A presidential campaign focused largely on domestic economic issues veered into foreign policy after the killing of America’s ambassador to Libya on Tuesday and the eruption of anti-U.S. protests from Egypt to Yemen. Both presidential candidates responded — and their differences have produced debates over which would be stronger on the world stage. Was President Obama forceful enough? Did Mitt Romney “shoot first and aim later,” as Obama alleged, when the Republican criticized the administration’s response?
And what do these differences tell us about who can best guide U.S. policy in the Middle East, a region we seem unable to fix and unable to leave?
As much as we might want to parse this moment for insights on Oval Office decision-making, it actually reveals very little. Because no matter who wins in November, the basic parameters of the U.S. approach to the Middle East are unlikely to change. We may get pulled into situations with unpredictable consequences (including a conflict with Iran), but the days of sweeping and grand U.S.-led designs for war and peace are pretty much over.
The biggest enforcer of the status quo may be Obama himself. Early on, he talked a great deal about a different American approach, calling for a freeze of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and proposing a new relationship between the United States and the Muslim world in a June 2009 speech in Cairo. But he then proceeded to become what he probably was all along — a very practical transactor who in many ways resembles George W. Bush: tough on terrorism, “surging” in Afghanistan, and in the end unwilling and unable to push the Israelis on the peace process or the authoritarian oil sheiks on reform.
If you’re looking for dramatic, creative moves from a second Obama term or a Romney administration — big peace plans, grand bargains and the like — forget about it. Your odds are better in Vegas.
Yes, news flash, Obama’s relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is tense. But the overall U.S.-Israeli bond is strong and will only grow stronger — and that would be even more certain should Romney win the presidency.
The relationship has transcended Democratic and Republican politics. The confluence of shared values, a powerful pro-Israeli community in the United States, support for or acquiescence in the special relationship among the broader non-Jewish and non-evangelical American public, and institutionalized strategic cooperation with the Israelis produces a bond that is hard to tear asunder.
That doesn’t mean that there can’t or won’t be tension, for instance on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. But it does mean that on the larger issues of peace and war, American presidents will have no choice but to win Israel’s approval. And while Washington may seek to exert pressure at times, the main instruments will be suasion and coaxing the Israelis with all kinds of goodies and benefits.
Other parties in these matters — say, the Palestinians — don’t have anywhere near the same leverage and influence. It’s been that way for the better part of 40 years, and there’s no indication that much will change.
It’s laughable to hear Romney’s charges that Obama has thrown Israel under the bus. Indeed, a president who has spent his first term bent on ending two wars may become involved in another against Iran’s mullahs in a second term, demonstrating yet again how Washington has made Israel’s agenda its own. Clearly the United States has a big stake in making sure that Iran doesn’t get nukes. But there simply wouldn’t be the urgency and panic without Israel seeming to signal once a day and twice on Sundays that it will use military force to deal with Iran.
There’s no possible U.S.-Israeli divorce anymore — just an enduring relationship that is by turns happy and troubled.
Of course, part of the reason Americans are so drawn to Israel is because Israel’s neighbors behave so much worse. As bad as Israel’s policies are toward Palestinians under occupation, the Arabs are in a league of their own, in word and deed.
In Syria, the Assads brutally kill and torture their people by the thousands. In Lebanon, Hezbollah continues to act like the authoritarian, anti-democratic group it is, openly siding with Syria and Iran while threatening Israel with rockets. In Gaza, Hamas continues to spew anti-Semitic propaganda, as does the Palestinian Authority. And in Egypt, President Mohamed Morsi, even as he legitimizes the treaty with Israel each day he lets it stand, represents an Islamist movement whose message is anti-Israeli, anti-Semitic and prejudicial to women and Christians.
All of this validates the proposition that American values are much closer to Israel’s and that the Arabs aren’t yet ready for prime time in Washington.
When Jordan’s King Hussein, Egypt’s Anwar Sadat and even Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak were in power, they at least had a chance to sway U.S. public opinion or exert pressure on Israel. Now Arab leaders either don’t much care what America thinks or are playing to their own audiences with anti-U.S.tropes. Either way, they’re neither making friends nor influencing Americans to empathize, let alone sympathize, with their causes.
Indeed, the behavior of the new Arab governments — and those such as Syria’s that remain in crisis — may prove even more constraining for Obama or Romney than the actions of the old ones. Just look at the violent demonstrations against America’s embassies. While over the long haul the Arab Spring may lead to improved governance, don’t expect Obama (and certainly not Romney) to deliver any new Cairo speeches. If anything, Washington will tend to lean on what is stable and familiar.
Enter the Persian Gulf states. Underscoring the continuity of U.S. policy in the region is the importance of maintaining good relations with the Arab oil producers. While the oil-for-security trade-off that for years held the U.S.-Saudi relationship tight may have frayed — with the Saudis watching us engineer a Shiite government in Iraq, facilitate Mubarak’s departure and press for reforms in Bahrain — they can’t get by without us, either. And their fear of Iran will only deepen their dependence on us. Count on Romney or Obama coddling the Arab oil sheiks, selling them all kinds of military hardware and avoiding calls for reform for some time to come. The last thing Washington wants is a disruptive Arab Spring there.
Iranian threats ensure that the U.S.-Israel bond will remain tight. Israel and America don’t see eye to eye on the timing of a military strike against Iran, or even the need for one. But it won’t matter if Israel hits Iran and the mullahs retaliate by striking directly at Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. There’s a good chance, too, that whoever the president is and whatever his personal views, Washington won’t only support Israel — it may even be drawn into the fight.
The Iranian challenge also deepens America’s commitment to the gulf states. This is particularly true when it comes to the Saudis, who fear a Sunni-Shiite confrontation in Iraq and look warily upon Iranian efforts to make trouble among Shiites in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. Washington will be reluctant to push the Saudis too hard on democratic reforms, to avoid provoking anger and instability in a key oil producer. And because international oil sanctions against Iran are reducing production there, the United States is growing even more more dependent on Saudi crude.
The Iran issue is likely to suck up all the oxygen in the room for some time to come. It makes moving on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — already tough — even harder. Netanyahu isn’t going to make big decisions on peace when the Iranian nuclear file is still open. And if the Iran issue becomes a military crisis, you can of course forget any progress on the peace process, too.
The obligatory disclaimer in all such discussions is that no one should underestimate the ability of an unpredictable Middle East to draw America in, force its hand and produce unexpected and dramatic turnarounds in U.S. policies. And if Obama is reelected, the allure of legacy-polishing might lead him into a search for an Israeli-Palestinian deal, particularly if he’s bogged down by Congress on domestic issues.
But there are compelling factors arguing for caution and restraint, too. First, remember that legacy cuts both ways, particularly on tough issues. Presidents want to be remembered for their triumphs, not for their failures or second-place finishes. And if Romney is elected, there is likely to be little proactive engagement with Iran, the Muslim Brotherhood or the Palestinians. Romney seems to see the world in starker black-and-white terms than the gray nuances of Obama.
Come 2013, Obama or Romney is going to be knee-deep in trying to keep the nation from plunging headlong over the looming fiscal cliff and trying to save what’s left of the American middle class. Neither wants to be the hero of Damascus; they’ll be trying to be the hero of Detroit, Kansas City, Atlanta and Los Angeles.
Those attacking the American consulate in Benghazi and the U.S. Embassies in Cairo, Sanaa and elsewhere, accomplished some of their goals — killing a terrific U.S. ambassador and three other brave Americans, or reminding the United States of its vulnerability and suggesting that there is a price to be paid for showing disrespect for Islam. But if the attackers and their supporters and enablers are hoping to precipitate some major change in U.S. policy toward the region, they will be disappointed. It will take far more than even this crisis to redirect America’s approach to this part of the world.
Big moves in Mideast foreign policy — three Arab-Israeli disengagement agreements in the two years after the 1973 war; negotiating an Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty in 1979; waging a short and successful war to push Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait in 1991 — are not only rare but take a combination of opportunity, will, skill and guts, as well as real leadership in the region.
All of those seem in very short supply these days, regardless of who wins in November. So reinforce the barricades and increase security around our embassies; we’re in for a rough time in a region that is bound to produce unending headaches for whomever sits in the Oval Office.
Aaron David Miller, a distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, served as a State Department negotiator and adviser on the Middle East in Republican and Democratic administrations. He is the author of “The Much Too Promised Land: America’s Elusive Search for Arab-Israeli Peace.”
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