The Corner

Obama and the Middle East

Whatever President Obama’s desires for the next few months, several Middle East crises now stare him in the face.

The greatest is Iran, which keeps on installing centrifuges and pilling up enriched uranium while we chat, negotiate, chat about negotiating, and vote. The Iranians can easily play out the clock — unless we stop them. President Obama has repeatedly said he would do so, but that of course was during the campaign. Now what? Rumors about secret talks continue to circulate, and one Israeli newspaper has published the story that our — the United States — negotiator was Valerie Jarrett! What must even John Kerry and Hillary Clinton really think of that? The White House has yet to issue a denial of that story, as far as I am aware.

The easiest escape route for Obama is a deal, any deal, with Iran. He can then claim to have solved the nuclear problem or at least delayed it — but can also expect that skeptical Republicans will challenge terms that appear to allow the Iranian program to continue. Republicans, including Governor Romney, stuck to the terms of the U.N. Security Council resolutions: zero enrichment, export of all enriched uranium. An Obama deal that would allow enrichment would allow Iran to master the process fully, keep the Fordow and Natanz enrichment sites open, and introduce more efficient centrifuges. That’s a bad deal Republicans should rally in opposition to it. It is quite possible that Ayatollah Khamenei will not agree to any deal with the Great Satan, leaving Obama with an even greater problem: let Iran move forward toward the bomb or actually use those “options on the table” that include military force. But when Obama hears from the Pentagon that any American strike must take weeks and be a small war, he may find that he wants to think again about the utility of an Israeli strike. Again, the most likely outcome is a bad deal — the Ayatollah willing. And the beginning of the bad deal would be bilateral negotiations between the U.S. and Iran. Watch for it.

On Syria, Obama will have to abandon his politically derived allergy to American action. Nearly 40,000 are dead and the war must be ended — with Assad gone. I believe the current efforts to remake the opposition are a prelude to more American action on the ground, likely via CIA. Look for secret strikes, drone strikes, arming the rebels, and the like — the kind of indirect, quick, deniable (unless successful) military action Obama likes best.

Two more issues that are not crises: the “Arab Spring” and the rise of Islamic governments, and the Israeli-Palestinian issue. On the former, look for more accommodationism. Obama will not want to confront the new regimes on issues like religious freedom, freedom of speech and press, and the role of Islam in society. On the latter, look for a few initiatives: I believe there will be some form of negotiations next year after the Israeli elections. Those January 22 elections deliver a useful cooling off period now, until a new coalition is formed around March 1. Obama will then seek to get them to the table — where nothing will be agreed. A second-term Obama policy may not push as hard, and as publicly, for a deal as his first-term policy tried (and failed dismally), but it will still fail to focus on the slow, steady, unromantic work of building institutions in the West Bank that could someday form the basis for a state.

Finally, Obama will confront another problem: lack of skilled manpower. Several of the top experts in the State Department have left or will probably leave soon: Jeffrey Feltman, Jim Jeffrey, and Bill Burns are examples. Who will be named assistant secretary of state for the Near East? Will old Democratic party hands like Martin Indyk and Dennis Ross be brought back again?

In the coming weeks look for any news stories suggesting more arms are moving to Syrian rebels, and stories about U.S.-Iran bilateral negotiations, open or secret.

Elliott Abrams — Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow in Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former deputy national-security adviser.

Most Popular

Law & the Courts

Obstruction Confusions

In his Lawfare critique of one of my several columns about the purported obstruction case against President Trump, Gabriel Schoenfeld loses me — as I suspect he will lose others — when he says of himself, “I do not think I am Trump-deranged.” Gabe graciously expresses fondness for me, and the feeling is ... Read More
Politics & Policy

Students’ Anti-Gun Views

Are children innocents or are they leaders? Are teenagers fully autonomous decision-makers, or are they lumps of mental clay, still being molded by unfolding brain development? The Left seems to have a particularly hard time deciding these days. Take, for example, the high-school students from Parkland, ... Read More
PC Culture

Kill Chic

We live in a society in which gratuitous violence is the trademark of video games, movies, and popular music. Kill this, shoot that in repugnant detail becomes a race to the visual and spoken bottom. We have gone from Sam Peckinpah’s realistic portrayal of violent death to a gory ritual of metal ripping ... Read More
Elections

Romney Is a Misfit for America

Mitt’s back. The former governor of Massachusetts and occasional native son of Michigan has a new persona: Mr. Utah. He’s going to bring Utah conservatism to the whole Republican party and to the country at large. Wholesome, efficient, industrious, faithful. “Utah has a lot to teach the politicians in ... Read More
Law & the Courts

What the Second Amendment Means Today

The horrifying school massacre in Parkland, Fla., has prompted another national debate about guns. Unfortunately, it seems that these conversations are never terribly constructive — they are too often dominated by screeching extremists on both sides of the aisle and armchair pundits who offer sweeping opinions ... Read More
U.S.

Fire the FBI Chief

American government is supposed to look and sound like George Washington. What it actually looks and sounds like is Henry Hill from Goodfellas: bad suit, hand out, intoning the eternal mantra: “F*** you, pay me.” American government mostly works by interposition, standing between us, the free people at ... Read More
Film & TV

Black Panther’s Circle of Hype

The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) first infantilizes its audience, then banalizes it, and, finally, controls it through marketing. This commercial strategy, geared toward adolescents of all ages, resembles the Democratic party’s political manipulation of black Americans, targeting that audience through its ... Read More