Mr. Obama's Middle East

Saturday, June 7, 2008

IN THE HEAT of the Democratic primary campaign, some on the left were inspired to believe that Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) offered a far-reaching transformation of U.S. foreign policy, "the most sweeping liberal foreign-policy critique we've heard from a serious presidential contender in decades," as one particularly breathless article in the American Prospect put it. Yet, when Mr. Obama opened his general election campaign this week with a major speech on Middle East policy, the substantive strategy he outlined was, in many respects, not very much different from that of the Bush administration -- or that of Republican Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). That's not a bad thing; rather, it's a demonstration that there is a strong bipartisan consensus about America's vital interests in the Middle East and that the sensible options for defending them are relatively limited.

Liberal notions of a foreign policy shakeup sometimes begin -- and end -- with a cooling of U.S. support for Israel. But in his speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a lobbying group, delivered hours after he clinched the Democratic nomination, Mr. Obama was so forceful in backing the military, economic and territorial interests of the Jewish state that he later had to offer a clarification, pointing out that his endorsement of an "undivided" Jerusalem did not mean he ruled out Israeli-Palestinian negotiations over the final status of the city.

Mr. Obama was equally hawkish about Iran. Hedging his much-discussed offer to meet personally with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad -- now the encounter would be with "the appropriate Iranian leader at a time and place of my choosing, if and only if, it can advance the interests of the United States" -- Mr. Obama fully embraced the Bush administration's view that "the danger from Iran is grave." He said "we will use all elements of American power to pressure Iran," and he pledged, "I will do everything in my power to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon -- everything."

What would he do? In essence, Mr. Obama promises an improved version of the Bush administration's three-year-old strategy of offering, in conjunction with European allies and Russia, economic and political favors to Iran in exchange for an end to its nuclear program and threatening it with sanctions if it refuses. Mr. Obama would have the United States join the Europeans in having direct discussions with Tehran, and perhaps he would agree to bigger incentives. In exchange, he would seek European and U.N. Security Council support for far tougher sanctions than the Bush administration has obtained -- such as a ban on Iranian gasoline imports, which is probably the strongest measure available short of war.

The gap in Mr. Obama's Middle East policy remains Iraq. Mr. Obama has used his opposition to the war to distinguish himself politically from Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and now from Mr. McCain. Yet, in doing so, he has become unreasonably wedded to a year-old proposal to rapidly withdraw all U.S. combat forces from the country -- a plan offered when he wrongly believed that the situation would only worsen as long as American troops remained. Remarkably, only a sentence or two about Iraq appeared in Mr. Obama's AIPAC speech, and advisers say he may visit the country in coming months. That would offer him the opportunity to outline a strategy based on sustaining the dramatic reduction in violence recorded this year. No, the left wouldn't like it, but it would be in keeping with Mr. Obama's pragmatic approach to the rest of the region.

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