It was painful to watch President Obama last week at the United Nations, backing away from the goal of Palestinian statehood he had championed when he took office. The best that could be said was that it was a bit of foreign-policy realism, acknowledging the political and strategic fact that the United States will never abandon Israel in the U.N. Security Council.
Obama is playing defense in foreign policy these days, trying not to make costly mistakes. Like a football team protecting a slim lead, he wants to avoid fumbles that would cost him the game. The idea of daring offensive moves — the risky touchdown pass — is a distant memory from 2009. This is a team that chants to itself: “Dee-fense!”
There are worse things than playing cautiously. The big gamble may be tempting, but it can lead to disaster, as Menachem Begin found with his invasion of Lebanon in 1982, and George W. Bush learned after his occupation of Iraq in 2003. Though commentators may be howling for a big, bold move, the correct choice is often the one that hedges against really bad outcomes. Papa Bush (“41”) was teased on “Saturday Night Live” with the mocking phrase “wouldn’t be prudent,” but he politely backed his way right into the dismantlement of the Soviet Union.
It should be said that Obama is playing defense reasonably well. There are big, long-lasting mistakes lurking in the Arab Spring — chief among them a chaotic implosion of Syria that could trigger a wave of sectarian massacres on the order of Iraq in 2006. Obama has understood the need to be cautious about the Syrian transition, even if he gets hammered sometimes in the editorial pages.
Obama is hedging, too, in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The danger there is the perception that America is leaving and the ensuing scramble to fill the power vacuum. Recognizing that problem, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is already talking about the likelihood that the United States will keep some troops in Afghanistan after 2014. Obama could have avoided a lot of his current Af-Pak problems if he hadn’t coupled his December 2009 troop surge with a pledge to start withdrawing those troops in July 2011. The wiser course would have been deliberate ambiguity.
The retreat on the Palestinian issue must be a bitter pill for Obama. Regaining America’s role as an evenhanded mediator seemed his top priority when he took office. His first interview as president was with the Arabic news channel al-Arabiya; his June 2009 speech in Cairo was a masterful signal that America was ready to engage its Muslim adversaries and make peace. Obama knew that America’s security, and Israel’s, required creation of a Palestinian state.
What happened to that promise? It’s a long and depressing story, but the simple answer is that Obama got outfoxed. He decided not to immediately enunciate core principles for an agreement, which would have built on the remarkable progress made in 2008 by Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas, a story that awaits Condoleezza Rice’s memoirs. Instead, he picked a fight over Israeli settlements that landed him in the morass of Israeli coalition politics.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu waited Obama out. Every month that the diplomatic wrangling went on, Obama grew weaker politically and Netanyahu stronger. The denouement was Obama’s speech Wednesday, in which he spoke almost ruefully of “peace in an imperfect world.” His best hope now is that he won’t actually have to veto a statehood resolution. Talk about playing defense.
While crediting Obama’s caution, I wish he would study the example of Henry Kissinger, who was playing a weak hand in 1971 when the Vietnam War was unraveling. Kissinger dealt a new set of cards by traveling secretly to China. He recalls in his memoirs that in his first meeting with Zhou Enlai, he cautiously opted for a broad, philosophical discussion of “our perceptions of global and especially Asian affairs.”
“The statesman finds opportunity,” even in adversity, notes Robert Blackwill, a Republican foreign policy expert who worked for Kissinger and both Bushes. That’s a good prescription for Obama. He’s in damage-limitation mode — sensible enough in a time of uncertainty but not really a strategy. What’s the opportunity — in Pakistan, in India, in Turkey, in Syria — and yes, in the Palestinian state that inevitably will be declared?
Playing defense works if you’ve got a lead to protect. But it’s not enough when that lead is slipping away.