Confronting Multiple Problems, Obama Faces Tough Oddshttp://www.nytimes.com/2010/
President Obama is attempting a triple play this week that eluded his predecessors over the past two decades: simultaneous progress on the most vexing and violent problems in the Middle East — Israeli-Palestinian peace, Iraq and Iran — in hopes of creating a virtuous cycle in a region prone to downward spirals.
History shouts that all the odds are against him. White House officials, eager to show concrete progress on the hardest foreign policy challenges at a time when Mr. Obama is struggling with a variety of domestic issues, contend that that the president has changed the political climate in all three arenas and has the best shot in years at creating positive and interlocking results.
When President Bill Clinton tried a similar strategy, he argued that a comprehensive peace between the Israelis and Palestinians would make it easier for Arab nations to join in the “dual containment” of Iran and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. It turned out that the reverse was true as well: When one of those efforts fell apart, so did the other two.
A month before invading Iraq, President George W. Bush argued that toppling Saddam Hussein would create “a dramatic and inspiring example of freedom for other nations in the region,” leading Arab countries “to support the emergence of a peaceful and democratic Palestine, and state clearly they will live in peace with Israel.” Instead, Iraq went up in flames and hopes for peace collapsed. Iran accelerated its drive for a nuclear capability.
Mr. Obama’s argument, which formed one subtext of his speech to the nation on Tuesday night about the end of the American combat mission in Iraq and which will play out Wednesday and Thursday as he gathers Israeli and Palestinian leaders for their first direct talks in two years, is more subtle about the linkage among the issues.
“There are three big chess pieces here, and in each of those places we are now poised for success,” Rahm Emanuel, Mr. Obama’s chief of staff and a major voice in Middle East policy, said in an interview on Tuesday. He argued that while the linkages are loose, “victory begets victory, and success will be reinforcing.”
While Mr. Obama’s thinking contains elements of the logic that drove his predecessors, there are also some critical differences, and success or failure hinges on how significant those turn out to be. Those differences include evidence that the United States is truly pulling out of Iraq, far tougher sanctions on Iran and the tentative emergence of a working Palestinian government in the West Bank.
The main problem is that success is not assured in any of the fronts in question, and the dynamic among them is unpredictable.
“It’s hard to make the case that progress in the peace process is going to resolve the political stalemate in Iraq, or force the Iranians to reconsider their nuclear program,” said Martin S. Indyk, who served as American ambassador to Israel and now is the director of foreign policy at the Brookings Institution. “But I think you can claim that success would help make headway in isolating Iran, and Iran’s claims to leadership in the region would be challenged. The risk — the one we forgot in the Clinton years — is that failure can also diminish your credibility.”
It is in Iraq, a war Mr. Obama campaigned to end, where he is claiming progress. While Iraq’s fractious politicians have still not agreed on a government nearly six months after an election and insurgents have landed some punishing recent attacks, overall violence has fallen and the withdrawal from combat missions happened a few weeks ahead of schedule. “It is clear in Iraq a genuine political process is under way,” said Dennis B. Ross, Mr. Obama’s top Middle East adviser.
Still, Mr. Obama is loath to declare anything resembling victory, and he said Tuesday that a “tough slog” remained. The question is whether the American public is willing to see more money and lives spent there while Iraqi politicians argue.
As Ryan C. Crocker, the former American ambassador to Iraq, wrote recently in The National Interest: “Strategic patience is often in short supply in this country. It is not a new problem for us, and it is not limited to Iraq.”
While 50,000 American troops remain in Iraq for now, Mr. Obama made clear Tuesday night that he was intent on moving on from that war, proclaiming that his primary mission now was to jump-start the American economy and address domestic issues like energy and education.
But as the Iranians have learned in recent months, Mr. Obama also seems persistent in finding new ways to turn the screws, and that is another element of the strategy.
When Mr. Obama came to office, three successive sets of international sanctions against Iran had had little effect, and there was virtually no prospect of getting a fourth.
It took 17 months for Mr. Obama to build the case for another round, and to orchestrate far more damaging additional measures — enforced by Europe, Japan, Australia and even some Arab nations — that have cut gasoline imports into Iran, sliced access to most foreign banking, and made it enormously difficult for shippers to obtain the insurance they need to go in and out of foreign ports.
“We finally have leverage,” said Mr. Ross, noting that for the first time Iranian officials have started calling for resumed talks with the West.
But few believe that the pain will cause Iran to give up its nuclear enrichment program. In fact, Iran could respond by speeding it up. There is also the possibility, some believe the probability, that Iran will seek to do whatever it can to prevent the direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians from becoming fruitful.
Still, Mr. Obama’s advisers argue that conditions have never been better for those talks: Attacks on Israel are down and the government of President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority has brought infrastructure, policing and better living to the West Bank. Majorities in Israel and among the Palestinians say they want a two-state solution. But many analysts are pessimistic that either side is willing to make the sacrifices necessary to achieve it.
The big question is whether the image of America pulling out of Iraq, and of the White House re-engaging in the peace process, will be enough to create that virtuous cycle.“In none of these areas have we achieved success,” Mr. Ross said. “But now we have the possibility and the potential for significant progress.”