Obama & the Middle East: ‘Change we can believe in’?

As the White House prepares to announce Obama’s first visit to Israel as U.S. President, Dr. James D. Boys commences a series of articles considering U.S. foreign policy towards the Middle East and how it has evolved over the past 4 years.

Obama is set to return to Israel as president
Dr. James Boys
On 6 February 2013 09:57

So, after years of speculation, Barack Obama is finally set to visit Israel as President of the United States. In a visit designed to coincide with the start of his own second term, and the naming of a new government in Jerusalem, Obama looks set to visit the Holy land in the spring.

He’s been there before, of course, but not as President, and this matters. Had Obama lost his bid for re-election, the record would show that he had failed to visit America’s chief ally in the Middle East during his entire tenure in office, with the accompanying implications.

What can we gather from Obama’s reticence to set foot in Israel thus far? How has his first term stacked up against expectations and any campaign pledges in regard to the Middle East? Where, in short, is the much promised ‘Change We Can Believe In’?

As a candidate for the presidency, Senator Barack Obama was not encumbered by a vast history of floor votes pertaining to the Middle East. With a little over 18 months in the Congress before commencing his campaign for even higher office, Obama’s past was a virtual clean slate in regard to most issues, particularly foreign policy. He was, in a very real sense, the opposite of John Kerry, whose voting record in the Senate was used to devastating effect by Karl Rove in the 2004 election. (Flip-Flops, anybody?)

On the campaign trail Obama signalled an intention to intervene early in the Middle East and reverse the early indifference of George W. Bush, whose Roadmap for Peace and Freedom Agenda appeared to be an afterthought, not a priority. Speaking at AIPAC in 2007, Obama made it “manifestly clear that he would do nothing to change the US-Israeli relationship.”

However, Barack Obama was not Bill Clinton and he certainly was not George W. Bush, two presidents who, whatever divided them, were united by a gut level belief in the need to support Israel. Obama’s absolute determination to detach himself from emotion in decision-making guaranteed that change in US foreign policy was inevitable, though not necessarily to the liking of those in Jerusalem.

Like so many of his predecessors who have obtained the presidency, Obama’s first year in office was tainted by a sense of hubris; having won the White House in historic circumstances, having overcome the odds to become the first black president, Obama’s self-confidence was perhaps at an all time high. This led him to make a series of pledges that appeared unlikely at the time and in retrospect sound stunningly naïve, none more so than his pledge to deliver peace in the Middle East.

To achieve this he named Senator George Mitchell as his envoy to the region, with a mandate to secure the peace. This appeared, superficially, to be a masterstroke. As a respected broker of peace in Northern Ireland, Mitchell had excellent credentials. The choice also appeared to signify presidential attention, whilst allowing the Secretary of State to remain actively engaged on the world stage, without becoming swamped by details in the Middle East.

As we know, however, this ideal scenario proved to be a false dawn. Just as Obama’s other high profile envoys, including Richard Holbrooke, ultimately failed to achieve the philosophical or practical breakthroughs intended, so too did Senator Mitchell’s mission to the Middle East end in disappointment and recrimination. When the veteran negotiator resigned in May 2011 it was suggested in some circles that he had attempted to equate the Holy Land too closely with the situation that had existed in Northern Ireland, to the natural chagrin of all concerned.

Soon, however, it emerged that all was not well behind the scenes and that far from being caused by external forces, Mitchell’s departure had been brought about in large part due to internal wrangling in Washington, and in regard to the role of Dennis Ross, who had been appointed Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for the Central Region (including the Middle East) in particular.

Once Israeli Prime Minster Netanyahu recognised that there was a division in the administration and that he could bypass Mitchell altogether and deal with Ross directly, hopes for the Special Envoy were greatly diminished. It would appear that Mitchell had attempted to adopt the position of a neutral negotiator, but in the Middle East, this appears to be a fanciful concept and one that equates to betrayal in Israel.

In this first round of the developing battle of wills it was clear that Barack Obama had come out far behind his Israeli counterpart, whose skilful manipulation of the situation would prove to be the start of a developing animus with Obama and a season of steadfast refusals to go along with dictates from Washington. It would be a battle of wills that would see both men interfere in each other’s bid for re-election and to an increase in tensions between the two allied nations. 

Now, despite their best intentions, they appear set to have to endure one another for another four years. The meeting in Israel will be interesting to say the least.

Dr. James D. Boys is a Contributing Editor to The Commentator. He is a Visiting Senior Research Fellow at King's College London, Associate Professor of International Political Studies at Richmond University in London and a Senior Research Fellow at the Global Policy Institute. Visit his website and follow him on Twitter @jamesdboys

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