Elliot Abrams asks that question given some news out of the Middle East that has gone virtually undiscussed. You remember the recent announcement that indirect or “proximity” talks were supposed to begin soon between Israel and Palestine. Abrams says, “maybe not”. And the reason is not good news:
Two stories this week in Haaretz, the Israeli daily, make this clear. The first story recounts an interview Abbas gave Israeli TV, and notes that “Abbas said he hopes to get Arab League approval for indirect talks on May 1.” The second story recycles an item from the newspaper Al-Watan in Damascus, and begins this way: “The Arab League is expected to reject the Obama administration’s proposal to begin indirect Middle East peace negotiations in the coming weeks, sources from the 22-state body told Syria’s Al-Watan daily on Tuesday. The League’s Monitoring Committee for the Arab Peace Initiative is scheduled to meet on Saturday to vote on the proposal, and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is unlikely to accept any offer for peace talks that does not meet the panel’s approval.”
Of course that changes the game pretty dramatically. If Abbas has ceded the power of the Palestinians to speak for themselves to the Arab League, it complicates any possible solution with Israel. In fact, as Abrams notes, it is a return “to the days when the Palestinians were under the control of Arab states rather than masters of their own future”. And we all know how well that’s turned out.
Second, putting the Arab League in charge magnifies the influence of bad actors. To get negotiations going, the Obama administration now has to convince not only Abbas, but Bashar al Assad. Perhaps this helps explain why George Mitchell has visited Damascus and why the administration persists in “outreach” to Syria despite its continuing evil conduct (most recently, reports of the shipment of Scud missiles to Hezbollah). Having committed itself to the “peace process,” the administration simply cannot afford to treat Syria as it deserves; Syria has too much clout now.
So now, as Abrams notes, since such countries as Syria have a say in what the Palestinians do, we have to tread more lightly than perhaps we could have prior to this little announcement. That reigns in, for instance, putting the amount of diplomatic pressure that the report of SCUDs to Hezbollah deserves.
More than anything, though, it introduces a third party to the talks which has no vested interest in seeing the peace process work. Other than Egypt and Jordan, both of which have peace treaties with Israel, the other 20 nations have demonstrated little care or desire for peace with Israel. If you thought the peace process was tough before, this little wrinkle makes it almost impossible now.
Elliot Abrams points to another Obama administration “triumph” in the foreign policy arena. Our policy of “engagement” with Syria. After making all sorts of uniltateral goodwill attempts and gestures (listed by Abrams), we’ve essentially seen Syria thumb it’s nose at us. Abrams asks and answers the question, “when does “engagement” become “appeasement”?
“Engagement” constitutes “appeasement” if it fails to change Syrian conduct, and the failure to change is overlooked while the “engagement” continues and accelerates. This would not just be fooling ourselves but condoning, rewarding, and thereby inducing even more bad conduct by the Assad regime.
Which is precisely what has happened during this year of American engagement.
Elliot Abrams, with a sense of deja vu, reviews Carter era foreign policy as one of weakness and accommodation leading to disaster. He’s seeing some eerie similarities in the foreign policy the Obama administration seems to be fashioning.
One begins to wonder how far we will drift into a new period of generalized disaster. In Honduras, we back the Hugo Chávez acolyte and say we won’t respect November’s free elections. In Israel, we latch on to the bizarre theory that settlement growth is the key obstacle to Middle East peace and try to bludgeon a newly elected prime minister into a freeze that is politically impossible–and also useless in actually achieving a peace settlement. In Eastern Europe, we discard a missile defense agreement with Poland and the Czechs and leave them convinced we do not mean to fight off Russian hegemony in the former Soviet sphere.
Manouchehr Mottaki, foreign minister of Iran, visited Washington, as noted, after such visits had been forbidden for a decade. High-ranking American officials have made six visits to Syria, even while the government of Iraq and our commanding general there complain of Syrian support for murderous jihadists. The highest ranking U.S. official to visit Cuba in decades recently toured Castro’s tropical paradise. The president won’t see the Dalai Lama, however, for fear of offending the Chinese.
This, of course, isn’t a particular surprise to those who listened to what Barack Obama said during the campaign. You really can’t hold something against a person who does what he says he’s going to do. The question is why weren’t enough listening to decide the possibility of disaster in the foreign policy arena was real enough to disqualify him from holding the highest office in the land? A question for a different post, I suppose. However, the most interesting part of the Abrams piece (Abrams, btw, used to work for Democrat Henry “Scoop” Jackson – sort of the Joe Liberman of his era when it came to foreign policy) was his take on the Obama UN speech:
See a pattern here? The president’s U.N. General Assembly speech tied all this together, perhaps unintentionally: Talk of allies and enemies and national interests was absent. Getting something for concessions we make is contrary to the new spirit of engagement. The president, transcending all such anachronisms, poses as the representative of . . . the world. So why would his country treat friends better than foes, and why would we bargain for reciprocal concessions? So old fashioned, so Cold War.
Former UN Ambassador John Bolton called Barack Obama the “post-American” president. Abrams analysis seems to agree with that characterization. So the question, then, isn’t “why would his country treat friends better than foes”, but “why would he put American interests before those of the world at large as he hopes to shape it?” If Bolton and Abrams are correct, he wouldn’t. And his speech confirms that:
Instead, he told us, “I am well aware of the expectations that accompany my presidency around the world. These expectations are not about me. Rather, they are rooted–I believe–in a discontent with a status quo that has allowed us to be increasingly defined by our differences.” (Did speechwriters substitute “discontent” for Carter’s famous “malaise”?) So we will turn away from such thinking: “It is my deeply held belief that in the year 2009–more than at any point in human history–the interests of nations and peoples are shared.” Acting in the narrow interests of the United States and its friends and allies is passé: “Because the time has come for the world to move in a new direction. We must embrace a new era of engagement based on mutual interests and mutual respect, and our work must begin now.” This must sound to Ahmadinejad–or Putin or Assad or Chávez or Castro–rather the way Carter’s call to end our “inordinate fear of communism” sounded to Brezhnev.
Of course the key to the Obama vision is much like the key to world-wide nuclear disarmament. Unless all the players agree with the vision, it’s so much hot air. And nothing that is happening in the world today gives any indication that the players named by Abrams have any inclination at all to play Obama’s game.
In fact when I think of how Chávez and the rest must be reacting to this privately, Flounder from “Animal House” comes to my mind unbidden yelling, “Oh boy, is this gonna be great”. Naivete and narcissism (Count the unprecedented number of times he refers to himself in the UN speech. He did it 23 times in 13 paragraphs in his Olympic speech) in one package and the predators licking their chops and circling the prey, each trying to decide what piece they can tear off and get away with.
Unfortunately my guess is if we pursue this post-American foreign policy, as it appears we will, we won’t have long to wait to see the disasters begin to pile up as the world’s despots exploit the situations with which they’re naively presented.