American Middle East diplomacy headed for a fall

02/20/2014 6:25 PM

02/20/2014 6:26 PM

President Barack Obama has three significant Middle East diplomatic initiatives under way, treating Iran’s nuclear weapons program; Syria’s deadly, exhausting conflict; and the long-standing Israeli-Palestinian dispute.

Although rarely considered collectively, these three efforts constitute a significant strategic package for a White House that all too often hardly bothers with foreign policy.

These initiatives truly reflect Obama’s view of America’s international role: His is a world of rhetoric and talk, not power.

Thus, Iran has not feared U.S. military strikes against its nuclear weapons program, and now, as a result of November’s interim agreement in Geneva, it does not even fear international economic sanctions.

Neither the Bashar Assad regime nor al-Qaida terrorists in Syria see any prospect of material U.S. intervention.

And the main pressure being applied in the Israeli-Palestinian matter is against Israel, heretofore Washington’s strongest regional ally.

All three of Obama’s diplomatic maneuvers are based on errors and will almost certainly fail. Failing on one is bad enough, but failing on all three will be devastating.

Our declining prestige is already apparent globally; when all three Middle East negotiations fail conclusively, America’s influence will fall further.

Friends and adversaries alike are recalibrating their policies accordingly, particularly because the underlying causes of the three impending failures will spell trouble and misfortune elsewhere.

A less ideological, more realistic and clear-eyed leader would comprehend American power and interests, knowing how to use the former to protect the latter.

Obama’s first error: misreading your adversary. There was never any chance Iran could be negotiated out of a nuclear weapons capability it has pursued for nearly 30 years.

Efforts during the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations demonstrated how Iran deftly uses negotiations to gain political legitimacy, buy time to continue work on its nuclear program and evade international punishment.

The second error: not knowing who your adversaries are. Obama argued for three years that Russia shared his objective of a peaceful transition from the Assad regime in Syria to something else. This was never true.

Moscow’s support for Assad (as well as Iran’s, directly and through Hezbollah) guaranteed he would only depart feet first.

The U.S. could either have aided Syria’s opposition or tackled the problem’s root cause: the mullahs’ regime in Tehran. Obama chose to do neither.

The third error: not knowing who your friends are. The Palestinians lack legitimate governing institutions capable of hard decisions, including making perilous concessions and compromises, and overcoming resistance by Hamas and other terrorists.

Without such institutions, no long-term solution is possible. Perversely, Obama treats Israel as the problem.

The coming collapse of all three of Obama’s negotiations will convince foreign governments that his policies are dooming Washington’s Middle East influence to precipitous decline.

And since appearance is reality in international politics, America’s ability to influence events will sink further. Moreover, the opportunity costs of not focusing on threats elsewhere, such as China’s belligerent territorial claims in its coastal waters, are enormous.

Iran will emerge more powerful, verging on deliverable nuclear weapons, while still financing and arming terrorists worldwide.

Assad seems likely to survive in Syria, which is bad enough by itself, but it will be compounded by the affirmation it affords Iranian and Russian strength.

Israel will trust Washington even less than now, and ironically, Palestinians will be even more anti-American because Obama will not be able to deliver to them the Israeli concessions he predicted.

The increasing danger is that only another 9/11, another disaster, will produce the necessary awakening. There is tragedy ahead for our country if we continue on this course.

John Bolton, a former U.S. ambassador to the U.N., is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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