Not only is Barack Obama inheriting President Bush’s Middle East, it looks like he’s adopting his strategies.
Perhaps the most striking presence on the Chicago stage Monday, where President-elect Obama presented his national security team, were the policies of the outgoing president.
Speaking generally, Obama hewed to the “change” bromides of a campaign that said it wanted to bury Bush’s legacies.
“In this uncertain world, the time has come for a new beginning, a new dawn of American leadership to overcome the challenges of the 21st century and to seize the opportunities embedded in those challenges,” Obama said. “We will strengthen our capacity to defeat our enemies and support our friends.
“We will renew old alliances and forge new and enduring partnerships,” he continued. “We will show the world once more that America is relentless in the defense of our people, steady in advancing our interests and committed to the ideals that shine as a beacon to the world.”
Yet when he briefly detoured into specifics, introducing Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), his pick for secretary of state, Obama’s themes sounded familiar.
“There is much to do — from preventing the spread of nuclear weapons to Iran and North Korea, to seeking a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians, to strengthening international institutions,” Obama said.
The first three components of that four-pronged strategy are carryovers from the Bush administration’s final years: Defuse Iran and North Korea and nudge forward an Israeli-Palestinian agreement.
Obama’s priority list comes despite a growing chorus of voices that insists that the Israel-Palestinian track is intractable for now, needing management, not solutions. Those voices — including Dennis Ross, the Clinton administration’s top Middle East adviser who is now helping to shape Obama’s Middle East policy — say peace with Syria is the better bet for now.
But the Israelis and the Palestinians at the table believe that Obama has their back and predict a deal within months.
“We’re very close, and it’s time to make decisions,” Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said last week after meeting with Bush.
Olmert made it clear that it was his impression that Obama would carry over the Bush administration’s emphasis on arriving at an agreement within the next few months.
“It’s like a relay race,” the outgoing Israeli leader said. “The baton will be passed in an orderly, correct way.”
Olmert believes a deal could be in place before he leaves office in March. He is stepping down to face corruption charges.
That prediction was echoed by a top Palestinian negotiator, Maen Rashid Areikat, who told the Washington Times that the negotiators had arrived at a formula to circumvent perhaps the most intransigent obstruction to statehood — control of the Gaza Strip by Hamas terrorists. Areikat told the paper that a state would first be declared in the West Bank.
Those are pipe dreams, said Sam Lewis, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel who is now a senior policy adviser to the Israel Policy Forum and has monitored the Israel-Syria talks.
“There is much more of an opportunity to make a breakthrough with Syria than there is a Palestinian front,” he said. “With the vision of Palestine in two pieces and the problems between Hamas and Fatah,” the relatively moderate party controlling the West Bank, “it makes it difficult to move to a final agreement.”
Another of Obama’s picks, Gen. James Jones for national security adviser, also implies an interest in carrying over Bush administration efforts to build a Palestinian security infrastructure. Jones, a former NATO commander, most recently monitored Palestinian and Israeli compliance with peace deals, with special attention paid to the creation of a Palestinian police force.
Jones was tough with both sides during his tenure, but his appointment has raised eyebrows in Israel. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice refuses to authorize the release of a report in which he reportedly slams Israel for hampering Palestinian Authority security training.
During his NATO stint, Jones was known as friendly to Israel’s regional interests. The Israeli concerns about his appointment are the result of Israel having been “treated gently” during the Bush administration, Lewis said, and eventually will pass.
“Anytime you ask the Israelis to do something they don’t want to do, they’re resentful; it’s nothing other than normal business,” Lewis said. “After eight years of the Israelis being treated very gently, the contrast was probably annoying to them. He’s a balanced guy, and that’s what you need.”
Shoshana Bryen, director of special projects for the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, said the Jones appointment was reassuring because it signaled another consistency with the presidency: Its second-term deference to experienced military opinion.
“Picking a Marine for almost anything is a good pick,” said Bryen, whose organization cultivates close relations with all branches of the U.S. military. “He has the background to talk about military priorities in Afghanistan, in Iraq.”
That’s true as well of Obama’s pick for defense secretary: the incumbent, Robert Gates. Obama ran a campaign that derided Bush’s choices in Iraq, but in recent months, the Bush administration has edged closer to Obama’s vision of a phased, careful — and not unconditional — withdrawal.
On Iran, there appears to be consistency, too. During the campaign, great focus was placed on Obama’s calls for stepped-up diplomatic outreach, but since defeating Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), he has stressed the need for Iran to stand down from its suspected nuclear weapons program. On Monday, the president-elect hammered home the message again.
It’s a two-pronged approach that jibes with the Gates and Clinton choices. Clinton, Obama’s chief rival during the primaries, hewed to more hawkish Iran rhetoric, although it helped energize her left-wing critics during the Democratic primaries. At the same time, with Gates in the Pentagon, the Bush administration has edged away from cutting off the Islamic republic and has all but killed the idea of striking Iran or allowing Israel to strike.
Ross, meanwhile, joined top former Bush administration officials in signing off in September on an especially tough blueprint on how to deal with Iran published by the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington-based think tank.
The proposal, “Meeting the Challenge,” was barely noticed in the media. It calls for stiffer sanctions, an end to uranium enrichment and outlines a military option that would have “more decisive results than the Iranian leadership realizes,” although such an option would be a last resort.
Ross’ presence on Obama’s transitional Middle East policy team, as well as on the front page of a report that includes first-term Bush hawks, such as Michael Rubin, Michael Makovsky and Steve Rademaker, has sent shudders through those in Washington who had hoped an Obama administration would stress outreach to Iran at a time when its hard-liners are showing signs of being in retreat.
Bryen said it was clear that Obama would eventually seek to expand the Bush administration’s recent, limited diplomatic entreaties to Iran; it was not clear how.
“The incoming administration clearly believes there are approaches to Iran that haven’t been tried,” she said.
The one flag that may trouble some Jewish groups was the fourth leg of Obama’s foreign policy strategy: the planned elevation of U.S. involvement with the United Nations. Groups such as B’nai B’rith International and the American Jewish Committee have maintained their commitment to the body, while growing increasingly skeptical of its potential for ever treating Israel fairly. Other groups, including the Anti-Defamation League, have just about written off the United Nations as a useful forum.
Obama nominated Susan Rice, one of his top campaign advisers, to be U.N. ambassador and has said she will serve at Cabinet level.
“She shares my belief that the U.N. is an indispensable and imperfect forum,” he said.