1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Middle East muddle

Robert E. HunterMarch 20, 2013

Barack Obama’s visit to Israel, the West Bank and Jordan is his first to this part of the Middle East as US president, however it's unlikely to achieve anything tangible, writes Robert E. Hunter.

Robert E. Hunter via: Rob Mudge/DW
Image: R.E. Hunter

From the point of view of US domestic politics, the reasoning is obvious; hardly less obvious is his need to show Israel that he genuinely cares about its security, given Israel's current triple concerns: with the solidity of its 1979 peace treaty with Egypt, the risks to Israel's security that could emanate from Syria's civil war, and profound uncertainties about Iran's nuclear program, along with Israeli uneasiness about what the US is genuinely - really, really - prepared to do if Iran does cross some "red line" in the direction of a nuclear weapon.

For Obama, none of this is trivial, both for his domestic political base and for gaining some "breathing space" while he and his new team at the State and Defense Departments sort out staffing, develop a sense of direction on key issues, and fashion tactics for getting there. But it is not at all clear that this trip will lead to anything substantial in terms of moving any of the key issues in ways that the US and its allies - in the region and beyond - both want and need. 

Syrian solution?

Most immediately, there is as yet almost no clarity about the potential outcome of the Syrian civil war. Already, the civil war has become caught up in the greater game of politics in the Middle East. To oversimplify, a minority Alawite regime has dominated other Syrians, including the Sunni majority, a circumstance the opposite of that in next-door Iraq until 2003, under the Ottomans, the British, and Saddam Hussein. It is no secret that Sunni countries in the region would like to redeem the reversal of fortunes that took place in Iraq, by seeing the Sunnis emerge on top in Syria, perhaps with some Sunni military strongman. Hence efforts by Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the UAE to push matters in that direction. The situation is further complicated by the interference of Islamist fundamentalists, funded in the main by rich Saudis, though presumably not promoted by the government in Riyadh.

Nothing that Obama says or does on his Near East trip is likely to move the Syrian situation in one direction or another, unless he is prepared to put US military power - even limited to significant arms supply - heavily into the balance, which does not seem likely, at least not at this juncture.

But what of Iran? Obama is on the record as committed to keeping it from getting the bomb.  He has specifically ruled out the "containment option" - that is, deterrence - if Iran did get a nuclear weapon. At the same time, the negotiating position adopted by the United States and its partners in the so-called P5+1 - the EU, the UN, France, Britain, and Russia - has not moved very much, nor has the position of the Iranian government. The good news, most commentators provide, is that the atmosphere at the recent talks with Iran in Almaty seemed a bit better - a small straw in a very weak wind; and that both sides seem prepared to wait until after this June's Iranian presidential elections to assess next steps.

The thin red line

Obviously, Obama will be pressed, and pressed hard, by the Israeli government in regard to his pledges to do what is necessary to keep Iran from getting the bomb - though what "getting" means is still ambiguous. The so-called red line has been variously interpreted as being actual possession of a weapon (almost no one advances this definition); to being a "screwdriver's step away from having a weapon;" to having enriched enough fissile material to starting fabrication of a weapon and the means of delivering it - which itself is a matter of definition and debate; or even to having "mastered the capacity" to enrich weapon-grade uranium. Words, of course, can have consequences, and verbiage employed to try influencing another country's behavior has on occasion provoked just the opposite of that which was intended.

One thing does seem clear, at least to this observer: unless and until there is placed on the negotiating table the need to recognize and account for the security interests of Iran as well as the US and Israel - plus, of course, the interests of other states - it is hard to conceive that negotiations can succeed.  Indeed, the sorry record of sanctions historically to produce change where a nation sees its national security to be at stake should have brought this point home to Washington. Needless to say, the US has been unwilling to take this step, regarding any Iranian security interests - the opposite of what the US and the Soviet Union eventually learned to do regarding one another during the Cold War.

Flags of USA and Israel in the wind close-up Fotolia/Roman Sigaev
Agreeing to disagree?Image: Fotolia/Roman Sigaev


Finally, what about the impasse between Israel and the Palestinians, presumably a center point of President Obama's trip? The whole world will be watching what he says and does about that. Ideally, he should not just indicate his interest in getting talks restarted and moving them forward in his second term - to avoid what Secretary of State Kerry has called a "catastrophe" - but to provide some ideas that can help. 

Procedurally, that might entail on this trip a brokered meeting between Netanyahu and the Palestinian Authority president, Mohammed Abbas - a three-way photo-op handshake; it could entail either the appointment of a senior-level US negotiator (this author's preference is for that to be Bill Clinton, to underscore US seriousness) or at least a commitment of time and attention by the Secretary of State. 

Little more - even if that - can be expected, especially because Israel is not now likely to move at all on this issue, beyond some cosmetic tactical moves to please the US president, given its (legitimate) worries about Egypt, Syria, and Iran; and Abbas would find it difficult to do anything significant so long as Gaza continues to be so isolated by Israel.

Of course, Obama could "go for broke" by putting specific US ideas on the table as the framework for Final Status. These are obvious: the so-called Clinton Parameters of December 2000, which are the only reasonable basis for a settlement. In brief, they consist of land swaps, Jerusalem as capital of two states, a demilitarized West Bank (with NATO troops?), and some arrangements for Palestinian refugees. While such a presentation by the US president would be a true "game changer," it would be stunning - and uncharacteristic - for Obama to do this. Indeed, the time between his second inauguration and his trip was not sufficient even to put together a solid team of Middle East officials and advisors in Washington, much less to do all the careful consultations with various American and foreign constituencies that should properly precede any such grand opening. 

A friendly reminder

Now where does all this leave the European allies? Given the pace of events and the overall lack of clarity both about what is happening in various places "on the ground" in the Middle East and about Obama's policy directions for the region, there is little for the allies to do, other than to wish the president well, hope for the best, continue to consult with Washington on regional problems like Syria - and also to continue adhering to agreements already made about allied policy toward Afghanistan.

But there is one other thing that allies could do to be helpful and also to lessen the chances that they will one day look back, after an unwanted conflict with Iran, with regret that they did not do more to forestall it. They should immediately make clear to Washington, privately  but in no uncertain terms, that  virtually every European government  opposes such a war and wants the US to pursue a negotiating strategy with Iran that has a better chance of succeeding than that which the last three US administrations has pursued. After all, in today's world, what is the point of having allies if they are not willing to give frank and candid advice - even if unwelcome - when it is needed?

Robert E Hunter was US NATO ambassador under President Bill Clinton. He also served as Director of Middle East Affairs in Jimmy Carter's administration and was a principle author of the Carter Doctrine for the Persian Gulf. He is currently Senior Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations in Washington.