In the history of physics, the “unified field theory” was an attempt to bring together an understanding of all forms of energy in a single explanation. Albert Einstein tried and failed to discover this. I don’t know much about physics but I know about Middle East policy.
So here’s an effort to bring together all of Obama’s regional policy into a single analysis and explaining everything in 1100 words.
The first point is that the Obama administration’s behavior must be divided into two phases. They overlap and feature the same kind of thinking but they are also quite separate.
Phase One, from January 2009 until December 2010, was characterized by an emphasis on Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking. Obama’s administration believed that it was possible to make rapid progress toward peace and also thought that this was essential to achieve anything else in the Middle East.
To achieve peace, they thought, required mainly putting pressure on Israel for more concessions and winning support from Arab states and Muslims by proving that the United States was more sympathetic to them than any previous presidency.
I don’t want to review all of the details but this included being more critical of Israel, lavishly flattering Arabs and Muslims, asking Arab states for help, demanding a building freeze on Israeli settlements, adding a construction stop in east Jerusalem to these demands, calling for a December 2009 Camp David summit, urging a return to the 1967 borders with minor changes, and other steps.
There were many subtle barbs here at Israel that pro-Obama and many anti-Obama writers missed. For example, the Obama administration at first reneged on its predecessor’s promise that Israel could keep West Bank “settlement blocs.” The Obama administration secretly agreed not to ask for a freeze in east Jerusalem and then broke that promise by publicly attacking Israel on that point. The real problem with the “1967 borders” stance was that the Obama called for an Israeli return to the 1967 borders only after which there would be negotiations to determine what changes, if any, would be made.
There are two key points to make here. The first is that U.S. policy was a total failure, something the administration admitted. The second was that the failure came due to Arab state refusal to help and Palestinian Authority total rejectionism. The administration has never admitted, perhaps not really understood, this factor.
It was easy to overstate the nature of the gap between U.S. policy and Israel. Most of the administration’s activities were purely verbal and not material. Military aid and relationships with Israel continued. The Israeli government handled these problems pretty well. By late 2009 the relationship had been basically stabilized and not too much harm had been done.
Phase Two: Of course, the basic ideas that would characterize Phase Two were visible from the beginning of the Obama administration. Yet here, too, the most important points were often missed. Take Obama’s Cairo speech, for example. It was criticized on various grounds — the hollow “even-handedness,” the implication that Israel was only the result of the Holocaust, the invitation of Muslim Brotherhood leaders, etc.
But the super-elephant in the room that nobody else has ever noted is this: Obama endorsed an Islamic identity for the Arabs over and above nationalism or loyalty to any specific state. It was not a pro-Arab speech but a pro-Islamist speech.
Another aspect of this policy of being nice to Islamists (or Islamist allies like Syria) and mean to historic U.S. allies was the Obama administration’s slowness to move toward sanctions against Iran, its softness toward Turkey, Hizballah and other radical forces in Lebanon, and Syria. It even gave aid and comfort to Hamas in the Gaza Strip by pressing Israel to reduce sanctions to a minimum.
While other elements of this approach can be cited from the first few years, this approach took the lead beginning in January 2011 with the onset of the “Arab Spring.” Obama didn’t just endorse democracy, he actively worked to bring down governments friendly to the United States (Egypt, Tunisia, and Bahrain) and ignored the views and interests of other U.S. allies (Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia). Ignoring the State Department’s proposal of a cautious transition, he swept away the barriers to Islamist takeovers. The Libyan operation, whatever its motivations, amounted to the same thing.