Is President Obama learning from history by avoiding – or repeating – the crucial errors of his 2009 visit to the Middle East?
In 2009, Obama anticipated engagement, rather than confrontation, with Iran, which threatens the survival of pro-US Arab regimes in the Persian Gulf and beyond. Obama expected an Arab Spring and a march of pro-US democracy on the Arab Street, rather than the stormy, tectonic anti-US Arab Winter. Just like President Carter’s reckless abandonment of the Shah and his courting of Khomeini, President Obama turned his back on America’s ally, Mubarak, while extending his hand to America’s inherent enemy, the trans-national, subversive Muslim Brotherhood. The desertion of Mubarak undermined US reliability in the eyes of pro-US Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the Gulf States. Furthermore, the newly-elected President promoted the UN as the quarterback of international relations and the US as a multilateral arbitrator/mediator, rather than a unilateral, determined military superpower. Such a policy has eroded America’s posture of deterrence, which is the backbone of the dwindling club of pro-US Arab regimes.
In 2013, President Obama is increasingly aware that a nuclear Iran would primarily target vital US economic, national and homeland security interests. He is better acquainted with the threat of the Arab Winter, the potential disintegration of a few Arab countries and the intensification of Islamic terrorism. The 2013 visit aims to reassure pro-US Arab regimes, who dread a nuclear Iran and are disillusioned with the US focus on diplomacy and economic sanctions. They doubt Washington’s intent to employ the only effective option against Iran: a surgical, disproportional military preemption with no boots on the ground. President Obama aspires to secure the remaining pro-US Arab regimes in the face of the conventional and chemical lava erupting on the Syrian Street, which could sweep through Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and other Arab countries.
In 2009, the US President considered the Palestinian issue the epicenter of Middle East turbulence and anti-US Islamic terrorism, a facilitator of anti-Iran Arab coalition and the crown-jewel of Arab policy-making.
In 2013, the seismic Arab Street, from northwest Africa to the Persian Gulf, has exposed the marginal role played by the Palestinian issue in shaping Arab priorities and Middle East developments. Irrespective of Palestinian-oriented rhetoric, President Obama’s visit is driven by Iran’s nuclearization, the exploding Arab Street and the outcry by America’s Arab allies, not by the Arab-Israeli conflict or the Palestinian issue. Neither the Middle East, nor US-Israel relations, evolves around the Palestinian issue.
In 2009, the US President assumed that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is over the size – not the existence – of Israel, hence the formula of land-for-peace. Therefore, he insisted that painful Israeli concessions would pacify the Palestinians, rather than whet their appetite and radicalize their policy. He believed that his goodwill and charismatic communications skills would achieve an Israel-Palestinian agreement, which eluded his White House predecessors. He was certain that his conviction could produce a peace accord in a region that has never experienced intra-Arab peaceful coexistence, intra-Arab tolerance, intra-Arab compliance with agreements and not one Arab democracy in the last 1,400 years. He promoted “Give peace a chance” in a region, where too many sanctify martyrdom (suicide bombing) rather than life.
In 2013, Obama harbors much of his 2009 approach towards the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, while recognizing that pressuring Israel radicalizes the Palestinians. He ignores the centrality of Islam, which prohibits “infidel” sovereignty in the abode of Islam. Moreover, notwithstanding the US financial and diplomatic embrace of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas and Salaam Fayyad have moved closer to Hamas, Russia, China, North Korea and Iran, fueling anti-US, anti-Israel and anti-Jewish sentiments via incitement and hate-education in Palestinian schools, mosques and media. Is Obama aware that the application of moral equivalence to Israel (the role model of counter-terrorism and unconditional alliance with the USA) and to the Palestinians (the role model of international terrorism and allies of the Nazis, Communist Bloc, Saddam Hussein, Khomeini and Bin Laden) has been morally-wrong and strategically-flawed? Is he aware that unprecedented Israeli gestures (e.g., 1993 Oslo Accord, 2005 uprooting Jewish settlements) were interpreted as weakness, propelling unprecedented hate-education, terrorism and non-compliance?
In 2009, the US President approached Israel as a minor strategic ally, possibly a burden, obstructing US ties with Muslims.
In 2013, Israel is highlighted as the only stable, reliable, predictable, capable, democratic and unconditional ally of the US, in contrast with the increasingly violent, intolerant, unpredictable, unstable, unreliable and anti-US Arab Street. US-Israel strategic cooperation has been considerably upgraded, independent of US-Israel disagreements over the Palestinian issue, and as a result of regional and global developments which are much more significant than the Palestinian issue. Shared values, mutual threats, joint interests and Israel’s cutting edge defense and commercial technologies and battle tactics have underscored the mutually-beneficial, two-way-street, win-win ties between the US and Israel.
In order to avoid the errors of the 2009 visit, and attain the key goals of the 2013 visit – the bolstering of the US posture of deterrence and power projection in the face of Iran and the boiling lava on the Arab Street, regardless of the Palestinian issue – President Obama may have to walk the (military) walk, not just talk the (diplomatic and economic) talk.