- or, perhaps more to the point and to quote Franklin Delano Roosevelt's reported description of a Nicaraguan president, our own SOBs. America is watching a region in profound transformation. The old authoritarians with whom we fought (Saddam, Qaddafi, Assad the elder) and those on whom we relied (Yasser Arafat, Hosni Mubarak, Ben Ali, Abdullah Saleh) are all gone. It's true the kings remain. But the most important ones -- the Saudis -- have serious problems with our policies. They can't abide the fact that, as a result of our doing, a Shiite prime minister rules in Baghdad; they loathe our policy on acquiescing to Mubarak's ouster; they resent our interest in reform in Bahrain; and they can't stand our refusal to get tough with Israel on the Palestinians.

We've just suspended a chunk of military aid to Egypt, another of our other Arab friends, and managed to alienate just about every part of the Egyptian political spectrum, from the military to the Islamists to the liberals to the business community. The Jordanians still want to be our friend largely because King Abdullah's vulnerabilities require it. Likewise for Mahmoud Abbas, who has no chance of getting a Palestinian state without U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's peace process lifeline.

The fact is, for the first time in half a century, Washington lacks a truly consequential Arab partner with whom to cooperate on matters relating to peace or war. Part of the reason is surely because our own street cred is much diminished. But most of our predicament derives from regional deficits -- the weakness of the Arab leaders and states themselves, and the turbulent changes loosed in the region in the past several years.

You might even go so far as to suggest that, today, the three most consequential powers in the region are the non-Arabs: Iran, Turkey, and Israel. All are serious, stable countries, with strong economies and militaries. Too bad we can't forge a partnership among that triad. The Middle East might become a serious and functional place.

(5) Israel is stronger and more independent than ever.

As matters have gotten worse for America in the Arab world, the U.S.-Israeli relationship has only grown stronger. Israel's own situation has also improved dramatically. Indeed, three factors -- Israel's formidable capacity; steadfast support from the United States; and stunning Arab incapacity -- have created a situation where Israel is stronger and more secure than it's ever been.

Iran's nuclear pretentions remain an acute challenge, and an unresolved Palestinian problem holds longer-term worries, too. But the notion that the Jewish state is a hapless victim, the Middle East's sitting duck, has been an illusion for some time now. Indeed, that image infantilizes the Israelis and creates a sense that they don't have freedom of action vis-a-vis their friends and enemies -- which they do. (Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself projects this image sometimes: His use of Holocaust imagery when describing the Iranian nuclear challenge seems to accord the mullahs great power. I've seen the picture of Churchill that Netanyahu has in his office, and I know he admires him. But Churchill would never, even in the darkest days of the blitz, have ever suggested that Hitler had the power to destroy Britain.)

Israel is a dynamic, resilient, and sovereign nation, and the United States needs to realize that, even while the Israelis take our interests into account, their own matter more -- particularly when it comes to their security and weapons of mass destruction. Where you stand in life is partly a result of where you sit, and as the small power with little margin for error, Israel is going to make its own decisions on the threats it faces and act unilaterally if necessary to deal with them.

Israel was never America's client. On the contrary, we helped enable and empower its independence of action. If Israel acts militarily against Iran because diplomacy can't address its concerns on the nuclear issue, it will be another indication that, as much as we would like to shape what goes on in the Middle East, we really can't. We don't live there, and we are clearly unable or unwilling to dictate to those who do.

(6) Diplomatic agreements could be on the horizon.

The speech Obama gave at the UNGA last month doesn't sound like a guy who's getting ready to disengage from the Middle East. After all, he committed to making resolutions of both the Iranian nuclear issue and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict the key foreign policy priorities of his second term. Given his risk-aversion, America's diminished credibility, and the sheer difficulty of the substance, it's by no means clear that the administration has the resolve and skill to succeed.

Even if he is serious, it's not as if Obama can just will solutions. These two problems are the most intractable ones in the region. Not to mention the fact that the Israelis, Palestinians, and Iranians will have a few things to say about these matters. Moreover, unlike the Syrian chemical weapons affair, it's very unlikely there's a Vladimir Putin who's going to make either of these issues easier for the United States. (Although, admittedly, we should withhold judgment. Had you told me at the end of August that the United States and Russia would be cooperating on Syria and U.N. inspectors would be busy eliminating Assad's chemical weapons stocks, I wouldn't have believed a word.)

Still, should Obama overcome these hurdles and deliver on these two issues -- and when I say deliver, I mean limited agreements, not conflict-ending ones -- not only will he have earned his Nobel Peace Prize, but he will have freed the United States from two awful burdens, made the Middle East a much friendlier and more secure place, and validated the basic premise of this column. Sure, we'd be involved in monitoring and helping to implement new agreements, particularly on the two-state solution. But, on balance and over time, agreements might free us from getting stuck and enmeshed any deeper in the middle of the mess we'll likely be facing in the Middle East if solutions to both issues can't be found.

The Middle East hasn't been kind to America. Nor we to it. The sooner we can reduce our profile in these unhappy lands, the better. Nothing would make me happier.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images