Reaching Out: Obama's Ambitious Mideast Diplomatic Offensive
Barack Obama is moving his foreign policy course toward diplomacy and away from military intervention. Suddenly the Iranian nuclear issue and Israeli-Palestinian conflict are back on the table -- but is the Middle East ready for a breakthrough?
The historic moment was carefully choreographed. The foreign ministers of the five permanent member states of the United Nations Security Council, Russia, China, Great Britain, France and the United States, along with Germany, met at 4 p.m. on Thursday afternoon. After 15 minutes the host, European Union High Representative for Foreign Affairs Catherine Ashton, called Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif into the recently renovated Security Council Chamber. The Iranians shouldn't feel excluded -- but they shouldn't feel too much a part of the global community either.
Zarif, who lived in New York for many years, dispensed with the usual polite remarks. He said that he didn't want to waste any time, and that much had changed in his country as a result of recent elections. He told the assembled members that his mission was to peacefully resolve the conflict over Iran's nuclear program. He even suggested a timeframe, saying that a compromise could be reached "within a year," and that his country was "determined to make this possible." After his remarks, Zarif met privately with US Secretary of State John Kerry.
The encounter could mark a turning point in the history of the Middle East. Only once in recent years has a US secretary of state met her Iranian counterpart, when Condoleezza Rice "exchanged pleasantries" with Manouchehr Mottaki, Iran's foreign minister at the time, in Egypt in 2007. Otherwise, the relationship between the two countries has been characterized by 34 years of silence since the storming of the US Embassy in Tehran.
Now the contours of a peaceful agreement with Iran are becoming recognizable for the first time. There are also signs of hope in two other areas of conflict. Last week, the Security Council agreed on a draft resolution establishing a timeframe for the destruction of Syria's chemical weapons. In addition, US President Barack Obama declared peace negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians, along with Iran, to be a priority of his second term in office.
It took only a few words from Iranian President Hassan Rohani to usher in a new age: "Once the nuclear file is settled, we can turn to other issues."
A Changed Political Landscape
The spirit of optimism, which seems too good to be true for some seasoned diplomats, is made possible by the unusual conditions in two nations that now have more in common than it would seem at first glance. President Rohani leads a country that is economically shattered after years of severe sanctions. Iran seems ready to assume a different role in the world.
Obama also leads a country that has become tired, after more than 12 years of war, and is now yearning for a respite.
The American president began his second term with the intention of making the American economy greener and the middle class more resilient against crises. He wanted to regulate illegal immigration and bolster his healthcare reforms. His focus was "nation-building here at home," said Obama, reiterating a promise he had made when he was reelected in November 2012. But then came the NSA scandal and the chemical weapons attacks in Syria, and now Obama has reluctantly shifted his focus from domestic reforms to foreign policy.
With the planned destruction of Syria's chemical weapons, the hopes for putting an end to the Iranian nuclear weapons program and the overdue peace negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians, he placed three blockbusters of international crisis diplomacy on the agenda last week. Suddenly it seems as if Obama wanted to save the world, after all.
What the New York Times called Obama's "evolving doctrine," which the president presented in his keynote speech at the United Nations, became an outline of the US president's foreign policy in his remaining years in office. It is not without substantial risk. It could turn Obama into a great statesman, a visionary who was able to at least partially pacify hot spots without military action. If it works, Obama will have earned the Nobel Peace Prize he was awarded in 2009. But his personal legacy isn't the only thing at stake. Obama is also risking America's dominant position, which has always consisted of a mixture of diplomatic strength and military superiority.
If Obama fails, he will not only lose his influence in the Middle East, but he will also have to accept that the threat of military violence against countries like Iran will lose its credibility, precisely because he so publicly chose to refrain from using such violence. In that case, as many Americans feel, he would be responsible for a disaster in foreign policy.
Return to the Israel-Palestinian Conflict
It was unexpected that Obama would try once more to take on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a challenge that had already proved too daunting for two Bushes, two Clintons and Obama himself. Expectations were low when Secretary of State Kerry brought the Palestinians and Israelis back to the negotiating table a few months ago. Kerry went to Tel Aviv, Amman, Ramallah and Cairo, spoke with all parties involved and issued both threats and incentives. It looked like another secretary of state was wearing himself out over a conflict for which there seems to be no solution.
Obama gave Kerry free rein. According to a diplomat from the State Department, the White House apparently reasoned that if Kerry failed, like all of his predecessors, it would be his personal defeat. Now the president has made the issue his own, perhaps because he realized that it would take the personal commitment of the world's most powerful man to lead the parties to compromise.
One reason this strategy is so risky is that Obama may soon be seen as a lame duck president, says Heather Conley, a policy expert who served as deputy assistant secretary of state. It is completely unclear how he expects to solve three major conflicts at once, conflicts that "have been ongoing for decades with little result," she says.
Shortly before his election in 2008, Obama quoted John Quincy Adams, the sixth president of the United States: "[America] does not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy," he said, noting that if she did, "she might become the dictatress of the world." Obama was strongly influenced by Adams' words. His advisers say that he still adheres to this view today.
Last week, Obama spoke as if he intended to transport Adams' legacy into the modern age. He said that there was no longer a "Great Game" to be won, as there was in the Cold War, and added: "Iraq shows us that democracy cannot simply be imposed by force."
'Danger for the World'
The America that Obama recently described to the UN delegates does not intervene in the affairs of other nations to overthrow regimes. It seeks diplomatic allies and avoids the use of weapons, if possible. "The danger for the world," Obama noted, "is that the United States, after a decade of war may disengage, creating a vacuum of leadership that no other nation is ready to fill." But he added that there could also be exceptions that required military operations in the future.
According to former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, the president has drawn the right conclusions from past mistakes and has recognized that America's military campaigns have not achieved the desired results. "Haven't Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya taught us something about the unintended consequences of military action once it's launched?" Gates asks.
Iran's change of course comes at just the right time. The country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is giving newly elected President Rohani an unusual amount of latitude -- which is not altogether surprising, since the ayatollah is equally aware of how the tough sanctions have choked Iran's already ailing economy. This explains why Rohani was able to employ such a moderate tone in New York.
Although the sanctions are "intrinsically inhumane and against peace," Rohani said, "nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction have no place in Iran's security and defense doctrine." The usual sharp words against Israel were also absent. A member of Iran's Revolutionary Guard and adviser to Khamenei praised Rohani's speech as "clever and observant."
- Part 1: Obama's Ambitious Mideast Diplomatic Offensive
- Part 2: Iran's 'Heroic Flexibility'
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