By Jackson Diehl
Monday, April 19, 2010; A15
"Timing is everything in life," George Mitchell said this year while discussing his daunting job as a Middle East envoy. It's a piece of wisdom that applies perfectly to the Obama administration's troubles in the region -- and one that, curiously enough, Mitchell and his boss have willfully ignored.
The United States faces three big strategic challenges in the Middle East. One is the threat of Iran. The second is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And the third is the corrupt and crumbling Arab autocracies of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and half a dozen other states, which fuel Islamic extremism and provide almost all of al-Qaeda's recruits.
U.S. diplomacy can have an impact on all of those problems -- but Washington can't impose solutions by itself. It has to seek or create moments of opportunity and then use them well. Policy has to be based on not only what the White House aspires to do but also what conditions on the ground make possible.
In the Middle East, the conditions on the ground make a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace settlement impossible to accomplish in the short term. They make anything more than delay and containment of Iran's nuclear ambitions similarly far-fetched, unless military force is used or a domestic revolution takes place. But they offer what may be a golden opportunity for democratization.
The Obama administration is pressing ahead on the first two issues, setting impossibly ambitious goals and ignoring the unfavorable conditions. And it has put on a distant back burner the one place where opportunity beckons.
That would be Egypt, the region's bellwether -- where an 81-year-old strongman, Hosni Mubarak, is ailing; where a grass-roots pro-democracy movement has gained hundreds of thousands of supporters; and where a credible reform leader has suddenly appeared, in the form of the Nobel Prize-winning former nuclear inspector Mohamed ElBaradei. The movement he leads is pressing Mubarak to lift an emergency law -- imposed 28 years ago -- that blocks political organizing and freedom of assembly, and to change the constitution so that next year's presidential election can be genuinely democratic.
Here is a real chance for groundbreaking change in the homeland of Mohamed Atta and Ayman al-Zawahiri. As happened before democratic transitions in other countries, there is a strong public movement with responsible leadership making reasonable demands. American leverage, including $2 billion in annual aid, is powerful -- as George W. Bush demonstrated in 2005, when he induced Mubarak to change the constitution before the last presidential election so that opponents could run against him.
There are some in the administration who can see the opportunity. But Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton have shown almost no interest. Officials tell me that Obama has raised the democracy issue with Mubarak in private. But there have been no public statements; no special envoys; no angry phone calls in which demands have been conveyed to the recalcitrant leader.
Instead, Obama has focused most of his personal energy and diplomatic capital on the Arab-Israeli conundrum -- where, for a variety of reasons, there is no immediate opportunity. The administration knows it, or should: The current Israeli government is not disposed toward peacemaking; the Palestinians are hopelessly divided into two hostile camps; Arab states are reluctant at best to make their own concessions -- and Iran, via its proxies in Lebanon and Gaza, can trigger paralyzing violence at any time.
Yet the president has persisted; he arrived in office imbued with a passion to promote an Israeli-Palestinian settlement and so disregards the bad timing. In his own way, Bush made the same mistake. Seized with the conviction that democratization was central to combating Islamic extremism, he pushed for free elections in Egypt at a time when conditions were not ripe -- the mass movement and capable leadership of 2010 didn't exist in 2005.
Obama suggested at his news conference last week that he understands his problem. "I know that even if we are applying all of our political capital," he said, Israelis, Palestinians and Arab states "may say to themselves, we are not prepared to resolve this -- these issues -- no matter how much pressure the United States brings to bear." He went on to quote the famous maxim of former secretary of state James Baker: "We can't want it more than they do."
Yet the president, according to my colleague David Ignatius, is seriously considering putting forward a comprehensive U.S. plan for an Israeli-Arab peace, at the urging of some internal and outside advisers. That would fly in the face of Baker's maxim -- and invite a diplomatic disaster. It would also bypass the real chance for change in Egypt.
This is not to say that Obama should abandon all diplomacy on Middle East peace or Iran. Incremental progress is possible, and should be pursued. But the big challenge for the president is to set aside his preconceived notions about what big thing he can or should accomplish in the region -- and seize the opportunity that is actually before him.