Politics & Policy

A Policy of Unreality

Obama fumbles as Mideast edges toward war.

Something about Obama’s foreign-policy speeches has always seemed unreal to me. I could never quite put my finger on what it was, until now. His recent speeches on the Arab-Israeli conflict were not so much statements of policy as grand pontifications about the goals of U.S. policy. He is not so much disconnected from reality as unconstrained by it. 

We all know where we want to end up in the peace process — what we pay the president for is to devise a strategy for getting us there. It could hardly be clearer that he has none. And in the meantime, he is presiding over a major unraveling of America’s position of influence in the region, with potentially disastrous consequences for everybody.

That edifice Kissinger worked so hard to lay the foundations for in the 1970s, which American presidents since have worked hard to maintain, is eroding like a sand castle in the tide. The Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt were the essential prerequisite for eliminating the prospect of another war between Israel and any of the Arab states. The essential prerequisite for the Camp David Accords, in turn, was convincing both Israel and Egypt that America was the best guarantor of their aspirations.

Obama is unwittingly throwing that advantage away, as rapidly as he can. His reference to the borders of 1967, while mostly irrelevant given the qualification about mutually agreed swaps of territory, thus bore a bitter irony: The situation in the Middle East is actually starting to resemble that of early 1967 more than in any decade since.

The new Egyptian government’s decision to befriend Hamas and open the border with Gaza is a historic and potentially catastrophic development. Almost immediately, it compelled Mahmoud Abbas to cave in to Hamas and agree to a unity government with Israel’s most deadly and implacable enemy. At no point since the Oslo peace process began in the early 1990s have there been so few of the essential strategic prerequisites for a peace settlement. That Obama doesn’t yet understand this may be seen in the fact that his major response to Egypt’s opening of the Gaza border was to reward it with a massive grant of debt forgiveness.

If the government of Turkey had helped push Mubarak out of power and rewarded the pro-Hamas stance of his successor while shielding Bashar  Assad in Syria from revolution, you would have to say that Turkey had assumed a posture hostile to the United States. Yet that is the very policy that Obama has seen fit to embrace, to the extent he has any policy at all. It is, really, unbelievable.  

The change in Egypt’s position creates a disastrous logic of confrontation with Israel. Unconstrained by any control of the Egypt-Gaza border, Hamas gains a kind of strategic depth, and can much better afford to provoke Israel with continued missile attacks. Even the “moderate” former IAEA director general and current presidential candidate Mohamed el-Baradei has promised to declare war on Israel if it attacks Gaza again. This in effect would give Hamas a finger on the trigger of war between Egypt and Israel. It is not hard to appreciate how much more volatile the situation is becoming.

If elements of the Egyptian security and intelligence services start to facilitate military support for Hamas, Israel will be forced to hold Egypt responsible for any attacks emanating from the Gaza strip. The uneasy truce among Israel and the Arab states that has existed since 1978, which we have long taken for granted, could become frightfully fragile. Neither Egypt nor Israel wants war — but that may not be enough to prevent it.

If any more proof were needed of how detached Obama really is from these realities, consider his reference to a Palestinian state with recognized international borders abutting Israel, Jordan, and Egypt. A truly sovereign border between a Palestinian state and Jordan is a fine goal so long as we’re idly dreaming of what a wonderful world it would be if we could all just get along. But the results of Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza, which could hardly have been more disastrous (save what horrors may lie ahead), are enough to see that no Israeli government would ever relinquish military control of the border between Jordan and the West Bank, so long as extremists have any influence at all among the Palestinians. Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza gave the Palestinians an opportunity to prove that it would be suicide for Israel to pull back from the West Bank. They gleefully took advantage of it, launching something like 10,000 rockets at civilian areas in Israel since 2005. Israel may as well disband itself as allow the same thing to happen in the West Bank. Look at a map.

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded to Obama’s border discussion by pointing out that even if a Palestinian state is created in the near future, and Israel withdraws from most of the West Bank under the terms of a peace settlement, Israel will still have to retain military control of the West Bank’s border with Jordan. That is, simply, a fantasy. It would create Gaza in the West Bank — a vast humiliating prison for the Palestinians, a cesspool for terrorism, a source of continued international hostility towards Israel.

Israeli control of Gaza’s border with Egypt was indeed part of the original plan for the Gaza withdrawal, but the Palestinian Authority and Egypt balked and pledged to maintain the border themselves. Well, the P.A. was expelled from Gaza when Hamas took over, and now the Egyptians have reneged. Try the same experiment with the West Bank: Let’s see how long the king of Jordan lasts trying to help Israel keep millions of Palestinians locked behind the Jordan River when 70 percent of his population is Palestinian.

The simple fact is that George W. Bush was correct in his early position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For any peace agreement to be possible, the Palestinians must have new leaders untainted by terror. They must undertake far-reaching political reforms that establish strong institutions of governance under the rule of law. And the extremists must be utterly defeated by the Palestinians themselves.

Those goals are as far away as ever, but until they are achieved, the Palestinians will not negotiate, because they can’t. As long as the extremists control half the population of the territories and maintain great influence in the other half, there is no meaningful concession the moderates can actually make and carry through on. That is why they fixate on the issue of settlements — they need some excuse to walk away from the negotiations and blame the Israelis for the impasse.

At this point, you would have to call Obama’s Mideast policy a success if he manages just to undo the damage that has occurred during his administration. But that doesn’t seem very likely. And as America’s position of influence continues to unravel, the region keeps spiraling slowly towards war.

— Mario Loyola, a former adviser in the U.S. Senate and at the Pentagon, is a frequent contributor to National Review.

Mario Loyola — Mr. Loyola is a research associate professor and the director of the Environmental Finance and Risk Management Program at Florida International University and a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. From 2017 to 2019 he was the associate director for regulatory reform at the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

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