With last week’s excitement over Friday’s 15-minute phone chat between US President Obama and Iranian leader Hassan Rouhani, Obama’s speech at the United Nations a few days earlier got little attention. Nonetheless it’s worth reading, especially for those interested in US policies towards the Middle East. With the exception of one small surprise, his remarks suggested that his foreign policy ship will remain on its current course.
Broadly speaking, Obama took on critics who charge that his overall foreign policies are indecisive and ad hoc. Noting that “we live in a world of imperfect choices” that is “full of unintended consequences,” he reiterated that the United States is ready to “secure its core interests” by military means if necessary.
But not all goals can be attained through military force, he added, noting that “dogged diplomacy” and development assistance” are also key. Despite Americans’ war-weariness, Obama said the United States would stay engaged in international affairs because to do otherwise would be dangerous.
“[T]he United States has a hard-earned humility when it comes to our ability to determine events inside other countries. The notion of American empire may be useful propaganda, but it isn’t borne out by America’s current policy or by public opinion. Indeed…the danger for the world is that the United States, after a decade of war—rightly concerned about issues back home, aware of the hostility that our engagement in the region has engendered throughout the Muslim world—may disengage, creating a vacuum of leadership that no other nation is ready to fill.”
As for the Middle East, Obama defended Washington’s response to the Arab Spring, saying that “we chose to support those who called for change.” That change, he continued, has not all been for the better. The “convulsions in the Middle East and North Africa have laid bare deep divisions within societies, as an old order is upended and people grapple with what comes next,” he said. “Peaceful movements have too often been answered by violence—from those resisting change and from extremists trying to hijack change. Sectarian conflict has reemerged. And the potential spread of weapons of mass destruction continues to cast a shadow over the pursuit of peace.”
He expressed frustration that US actions are viewed simultaneously through two different lenses by Middle East residents. On one hand, “the United States is chastised for meddling in the region, accused of having a hand in all manner of conspiracy,” he noted. On the other, it “is blamed for failing to do enough to solve the region’s problems and for showing indifference toward suffering Muslim populations.”
Such attitudes, he added, dampen Americans’ support for US involvement in the region. They also “allow leaders in the region—as well as the international community sometimes—to avoid addressing difficult problems themselves.”
Given these “contradictory” views, the US president said he wanted to “take this opportunity to outline what has been US policy towards the Middle East and North Africa, and what will be my policy during the remainder of my presidency.” He then listed the US “core interests,” that would be secured by military means if necessary: Protecting the flow of oil, dismantling terrorist networks and “preventing the development or use of weapons of mass destruction” including “the development of nuclear weapons that could trigger a nuclear arms race in the region.”
But the US has other interests too, which are to see a prosperous and peaceful Middle East, Obama added. “So what does this mean going forward?” he asked. “In the near term, America’s diplomatic efforts will focus on two particular issues: Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, and the Arab-Israeli conflict. While these issues are not the cause of all the region’s problems, they have been a major source of instability for far too long, and resolving them can help serve as a foundation for a broader peace.”
This is where the surprise came in.
Last week’s phone call between Obama and Rouhani did open new diplomatic vistas that temptingly hold out the promise of some progress on the Iranian nuclear issue. But the second part of Obama’s declared agenda was almost dreamy, given his spectacular failure to corral the Israelis and Palestinians into negotiations during his first term.
“I’m dumbfounded,” said F. Gregory Gause, professor of political science at the University of Vermont and an expert in Middle Eastern international politics. “I just don’t see why he and [Secretary of State John] Kerry think that there’s a breakthrough coming…If they’re playing a long game, they’re playing a really long game.”
Conditions on both sides make the prospect of a settlement terribly bleak, Gause added, noting that the current Israeli government is “very much committed to holding onto the territories” and the Palestinian Authority “can’t speak for Hamas.”
In addition, Israel’s still cast-iron support on Capitol Hill means that there’s not much incentive for it to be flexible or compromising with the Palestinians.
Obama’s Middle East priorities for his last three years in office can’t be music to the ears of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who does not want rapprochement with either the Iranians or the Palestinians. When he met Obama in Washington Monday, he urged continuing a tough line with Iran, saying that only the threat of force and economic sanctions had convinced Rouhani to appear more flexible on the nuclear issue.
Earlier, Netanyahu described Rouhani’s moves to show himself as a more moderate, tolerant leader than his predecessors as “a smile attack.” When ABC’s George Stephanopoulos asked Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif about this, Zarif replied that “a smile attack is much better than a lie attack,” noting that Israel had been describing Iran as six months away from having a nuclear weapon since 1991.
Obama’s pursuit of negotiations with Iran is no symphony to the Saudis, either, who worry that their interests may be harmed if the hostility between Washington and Tehran melts and a deal on the nuclear issue is reached.
In any event, the Saudis were no doubt reassured when the US president declared that “although we will at times be accused of hypocrisy and inconsistency, we will be engaged in the region for the long haul.”
Obama has a gift with words. So his speeches raise human hopes for a change for the better. But the US president has so far not earned his Nobel Peace Prize.
Now, in his last term, he is reaching for the brass ring. Actually two brass rings. Without a couple of miracles, it’s likely to be a reach too far.
All views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, The Majalla Magazine.