What will Obama's policy be towards the Middle East?

Everyone acknowledges that the situation in the Middle East will be one of the incoming Obama Administration’s major problems. If precedent is any indication, Obama will try to do what all the Presidents before him have tried to do and failed- resurrect the so-called “peace process.” Since the collapse of the Oslo meeting under the Clinton Administration, and despite the all out effort by Condi Rice during the second Bush Administration, nothing has worked.


The problem always boils down to the same thing: unless the Palestinian people and leadership agree that they will live side by side in peace with the nation of Israel, no amount of starting up negotiations will ever succeed. Indeed, had the Arab nations accepted the partition of Israel established by the United Nations in 1947, and not gone to war once Israel declared itself a nation in May of 1948, there would have been no Palestinian problem.

On the website of The New Republic today, two very important articles appear that address itself to the heart of the question.  Martin Kramer, whose words are published in full in Marty Peretz’s blog, offers readers a sobering assessment of the pitfalls of seeking “engagement.”  Kramer, whose article is must reading, challenges those who argue that all the obvious risks that will occur when our government starts talking to its enemies can be concealed. For example: ignore Ahmadinejad and the words he uses; stress that he has no real power, that the real Iran despises him, etc. etc. Therefore, we should have no fear of talking with him.  Deal with Hamas; they’re just a protest movement against corruption. Don’t fear Hezbollah; they just want a rightful place for Shiites in Lebanon.

All these arguments, Kramer says, are but “systematic downplaying of the risks posed by radical Islam.” Engage with the Islamists, the realists say, and the outcome will be a more peaceful Middle East. Our task should be to address their grievances, and the outcome will be good. But as Kramer warns us, the analysis rests on the assumption that the radical states are motivated by grievances, not by a radical Islamist ideology that seeks victory for new fundamentalist theocracies. As Kramer puts it, the Islamists favor putting “history in reverse” through restoring the power they held in ancient times, when Islam dominated the world.


Kramer thus warns us that once we understand their actual goal, then accommodation and concessions persuade them to press on, not to make compromises for peace. So accommodation in effect becomes the overused word, appeasement.  We are dealing not with rational secular movements, but with religious fundamentalists who are motivated by an understanding of what their Islamic faith demands.

I urge readers to go to Kramer’s article, and see his sharp analysis of what engagement means when it is applied to dealing with Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah. Engagement itself comprises serious risks, and could work to make our foreign policy goals even harder to achieve. As he writes, “there is harm in talking.”

At this point, readers should turn to the article by Eli Lake, formerly of the departed New York Sun, and now a contributing editor of TNR. Who is going to be in charge of policy in the Middle East, Lake asks? Is it going to be Hillary Clinton, or will it be James Jones, retired commandant of the Marine Corps, whom Condi Rice appointed special envoy for Middle East security?

Kramer argues that the only way towards success is to “show the resolve and grit to wear and grind down our adversaries, with soft power, hard power and will power.” The problem, as Eli Lake shows, is that only Hillary Clinton has shown that she understands this.


Clinton, Lake notes, has been a persistent critic of Palestinian media and schooling, an area that the State Department has previously preferred to ignore, and has “described the teaching of anti-Israel views in Palestinian textbooks as ‘child abuse.'” Indeed, Lake writes that Clinton “has in a way made common cause with Bush administration hawks.” Her counterpart, James Jones, has to the contrary sought to “empower Abbas and his Fatah party to take over a Palestinian state,” without asking them to take necessary steps to educate their own people in the politics of peace.

Clinton stresses that young minds on the West Bank (not to speak of Hamas controlled Gaza) are being indoctrinated in anti-Semitism, which will make it even harder to achieve peace and stability. She is against negotiation with Hamas, supports Israel’s security fence, and  backed the Kyl-Lieberman resolution declaring the Iranian Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization.

Jones, on the other hand emphasizes his criticism of Israeli policy and the IDF, Israel’s military. He also backs sending a NATO force to keep the peace between a Palestinian state and Israel, a plan that all Israeli governments reject.

Lake is not certain that there will be a collision course over policy towards Israel, spearheaded by a confrontation between Clinton and Jones. He worries that when Obama turns to the Middle East, tension between these two advisors could reprise the Powell-Cheney fights of the Bush years. For the sake of sound policy and success, let us hope that it is Secretary of State Clinton to whom Barack Obama will listen.



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