Barack Obama is staring failure in the Middle East in the eye and, frighteningly, all signs point to him liking what he sees.
I wanted so badly to give the man the benefit of the doubt on this. When he appointed Hillary Clinton, a tireless Israeli apologist, as Secretary of State, I looked for a silver lining. Clinton, I suggested, would be the perfect “only Nixon could go to China” emissary to carry a new “tough love” message to Israel.
And I was right: she would be. Unfortunately, not every Nixon actually ends up going to China. And given the other appointments Obama has been making, it’s getting very difficult to believe that either Clinton or Obama intends to go anywhere near the place.
Roger Cohen, someone I rarely find reason to quote, is right on target on this one. After noting how important it is that Obama’s Middle Eastern team include at least one member with a reputation for being somewhat sympathetic to Palestinian aspirations, he writes:
In fact, the people likely to play significant roles on the Middle East in the Obama Administration read rather differently.
They include Dennis Ross (the veteran Clinton administration Mideast peace envoy who may now extend his brief to Iran); James Steinberg (as deputy secretary of state); Dan Kurtzer (the former U.S. ambassador to Israel); Dan Shapiro (a longtime aide to Obama); and Martin Indyk (another former ambassador to Israel who is close to the incoming secretary of state, Hillary Clinton.)
Now, I have nothing against smart, driven, liberal, Jewish (or half-Jewish) males; I’ve looked in the mirror. I know or have talked to all these guys, except Shapiro. They’re knowledgeable, broad-minded and determined. Still, on the diversity front they fall short.
On the change-you-can-believe-in front, they also leave something to be desired.
In an adulatory piece in Newsweek, Michael Hirsh wrote: “Ross’s previous experience as the indefatigable point man during the failed Oslo process, as well as the main negotiator with Syria, make him uniquely suited for a major renewal of U.S. policy on nearly every front.”
Really? I wonder about the capacity for “major renewal” of someone who has failed for so long.
This simply isn’t the crew someone desirous of meaningful change in America’s Middle Eastern policy would choose to bring on board.
Now, almost certainly, there will be some change around the edges: I wouldn’t be surprised, for example, if Obama is more open to the idea of increased contact with Hamas. So what? Unless talk somehow translates into action, it just becomes so much more desert wind. If there’s one thing the Arab-Israeli issue hasn’t lacked for over the years, it’s been useless talk.
In fact, while I desperately hope I’m wrong, my guess is that this represents the most likely outcome for Obama’s Middle Eastern policy: a lot of empty talk followed by more of the same.
And if that’s true, things won’t just fail to get better: they’ll get worse. If actual change isn’t forthcoming, the hopefulness that many in the region felt, at least initially, over Obama’s election, will quickly turn into even deeper hatred for the United States, the natural byproduct of disappointment.
And if change is coming, right now it’s hard to see from where.