September 24, 2013

With the United Nations wrestling with decommissioning Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons, it was not surprising that President Obama would devote the first quarter of his address today to the U.N. General Assembly to the urgent crisis in Syria.

President Obama
President Obama addresses the U.N. General Assembly. (Andrew Burton/Associated Press)

But his conclusion after this lengthy discourse was a bit head-scratching. “In the near term, America’s diplomatic efforts will focus on two particular issues,” he declared. “Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and” — wait for it — “the Arab-Israeli conflict.”

In the past decade, there has hardly been a six-month period with less focus on Israel and the Palestinians, even with the advent of fresh talks engineered by Secretary of State John Kerry. During this stretch, Egypt has gone through a revolution, Iran has elected a new president and Syria has used prohibited weapons, threatening to trigger U.S. military intervention. These are the issues which have necessarily consumed the White House foreign policy team this summer and whose implications for the region and U.S. interests weigh so heavily. Syria’s civil war is threatening to spill over into Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan. Egypt, the dominant Arab power, is debuting Mubarak-style authoritarianism 2.0 (upgraded to be even more repressive). And Iran is simultaneously embarking on an ambitious diplomatic-outreach program and intensifying its nuclear program.

So, obviously, the United States should focus on Israel.

It’s not that the Arab-Israeli peace process isn’t important or even that the chances of striking an accord are slim. It’s that the United States is once again missing the burning forest for the trees. U.S. attention and energy can be energetically invested in onlyso many places. Witness how Egypt went on the back burner as soon as Syria used chemical weapons in an Aug. 21 attack. There are historic convulsions occurring — creating a once-in-several-generations opening for nurturing change — that the administration is arguably already falling short on. Yet once again, Obama wants to prioritize a grinding but low-boil conflict (that touches on but is not the engine of these other challenges) instead of taking maximum initiative on the roiling conflicts most pressing and in flux.

Similarly, in 2011, after the Arab Spring was first sprung, the world waited eagerly to hear the U.S. president speak to this epic change. Obama had an opportunity to seize the mantle of freedom and democracy, to encourage moderates and secular protesters, to use his bully pulpit to articulate U.S. interests and attempt to set the region’s changes on a path amenable to the West. Instead, he devoted the last fifth of his remarks on the uprisings to outlining his views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In it, he uttered his call for negotiations “based on the 1967 lines” for boundaries, a controversial idea sure to grab headlines — as it did, burying Obama’s other words on the Arab upheavals and losing the traction they could have had in shaping these historic transitions.

Perhaps, then, it isn’t surprising that Obama would return to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process; it is just unfortunate.

Obama noted today that “the United States has a hard-earned humility when it comes to our ability to determine events inside other countries.” It is a rule that seems to apply everywhere except in one place.