Stephen M. Walt
One of the downsides of blogging is the feeling that if youtry to take a day or two off, something big will happen and you’ll miss thechance to say anything about it. So mywife and I spent this weekend in Portland, Maine, to celebrate our 20thanniversary, and what happens? GeorgeMitchell resigns, Palestinian demonstrations in Lebanon, ...
One of the downsides of blogging is the feeling that if youtry to take a day or two off, something big will happen and you’ll miss thechance to say anything about it. So mywife and I spent this weekend in Portland, Maine, to celebrate our 20thanniversary, and what happens? GeorgeMitchell resigns, Palestinian demonstrations in Lebanon, the West Bank, Gaza,and Syria (!) spill across the ceasefire lines and the "most moral army in theworld" ends up shooting and killing several of them. Meanwhile, NATO officials call for escalating the war inLibya, the head of the IMF gets arrested on suspicion of rape in New York, andthere’s lots of speculation about what Obama is going to say in his upcomingMiddle East speech (and what Israeli PM Netanyahu will say in his speech toCongress the day after). And then we learn that Obama is planning to address the annual AIPAC policy conferencenext weekend, a decision that strikes me as both beneath the dignity of the Presidency and a classic "no-win" situation to boot. (If he panders he’ll just confirm what everybody now suspects about America’s paralyzed Middle East policy; if he tells them the truth, he’ll face a firestorm of criticism here at home. Why not just send Biden?)
I know this isn’t about me, but if this is what happens whenI go away for a weekend, maybe I should just stay home. So let me play catch-up on some of the news.
The word that comes to mind is "trapped." George Mitchell was trapped in a dead-endjob as special envoy, because his job was to shepherd negotiations and therewere no negotiations taking place. Someof you may recall that I thought Mitchell should have resigned eighteen months ago, onceit became clear that Obama wasn’t willing to take on Netanyahu or the Israellobby. Had he resigned then, it mighthave been of some modest value as a wake-up call. His resignation last Friday was more of awhimper than a bang.
But Mitchell wasn’t the only one who’s trapped. So are Arab dictators like Muammar Qadhafi in Libyaand Bashar Assad in Syria, even if they manage to cling to power temporarily throughthe use of brutal force. They aretrapped because demands for greater openness and justice aren’t going to end,and their responses over the past few months now guarantee that there can be nosoft landing or safe exit strategy for them. If they fall, they will fall completely, andprobably lose their lives in the bargain. So they are trapped in the dead-end spiral of repression and stagnation,while the rest of the world advances.
The Palestinians are still trapped of course; they remain theworld’s largest stateless populations and are simultaneously victims ofIsrael’s expulsion in 1947-48 and again in 1967, decades of Arab neglect andexploitation, Israel’s long occupation/control of the West Bank and Gaza, and prolongedWestern indifference. Their only silver lining is the growing realization that terrorist violence is not their best route to statehood, but diplomacy, publicity, and non-violent civil protest might be.
Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu is trapped too: by hisideological devotion to the dream of "Greater Israel," by the even more hawkishstance of the settlers and his Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, and by theuncertainties created by the recent upheavals in the Arab world. He can’t do the right thing and move swiftlytowards the creation of a viable Palestinian state–even if he wanted to, whichis highly unlikely–though this step would end the demographic threat toIsrael’s democratic and Jewish character andremove the main reason why people around the world are increasinglycritical of Israel’s conduct. Instead, by clinging to the policies of the past,the IDF ends up having to crack down on demonstrators on the West Bank andalong the borders, which means they start to resemble the thugs that areputting down pro-democracy movements in Syria and Bahrain. (No, I’m not saying the situations are identical, but appearances do matter).
And Barack Obama is surely trapped too. I think he’s understood what needed to bedone in the Middle East since before he became president; he just didn’t recognizethat it would be a lot harder to do than he thought. He knew that achieving a viable two-statesolution was the most obvious way to remove the primary source of Arab andMuslim anger at the United States, as well as the best way to safeguardIsrael’s long-term future. As he said inCairo back in June 2009, a two-state solution was "in America’s interest, thePalestinians’ interest, Israel’s interest," and the world’s interest." And if he could pull that off, then theUnited States could stop devoting so much time on the squabbles in the MiddleEast and start shifting more of its strategic attention to the far more seriousissue of China’s rise in Asia. But Obamadidn’t fully recognize the power of the Israel lobby, which made it impossiblefor him to deliver on his early commitments. And as long as that is the case, Obama (or his successors) will remaintrapped in policies that aren’t good for America, Israel, or any of our otherfriends in the region.
Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.