Reality Check

Empty Promises

Can Obama deliver on Israel and Iran -- or is he overreaching?

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

When it comes to the Middle East and perhaps foreign policy in general, Barack Obama is a curious president, a leader deeply ambivalent and seemingly at war with himself.

Last week, I argued that Obama may well be the first president to preside over a shrinking U.S. role in the Middle East. His actions on almost every issue — getting out of old wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, avoiding new ones (Syria), avoiding interventions in lands visited by the Arab Spring, and resetting his relationship with Israel — reflect a general attitude of risk aversion in the region.

And yet, the president himself doesn’t seem to realize it, or at least he’s not tuned in to the implications of his own words. Last month at the U.N. General Assembly (UNGA), in front of much of the world and all of its relevant diplomatic players, without the slightest hesitation, Obama committed himself to near-impossible overreach on two of the most intractable issues in the region: resolving the Israeli-Palestinian issue and Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. As Mitchel Hochberg, my research assistant, quipped the other day, you don’t set high expectations in a region that eats them for lunch.

What’s really going on here? Does the president actually mean that he’s planning to resolve the two most challenging diplomatic puzzles in the Middle East? Or were these throwaway lines, rhetorical preludes to real American diplomatic initiatives, or just a "caught up in the moment" wish list?

For a guy who’s remarkably disciplined when it comes to acting in the Middle East, the president is remarkably undisciplined when it comes to talking about it. You may remember the 2009 settlements freeze, the Cairo speech of the same year, the 2011 "Assad must go" comment, and the 2012-2013 chemical weapons red lines in Syria.

Sure, every president engages in rhetorical excess from time to time. But it’s no small matter for American credibility — already in short supply — when the president’s own words leave a huge disconnect between his intentions and his capacity to deliver.

Let’s look at some of the disconnects between intent and capacity on these particular issues — in other words, the reasons Obama’s ambitions in the Middle East are not likely to come to fruition.

(1) The negotiations would be a nightmare.

Just carrying out a negotiation with Iran on the nuclear issue or mediating another between Israelis and Palestinians would be hard enough. But balancing two sets of negotiations that could come to decision points at roughly the same time? It’s a negotiator’s nightmare however you look at it. First, U.S. domestic politics are at play in both. Even in Obama’s second term, freed from reelection constraints, that will impose serious limits on American margin for maneuver. Second, the substantive challenges are formidable enough that even months of negotiations will not conclusively resolve them. These are evolutionary, not revolutionary, agreements — no one is going to transform the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or the Iranian nuclear issue in a single accord. Finally, the president is dealing with a tough and suspicious ally in Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and a tough and suspicious adversary in Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. There will be little sentimentality, benefit of the doubt, or magnanimity in either process.

(2) You won’t get a Palestinian deal without an Iranian one.

But the worst thing about these two negotiating challenges is that they’re tied together, sequenced in the mind of the one regional player with a primary stake in both — Netanyahu. Netanyahu’s laws of political gravity don’t allow him to make historic decisions on the Palestinian issue without a stronger sense for where Iran is headed. For the Israeli prime minister, the Palestinians are a long-term ideological problem. Iran is short term and very much in his threat-oriented comfort zone. For Netanyahu, liberating Israel from the shadow of the Iranian bomb squares much more with his own self-image than dividing Jerusalem. So the only chance for Obama to succeed in both negotiations would be to pursue Iran first and then move to the Palestinian deal.

Unfortunately, addressing Iran first carries major risks for Obama. If he fails, either producing no agreement with Iran or worse, producing a bad agreement, U.S. leverage over Israel is reduced to near zero and Israel has no incentive to move on the Palestinian issue. Not to mention the obvious: Without an agreement that substantially reduces the Iranian nuclear threat, Israel might actually strike Iran — making an Israeli-Palestinian agreement in the near term all but impossible. It would be very hard to negotiate a Palestinian state with thousands of Hezbollah and Hamas rockets flying about and Israel responding. A successful agreement with Iran on the nuclear issue, meanwhile, wouldn’t guarantee an Israeli-Palestinian accord. But it would at least increase Obama’s capacity to press for one and reduce Bibi’s capacity to resist.

(3) Time is not on Obama’s side.

Neither negotiation can drag on interminably. On the Israeli-Palestinian issue, even though expectations are below zero, there will come a point when folks will start to wonder whether there’s truly anything there. We’re already into the second three months of Secretary of State John Kerry’s informal nine-month clock for making a deal.

On Iran, the pressure won’t come from any fixed clock as much as it will from an impatient U.S. Congress, hard-line mullahs and security types within Iran, and even an American administration that has all but committed itself to expedited talks. Indeed, the minute Rouhani and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif talked to the U.S. president and Kerry in late September, this process wasn’t on mullah time anymore.

Ticking clocks can be good if they build urgency to make a deal. But as early as spring of next year, talks on these serious issues will start hemorrhaging credibility if there’s nothing to show. And given what’s at stake, second chances may not be possible.

(4) Resolution isn’t possible right now.

Granted, we’re the fix-it nation, and we really believe that trying and failing is better than not having tried at all. Clearly the president is right to try. But Obama could have been somewhat more temperate in his UNGA speech, particularly when it came to the use of the word "resolving."

Netanyahu isn’t a resolver; neither is Khamenei or Rouhani. But surprise, surprise, neither is Obama. He’s a transactor if there ever was one, balancing between the desirable and the achievable, between the possible and the probable. His entire presidency — as his critics from the left complain — reflects that fact. Obama is a man of the left, but he’s also a man in the middle, always trying to reconcile his views with the other guy’s. There is no conflict-ending agreement available between this Israeli prime minister and this Palestinian president where each stands publicly and says: While we don’t have reconciliation, on all the core issues all claims have been adjudicated, all irredenta have been abandoned, and our conflict is over. Nor are we talking about some permanent end state where Iran abandons its right to enrich uranium or gives up its capacity at some point to weaponize. Obama needs to think outcomes, maybe even good outcomes. But not solutions and resolutions.

(5) There is no strategic grand bargain.

If this were Hollywood, the story line would be quite different and far more heroic. A strategic grand bargain might emerge.

The heroic American president would say to the visionary Israeli prime minister: Let’s make history. Make my day on the Israeli-Palestinian issue; give me some real flexibility in negotiations with Iran too; and if the mullahs can’t or won’t address our needs on the nuclear issue, I’ll make your day and ensure that Iran will not get nukes.

But this isn’t the movies. It’s planet Earth. And these sorts of grand trade-offs and neat bargains just don’t appear very often or at all.

Instead what usually emerges is the tendency to end up neither here nor there, sometimes with half a loaf, sometimes with a big mess. If Barack Obama is lucky he’ll avoid the latter. And if he’s really willful, skillful, and even luckier, he’ll get something on each issue that stabilizes matters, avoids conflict, and creates a real basis for more progress and perhaps — over time — even the "resolving" he identified in his UNGA speech. But he ought to dial down the rhetoric. The whole enchilada anytime soon? Not a chance. As the late, great Yitzhak Rabin used to say, cigarette in one hand as he dismissively waved the other, "You can forget about it."

Aaron David​ Miller is a geoeconomic and strategy senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He served as a State Department Middle East analyst and negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations. He is the author of The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President. Twitter: @aarondmiller2

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