Never having been one myself, I don’t know if world leaders look forward to meeting with each other, but I doubt it. Fewer still probably look forward to meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. Despite the all out love-fest that was the “most expensive Birthright trip ever”, the personal relationship between Netanyahu and President Obama is likely still far short of “good”. However, one must imagine Obama was actually happy to see Bibi walk into the Oval Office yesterday. If nothing else, it could have served as a nice distraction from the embarrassment of American domestic politics.
Personally they may not be best buddies, but professionally, relations between the U.S. and Israel have never been better. Although the president has only made one trip since being elected, senior officials from the White House, National Security Council, Defense and State Departments, and the intelligence agencies are making regular trips to the Holy Land and vice versa.
It no doubt must be a relief to Obama that Bibi seems to have grown up a bit; Lord knows he doesn’t have many adults to deal with down the block (for the geographically novice, that’s a reference to the U.S. Capitol). The remarks after their ninety-minute meeting were respectful, cordial, and even humorous. This was even more impressive given the president’s recent diplomatic tap dance with Iran.
All the way back in the halcyon days of his first inaugural address, Obama said he would be willing to talk to just about anyone. So there should be no shock that he is taking advantage of the opportunity to talk to Iran. It is also important to note that the primary reason the situation with Iran has reached this point is due to the unprecedented crippling sanctions the Obama Administration has enforced.
Most importantly to Netanyahu and anyone paying attention yesterday was the president’s reassurance that the military option is still on the table. This is something he had to say and something Bibi needed to hear. Though some in the Arab world may think less of American military might in the aftermath of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria, the people in power know that there has never been anything as powerful as the American military and it isn’t a good idea to dare the Commander-in-Chief to use it. Ahmadinejad may have been psychotic or suicidal enough to toe the line, but you can be sure the threat of either unilateral Israeli or American strikes kept things in check over the last decade.
Obama may have placed a phone call and John Kerry may be sitting in meetings with Iranian diplomats, but there is little optimism that the Iranians are being honest or can be relied on. So while, Twitter messages and phone calls continue, rest assured Obama has not lost his nerve regarding a military strike. A nuclear weapon equipped Iran is an unacceptable reality to this president.
There is no “Obama Doctrine” and for the most part, the president’s pragmatism towards foreign affairs has served him well, (the recent about face in Syria being a glaring exception) in particular, during ongoing situations like the Arab Spring. While there may be no doctrine, if one wanted to parse out if Obama has any national security priorities in the Middle East, the following three would be fairly clear non-negotiable points:
- Preventing Iran from gaining nuclear weapons
- Defeating Al Qaeda
- Ensuring Israel’s survival and security
President Obama has reportedly pressured Netanyahu to hold back on striking Iran, at least once at a very last minute, and he’ll need to continue to assure the Israeli leader that America is not going to take the Iranian olive branch without verifying that it isn’t a snake.
Like many second term presidents, President Obama is facing an impossible Congress and has therefore looked farther east (another geographical reference) to cement his legacy. The peace process between the Israelis and Palestinians may be another American fool’s errand, but the potential of disarming Iran is something the president cannot ignore. Bear in mind, this president is a lefty. Thus, even while he shakes hands with his right, there could be a southpaw fist clenched with his other hand ready to be unleashed at any moment.