Obama: flip-flop or zig-zag diplomacy?

In politics “flip-flop” is a well-worn description for a politician who at best can’t make up his mind, or continuously changes his mind. “Zig-zag” is far more insidious (regarding Iran’s bomb project), hiding intention behind “flip-flop. The reason this presents a problem is because it was Bush, not Obama, who introduced appeasement into the dialogue with Iran. And Bush, president and administration was far more impulsive and less calculating in approaching the Middle East. 

If American diplomacy is directed at maintaining its position as defender of its strategic interests in the Middle East then at best it is leaving all other regional actors, from Iran to the Saudis to the Russians scratching their heads, jockeying to address a post-America vacuum. Within this diplomatic confusion it must be asked what the much anticipated first Obama visit to Israel as president represents. Is America’s president finally wanting to reassure his partner in the “special relationship” that his four years absence was “nothing personal,” that he comes bearing gifts and reassurance? Or is his trip more in the nature of reassuring that, push comes to shove, American has your back,Israel; leave it to Obama to stand by his word and use force (implied, of course) to keep Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons? This, after all, has been the president’s mantra for four years of reassurance to Arabs and Israel, while providing Iran ever more concessions, time to continue its relentless march towards a nuclear weapon. At the recent Kazakhstan“negotiations” while Western diplomats left shaking their heads, only the Iranians left bragging that they had yet again “beaten Israel,” won new concessions from Obama. Nobody wants war; nobody wants to attack Iran: But an ambitious and demonstrably unstable Iran possessing a nuclear weapon?North Korea is a living example of long-term American “nuclear diplomacy” failure, sanctions as both impotent and ineffective. 

Let’s be clear, this is not a partisan issue with Obama but a discussion of a bi-partisan American foreign policy. N. Korea did not begin building the bomb during the Obama administration and neither did Iran. American policy regarding both did not begin with Obama. 

Days after his tragic order to invade Iraq President Bush landed a military jet aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln sitting off the California coast and delivered his optimistic victory speech, “mission accomplished.” And soon after the enormity of his “mistake,” both in evaluating outcome and, more importantly, ordering the war was clear. Encouraged by Iranian intelligence America’s real enemy were not the Iraqi insurgents but the Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) funding, training, supplying and even leading those insurgents. And it was in order to limit as much as possible the danger to American forces from the IRGC that Bush introduced appeasement of Iran as policy. 

And so began the downward spiral of America’s position in the region, a policy of contradiction and confusion passed on from Bush to his foreign policy novice successor, President Obama. 

Obama’s lack of experience (or naïve ideological understanding) was put on public display immediately following his May, 2009 meeting with Netanyahu. A testy news conference summarized their differences: for Obama the plum of peacemaker between Israel and the Palestinians; for Netanyahu a unified policy regarding the Iranian bomb. Certainly ego was involved on both sides and that played a part in what developed over the next four years of mistrust between the leaders. Nor was the president averse to demonstrating his power over America’s strategic junior partner in the “special relationship.” Despite the fact that, 

Mahmoud Abbas participated in 18 years of direct negotiations with seven Israeli governments, all without the settlements freeze,” 

the new American president decided that such a freeze as “a precondition” to negotiations would encourage the Palestinian to talk with Netanyahu. So Israel was forced to comply and, for nine months, waited for Abbas. Finally, with two weeks to expiration, Abbas agreed, provided Netanyahu agreed to extend the “freeze” so long as negotiations continued! Then followed presidential pique at the “humiliation” to Biden and the United States due to that Interior Ministry bureaucrat announcing future building plans in East Jerusalem; the collapse of the Obama “peace initiative.” Emotion has no place in diplomacy, and this presidential outburst (seasoned politician Biden had already taken control and announced the issue closed before Obama’s outburst) widened the misgivings in Israel, raised deeper questions in my mind regarding Obama’s fitness for office, and completely derailed any possibility for discussion between Israel and Palestinian: 

Stalled peace negotiations in the Obama years cannot be blamed on Netanyahu’s policies of accelerating settlement construction. He has in fact slowed it down. What has undermined peace negotiations, rather, is Obama’s policy on the settlements – and the unrealistic expectations that policy has nourished.” 

Upon this foundation of mistrust, much the fault of the American, is it necessary to consider the upcoming and first visit by the president to Israel. What are Obama’s goals for the trip, and why now? Why an Israel visit just weeks after his reelection?  

I suggest, as already above, that the visit might represent something more than a show of “goodwill” towards Israel, by timing between Kazakhstan and the April date for another negotiating round, then Iran is the focus. And based on past attitude the agenda is more likely intended to secure agreement from Israel to continue to tow the Obama line rather than a presidential seeking of agreement on strategy. In Obama’s calculus Israel seems always to have been more annoyance than ally, a nuisance to be kept in place rather than an ally to be consulted.  

Perhaps the clearest demonstration of presidential intent is his choice to disregard the invitation by the Knesset to address Israel’s government.  Instead the president has chosen an unofficial podium to address the Israeli public, Jerusalem’s Convention Center 

Evidence further that the visit is in service of Obama’s personal agenda and not a consultation with an ally was the announcement by the White House that the visit is a “go” whether or not Israel has a new government: 

President Barack Obama will visit Israel later this month, the 20th, even if Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu fails to put together a governing coalition beforehand. “We’re going,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said at a briefing for reporters Friday, March 9.”

From their first White House visit in May, 2009 Iran has been the fault line between Israel and the American president.Israel is, of course, divided on whether to go to war over the issue, and Obama’s visit may be intended to exploit that division, hence avoiding the Knesset as forum for his address to Israel. But given a choice between Obama’s record of failure in convincing Khameini to abandon his nuclear ambitions, and the increasingly obvious imminence in Arab and Israeli eyes of a nuclear-armed Iran it is unlikely the president will achieve his purpose. And while Israelis are not enthusiastic regarding an attack on that nuclear weapons program Obama must be aware that, when Israel has serious disagreements over America’s view of nuclear arms proliferation in the Middle East Israel has attacked in the past.  

In the past the United States did not seem to have one foot out the door of the Middle East, did not have a president so willing to take positions favoring Arabs over Israeli security concerns such as Turnkey, Egypt, Syria and, most immediately, the Islamic Republic of Iran. 

In the past Israel was not facing a president with a history of public outbursts towards Israel-the-defiant. This visit is fraught with uncertainty.

Added after posting:

Western optimism on Iran’s nuclear program comes from three major US concessions in Kazakhstan to which Israel strongly objects: Fordo stays open, 20-percent uranium enrichment continues and low-grade Iranian uranium stocks will not leave the country. One Israeli official summed this up for DEBKAfile as “a huge Iranian success and total defeat for Israel.”

About the Author
David made aliya in 1960 and has been active in Jewish issues since. He was a regional director for JNF in New York, created JUDAC, Jews United to Defend the Auschwitz Cemetery during that controversy; at the request of Jonathan Pollard created and led Justice for the Pollards in 1989.