David Rothkopf

If someone says “engagement” one more time I want a ring

As George Mitchell heads off to the Middle East, you’ve got to believe he will soon be yearning for the good old days when all he had to do was herd the monster egos of the Senate or cope with the dubious charms of say, Jose Canseco. Indeed, he may end up vacationing back in ...


As George Mitchell heads off to the Middle East, you’ve got to believe he will soon be yearning for the good old days when all he had to do was herd the monster egos of the Senate or cope with the dubious charms of say, Jose Canseco. Indeed, he may end up vacationing back in Belfast just to remind him what a comparatively easy negotiation looks like.

At Mitchell’s send-off photo op with the president and Secretary Clinton, Obama repeated the mantra (see below) that the goal was to “engage vigorously and consistently” and that he was “absolutely confident that if the U.S. is engaged in a consistent way that we can make genuine progress.” Clearly, early engagement is a stark and welcome contrast to the Bush administration’s attempt to make benign neglect (or in some cases, just the old fashioned negligent kind of neglect) their policy for every part of the world in which they were not actually fighting a war. But engagement is not a policy it’s a tactic.

This distinction was doubly resonant today as earlier, new UN Ambassador Susan Rice reiterated the commitment of the Obama administration to direct diplomacy — more engagement — with Iran. Again, it makes perfect sense.

I vividly remember former President Clinton at Davos a couple years ago saying that the biggest mistake he made in office was in not engaging our rivals and potential adversaries more directly because of what he characterized as a fear that we might somehow be changed by talking to them. Recognizing this trap, Obama and close advisors like Rice have long promised more openness would be a centerpiece of his foreign policy. Yet again, despite all the press this kind of common sense gets (Rice’s statement got a flurry of coverage because what she said was so different from the dogmatic, unreasoning Boltonisms we used to get at the UN), we are reminded that deciding to talk is a lot easier than figuring out what you are going to say or where you are going to make your stand.

With Iran, the issue is whether or not we are willing to accept them having a nuclear weapons capability. This issue still divides Democratic policymakers. Some are resigned to Iran ultimately having nuclear weapons. Others see this as short-sighted, the trigger for a regional arms race and a further degradation of the NPT that can only make the world a more dangerous place. The middle crowd says let’s give them peaceful nuclear options and hope that we are buying ourselves time (rather than buying Iranian hawks the time they need). It’s obviously a tough issue, almost certainly an Obama legacy issue, and it’s going to get a whole lot tougher if Bibi Netanyahu is the next PM of Israel. Because his views and possible actions will be a reminder that just as it is not up to the U.S. alone to determine who should be allowed to have nuclear weapons — the United States is also not the only nation that reserves the right to eliminate what may be seen as grave threats. In short, either the diplomacy stops the Iranian program or somebody will have to (which threat is probably a useful aid to the diplomacy.)

The problem: without special munitions that can take out deeply buried targets in Iran, countries like Israel might be forced to use weapons that could make the sites uninhabitable, such as radiological (rather than nuclear) devices. Of course, global public opinion may struggle with the distinction between a radiological and a nuclear attack, and if you think the U.S.-Israel relationship is complicated now, wait until then. And you don’t even need that kind of a nightmare scenario to recognize that very early on in this new administration, the Obama team is going to figure out when and how they will draw the line in the sand for both the Israelis and the Palestinians to show that we are not just talking but will use our clout as needs be.

Which brings us back to Mitchell and the further need to acknowledge that stabilizing the cease fire is a necessary first step but what comes next must involve not only Israel and the Palestinians, but it must also involve cooperation from the Iranians, the Syrians, the Lebanese, the Egyptians, the Jordanians, the Saudis, the Iraqis, the Europeans, and probably the Chinese, the Russians and perhaps the Afghanistanis and the Pakistanis too. In fact, the irony is that it was once a matter of conventional wisdom (folklore?) that solving the Israel-Palestinian issue was the pre-requisite to solving the other problems of the region. No longer. Indeed, it is much the other way around nowadays. (And it needs to be reiterated that the only piece of this puzzle we really control is how much oil we buy from the region.)

Three smaller related notes:

Obama underscored, to enhance Mitchell’s credibility to be sure, that “Senator Mitchell will be fully empowered by me…and he will be fully empowered by Senator Clinton.” The good: Mitchell is the President’s envoy. He needs to be to be effective. But for those of you who are Hillary fans out there, it is another strong hint that foreign policy in the Obama years will be run out of the White House.

Watching CNN this afternoon on the Mitchell send-off, once again we got the dreary formula of two “opponents” Donna Brazile and Ed Rollins, as our commentators, presumably interesting because they represent two different points of view. But Brazile is so dreary and such a reflexive flack for the administration and Rollins is so much yesterday’s news, all it really does is underscore that in tv news today it’s all about heat and not at all about light. It’s more important that guests have opposing perspectives than that they have interesting or insightful ones.

And in the midst of all this, I keep seeing this quote from Steven Walt pop up on the FP site saying “giving Israel unconditional support wasn’t a true act of friendship then and isn’t a genuine act of friendship now.” Just when was it the U.S. gave Israel unconditional support?

To cite just one instance — and there are scores — David Sanger writes in his book The Inheritance of a visit last year to the U.S. by the Israelis seeking munitions that might be helpful were they to have to attack deeply buried targets in Iraq. Their request was denied and the Bush administration, seen as very pro-Israel, sent emissaries to Israel to try to persuade them to set aside the option of attacking Iran. Certainly the Israelis did not eagerly embrace cutting a deal with Yasser Arafat but the U.S. negotiated, pushed and cajoled them in that direction. Regularly the U.S has denied requested aid. It seems that critics of U.S. Israel policies overstate the case, characterizing as “unconditional support” what is really just too much support in their eyes.

I am also struck in reading comments on my earlier exchange with Walt that some of his supporters argue that we are Israel’s ally but they are not our ally. Is the implication that because they sometimes do things that are not in our interest that therefore they are not our ally? By that definition we have no allies and that indeed, it is impossible to have an alliance unless the self-interests of two nations align perfectly (which is impossible).

In Israel’s case they have been willing to step up to confront and contain regional threats (Syrian and Iraqi nuclear programs come to mind) when we could not and our other allies would not. Again, want to weigh the pros and cons of the relationship? Fine. But let’s acknowledge the unique and important benefits of the relationship even as we seek to address weaknesses within it, and to advance our interests even when they do not align with those of Israel (or our other friends, allies and sometimes-allies in the region.)

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

 Twitter: @djrothkopf
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