WASHINGTON – U.S. President Barack Obama wrote the words for this headline in 1983 as a student at Columbia University. He was describing the nuclear freeze movement and how its focus on warhead numbers left the larger social justice issues of the Cold War era unaddressed. But he could just as well have been describing his own policies in the Middle East 30 years later — and why they have driven a wedge between the United States and some of its closest allies.
In his zeal to extract his administration from what he sees as a regional quagmire, Obama has, like the old freeze movement, adopted a narrow and high-altitude approach to a complex and sprawling set of conflicts. Rising above the carnage in Syria — or “somebody else’s civil war,” as he called it in his recent speech at the United Nations — he has adopted a priority of destroying the country’s chemical weapons arsenal. He seeks to put stronger safeguards on Iran’s nuclear program, while sidestepping its larger effort to use terrorism and proxy wars to become a regional hegemon.
From a certain Washington point of view, Obama’s aims look worthy and, better yet, plausibly achievable — unlike, say, establishing democracy in Iraq. The problem with the approach is that it assumes that the Syrian civil war and other conflicts across the region pose no serious threat to what Obama calls “core U.S. interests,” and can be safely relegated to the nebulous realm of U.N. diplomacy and Geneva conferences, where Secretary of State John Kerry lives.
Let’s suppose for the moment that al-Qaida’s new base in eastern Syria, Hezbollah’s deployment of tens of thousands of missiles in Lebanon and the crumbling of the U.S.-fostered Iraqi political system pose no particular threat to America. That still leaves U.S. allies in the region — Israel, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Turkey — marooned in a scary new world where their vital interests are no longer under U.S. protection.
Israel and Saudi Arabia worry that Obama will strike a deal with Iran that frees it from sanctions without entirely extirpating its capacity to enrich uranium — leaving it with the potential to produce nuclear weapons. But more fundamentally, they and their neighbors are dismayed that the U.S. appears to have opted out of the regional power struggle between Iran and its proxies and Israel and the Arab states aligned with the U.S. It is the prospect of waging this regional version of the Cold War without significant U.S. support that has prompted Saudi leaders to hint at a rupture with Washington — and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to talk more publicly than ever about Israel’s willingness to act alone.
Obama’s defenders have some answers to this: There’s no reason, they say, for the U.S. to be sucked down the rabbit hole of every Middle East conflict. The motives and interests of Saudi Arabia and Israel aren’t always worth encouraging. The former is driven by the atavistic sectarian enmity between Sunni and Shiite; the latter sees no chance of co-existence with an Islamic Republic. Anyway, the Obamites say, the administration is trying to address the region’s larger problems through the pursuit of a political settlement in Syria as well as an Israeli-Palestinian peace.
Here lies another problem. Virtually no one outside the State Department — including the nominal parties to the talks — takes seriously the possibility that Kerry’s plan for a Geneva conference to settle the Syrian civil war can work in the foreseeable future, or that Israelis and Palestinians can agree on a two-state settlement. They play along with the process to please Washington, or Moscow, while complaining to journalists like me that Kerry’s diplomacy is based on fantasy. Who can imagine Syrian President Bashar Assad placidly agreeing to step down? Or Netanyahu ceding East Jerusalem and the Jordan Valley to the Palestinians and their security forces?
Diplomatic breakthroughs, like arms control agreements, don’t happen in a vacuum, but because political, economic and security conditions make them possible. The nuclear freeze movement failed in the early 1980s because the Soviet Union still presented a tangible and inescapable threat to the West. A Syrian peace conference could not succeed now because the Assad regime is in no immediate danger of losing on the battlefield.
For Obama, succeeding in even the limited objectives he has set for the Middle East would require reshaping actual conditions on the ground: weakening Assad, degrading Iranian strength, bolstering Israeli and Saudi confidence. That work could be done without deploying U.S. troops, but it would be hard, expensive and require a lot of presidential attention. It would mean, as a bright young student once put it, focusing on “the disease itself.
Jackson Diehl, the deputy editorial page editor of The Washington Post, focuses on foreign affairs.