What does last night's victory on health care reform say about President Obama's Middle East strategy? A lot of people have already pointed out how it could strengthen his hand abroad by showing domestic strength, free up bandwidth to engage more vigorously on foreign policy, or reduce his need to cater to Congress on key issues. All of those may be true, but I had a slightly different reaction. For most of the last year, I've been torn between two general views of Obama's Middle East policy. One says that he's got no strategy, that his team is making things up as it goes, reacting to events, and has no clear idea of how to achieve his lofty goals. The other says that he's been playing a long game, keeping his eye on the long-term objective while others get lost in the tactics and the public theatrics. I've gone back and forth, hoping it's the latter while seeing way too many signs of the former. I still don't know which is right, but last night's passage of health care reform suggests that maybe, just maybe, his administration really does know how to play a long game... in the Middle East as well as on domestic priorities.
The "no strategy" perspective doesn't need much rehearsal, since we all know it quite well. In this version, Obama stumbled into a useless and losing battle with the Israeli government over settlements and has neither recovered the confidence of the Israelis nor satisfied Arabs or Palestinians. His administration has been overly focused on getting to negotiations for their own sake, with little conception of how those negotiations will produce the desired outcome of a two-state solution. Meanwhile, goes this argument, Obama has pursued engagement with Iran despite its limited prospects, pursuing talks for the sake of talks and ignoring calculated insults and historic opportunities to push for regime change. This is pretty much the Washington DC conventional wisdom (which is almost in itself a good reason to believe that it's wrong).
The "long game" version is that Obama has a signature method when tackling difficult, long-term objectives, whether health care, Israeli-Palestinian peace or Iran. Obama's method is to lay out an ambitious but realistic final status objective in stark terms and then to let political hardball unfold around those objectives. His most fervent opposition gets more and more outraged, raising the rhetorical pitch until they discredit themselves with key mainstream audiences who recoil from their overheated, apocalyptic and nutty words. And then, just as the Washington DC conventional wisdom declares his ambition dead, they suddenly wake up to the reality that he's won. How'd that happen? The final outcome isn't as pure as many would like, but it's nevertheless a substantial, major achievement against all expectations.
So does health care reform offer a roadmap for Obama's Middle East strategy? On Iran, this has been a fairly explicit strategy. Obama's "two track engagement" involved reaching out to Iran with an open hand, sort of like he did to Republicans on health care. If they took up the offer, great -- he gets a negotiated grand bargain with widespread, bipartisan support. If they don't, then he is in a much stronger position to paint them as obstructionists with a relevant audience -- independents in U.S. politics, the international community in the case of Iran. And while the battle is waged openly over broad public opinion, much of the real action is focused on a few key swing votes (shaky Democrats in health care, China and Russia and various Arab and Muslim states on Iran sancti0ns). I suppose that if you wanted to extend the metaphor, the Green Movement and the Tea Parties would play similar roles, albeit in opposite directions --- unexpected outbursts of popular anger and mobilization which throw off the momentum of the strategy (and may or may not ultimately matter when the final scorecard is read). The "long game" read of the health-care/Iran comparison then would suggest a coherent, common method to dealing with intractable problems.
Obama's approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is less explicitly constructed along the health care reform/Iran model, but there are still similarities. Obama laid out a grand vision of a two-state solution which would finally deal with an intractable issue which most reasonable people have long agreed needed to be resolved for moral and strategic reasons. Many people warned that he was over-reaching. Others were frustrated that he seemed to be playing too passive a role, leaving a floundering process to his deputies (George Mitchell, Congressional Democrats). Some complained that he was going way too far, others that he wasn't going nearly far enough. The optimistic, "long game" view would be that the Obama administration has patiently suffered Netanyahu's provocations in order to allow the Israeli government to reveal itself as outside the mainstream and unreasonable, and win over mainstream support for the American vision. When the theatrics are over, hard-ball politics will commence, Obama will engage personally at the closing stages, and a realistic final status agreement will be reached which doesn't satisfy the purists on either side but which represents a major accomplishment far beyond what had been previously expected.
So is there really a "long game"? I still really don't know. The problem with long games is that they can get derailed by day to day turbulence, even if they are well-conceived -- especially if people panic. The media and policy crowd can rarely follow a long game, since they tend to be distracted by bright shiny balls and over-react to the latest headlines. Even a well-conceived long game strategy might be internally flawed: in Iran, for instance, the focus on sanctions rather than on a grand bargain may be a conceptual flaw in the long-game itself, while in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict the conceptual flaw may be the over-reliance on the existing Palestinian Authority, under-appreciation of the significance of Gaza, a failure to grapple with the ongoing demographic and physical transformations of the West Bank, and the limited appetite for peacemaking in today's Israeli public.
I wouldn't push this too far. But Obama's health care victory should at least get people to reconsider the strategic logic behind his administration's Middle East strategy... and give at least some support for the optimistic reading that on the big picture, Obama may actually know what he's doing.