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HASELKORN: Obama’s Middle East bumbles
Flip-flops signal panic, not presidential acumen
If there was ever an example of an organization whose right hand had no clue what its left was doing, the Obama administration is it. First, against all odds, the administration soon after taking office aggressively pushed new Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, hoping to once and for all settle the Arab-Israeli conflict and bring peace and stability to the Middle East.
Yet, Washington’s equally hard drive for a transfer of power in Egypt, which President Hosni Mubarak reluctantly initiated yesterday, risks undermining that goal. For instance, it is unlikely that relations with Israel will be unaffected if Islamist forces were strongly represented in a new Egyptian parliament. The Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest opposition group, had vowed that the first item on its agenda is the revoking of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. Already, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the Knesset “the basis for our stability and our future … especially during unsteady times, is by reinforcing the might of the state of Israel. … Israel must fortify its might.”
Second, the Obama administration is on record as adamantly opposed to an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear weapons facilities. But Washington’s conduct in Egypt may, in fact, advance the clock for such an Israeli undertaking. Jerusalem must now take into account the reaction of a more antagonistic government that might emerge in Cairo given that Mr. Mubarakwas a confidential partner in the efforts to block the Iranian nuclear drive. For instance, Cairo might react to an Israeli attack by concluding a defense pact with the Hamas rulers in Gaza, an offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, which would allow the latter to escalate its rocket attacks into Israel. Jerusalem might consider that acting before the “dust” settles in Egypt could minimize such adverse consequences. Incredibly, the Obama administration joined in the chorus pressing for Mr. Mubarak to go “now.”
Moreover, the hasty public abandonment of a leader who only last month was the mainstay of America’s policy in the Arab world certainly did not bolster confidence in Washington’s steadfastness among Israeli leaders. They must suspect that another Obama flip-flop could not be ruled out once Iran goes nuclear and starts throwing its weight around in the Middle East. As far as Jeru-salem is concerned, acquiescing to Washington’s demands not to preempt the Iranian program made political sense so long as Israel could trust Mr. Obama’s commitment to prevent Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons. But in view of Washington’s quick desertion of Mr. Mubarak - a cardinal U.S. regional asset if there ever was one - Israeli leaders feel more isolated and more prone to act without delay to neutralize any emerging threat to their country’s survival.
Third, administration officials have asserted that the new Egyptian government must be elected through free and democratic elections to legitimize the incoming regime in the eyes of the Egyptian people. Yet, Mr. Obama’s heavy-handed, continuous and (worst of all) public interference in the Egyptian uprising virtually assures that any regime that emerges will still be regarded as a lackey of the United States. So long as Mr. Obama is bent on promoting his image as an unflinching warrior for human rights and national liberation - a Martin Luther King Jr. wannabe but with global pretensions - the more he is undermining the political stability of a future Egyptian government that rises as a consequence.
Fourth, the Obama administration apparently embraced the belief that a rapid transition of power would lead to the restoration of stability in the region. However, the opposite might be true. If the army intervenes to restore order, the Obama administration’s unspoken nightmare of U.S.-supplied military hardware used to massacre protesters might be realized.
The speedy departure of Mr. Mubarak might further destabilize the region. If the spark that galvanized the Egyptian masses travels at the speed with which the Tunisian uprising brought down the regime there, then odds grow that the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutionary models will be emulated elsewhere in the Middle East. But if trouble spreads to the Gulf countries and oil prices soar, even Mr. Obama’s own economic recovery plans could stall.
Thus, if the Obama administration was truly the government of grown-ups it promised upon taking office, it would have long ago grasped that conducting foreign policy in public - and of all places, in the Middle East - is often a prescription for disaster. It would have also learned that abrupt policy shifts smack of an administration in turmoil, if not panic, rather than of presidential sure-footedness, decisiveness and foresight as it would like us to believe.
Avigdor Haselkorn is author of “The Continuing Storm: Iraq, Poisonous Weapons and Deterrence” (Yale University Press, 1999).
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By Tom Fitton
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