Running Start in the Middle East
President Obama is showing he clearly is a man full of surprises. His first week in office has proceeded with breath-taking speed across the board. Some of it–executive orders on stem-call research and new ethics standards, for instance–were fairly predictable, as has been his jawboning and arm twisting on the economic stimulus package.
Where he caught most of us off-guard was in his appearance at the State Department the second day of his tenure. Being there rather than the Pentagon as a first foreign affairs stop had obvious symbolic significance for a State Department that was widely ignored for the last eight years, and the staffers could hardly contain their ebullience at the sight of the Commander-in-Chief on their turf. The visit also sent very strong and positive vibes throughout the system about the elevated place of Secretary Clinton in the new order. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is on the record approving the reassertiveness of State in the foreign policy process; in all likelihood, a whole lot of “purple suit” colonels on the Joint Staff have been muttering their displeasure at this turn of events.
The real surprise, and source of hope, was the President’s announcement of a major initiative toward the Middle East with his appointment of former Senator George Mitchell to head the effort toward reaching an accord between Israel and the Palestinians and former Ambassador Richard Holbrooke to head up efforts in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Both of these appointees are men of impeccable credentials and high stature; the fact that the President made this very public announcement on the second day in office elevates their importance in the Obama administration order of priority. President Obama is clearly serious about trying to do what his predecessors have been unable to do in Palestine/Israel and what has yet to be tried in Afghanistan and Pakistan: produce peace agreements to stabilize both areas.
Will their efforts succeed? It is, of course, too soon to tell, and past experience counsels caution. If either of these situations was easy to solve, they probably already would have been solved (even by the Bush administration). A few tentative comments are, however, possible.
The appointment of Mitchell changes the American face toward Israel and Palestine. For the last eight years, the Bush administration was the virtual shill of the Israeli government of the moment, meaning the Palestinians and their allies could not trust American efforts to bring about a balanced peace. Mitchell’s resume is broad and includes negotiation of the peace in Northern Ireland, making him a force to be reckoned with; the fact that his mother is Lebanese is likely to be a plus in reestablishing some sense of respect among the Islamic states. Israel can no longer count on the United States mimicking and promoting the Likud line. That in itself is a positive step if the goal is a durable peace–and particularly a last, desperate attempt at a two-state solution.
Although I am not privy to their deliberations, I would assume that the Likud supporters of Bibi Netanyahou must be less than ecstatic at this turn of events. With elections in Israel next month in which Netanyahou has been the presumptive favorite, the Likud advocacy of a Greater Israel–which operationally means populating more and more of the West Bank that is supposed to be the Palestinian state–is now in some jeopardy. As I have argued previously, a reversal of the settlement policy (contracting, not expanding the number of settlements and settlers) is a sine qua non for a two-state solution. Without it, the prospects are dead. Obama says he favors the two-state outcome: something has to give.
The appointment of Holbrooke is similarly momentous. Holbrooke is a very smart, skilled, and determined negotiator. He is not someone with whom one trifles without likely paying the price. While it is not certain how or where he may lead negotiations, one thing is absolutely clear. The sheer ego of Richard Holbrooke will insure that this is not a negotiation that will be allowed to slip into obscurity. Holbrooke has a well earned freputation for erascibility that may serve him very well in his current job. Whether it can lead to a reconciliation with the Pashtuns and Taliban against Al Qaeda (the ideal outcome) is open to question. Whether it will be relegated to the back burner is not; Holbrooke will not allow that to happen.
This is all exciting and unexpected territory for us all. Keep tuned.