Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Obama brings cohesiveness to US foreign policy

My column published May 25, 2011
On May 19, President Obama addressed the world to outline a semblance of cohesiveness on U.S. foreign policy in the turmoil of the Arab Spring, the spontaneous uprising against rulers' corruption and oppression. It was about time. Swift moving events are closing doors on opportunities. 

The U.S. foreign policy apple cart of carefully maintained treaties and accommodation with long-lived dictators had been upset. Outcomes were uncertain and the US needed to shape them toward our interests. We may have gotten Bin Laden, though it is unknown yet is how much of a power al-Qaida will be without their iconic leader. 

U.S. policy toward the changes in the Middle East and North Africa has seemed to react to the grass roots revolts on an ad hoc basis. 

Obama pronounced an overarching policy that would underlie any U.S. aid and sympathy to the popular movements that supported universal rights, regardless if existing governments were friends or foes. He urged dictators and potentates to get out of the way and embrace reform. He announced billions in aid for both Egypt and Tunisia, no doubt to encourage their restructuring as more liberal, secular democracies. While he voiced moral support to the revolutionaries, he remained Sphinx-like about the extent he was willing to help depose heads of state or to force them to reform.

We have a way to go to establish our credibility and influence outcomes. 

Fareed Zakaria on CNN Sunday interviewed young Egyptian leaders of the reform movement who dismissed Obama's May 19 speech as just words, no action, and they looked with suspicion and resentment at the U.S. for our past support of the Mubarak regime. . 

The young Egyptians also blamed the U.S. for the failure to reach a solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. Though the issue was not a factor in the uprisings, Israel will be impacted by the results .We in the west do not always grasp the extent that hostility toward the U.S. is due to U.S. support of Israel, complicating our ability to influence the region. 

Israel itself is facing a new reality. Time to adjust is passing away. Carefully constructed alliances with Arab neighbors that protected borders or buried the hatchet are in jeopardy. The Palestinians threw a monkey wrench into any negotiations for a two state solution. U.S. negotiator, George Mitchell, had quit in disgust when Hamas joined Fatah in Palestine so that now one member of the negotiating power, Hamas, did not even recognize Israel's right to exist. Many countries had lost patience with the failed negotiations and were bring a resolution before the UN to recognize Palestine as a sovereign state without a negotiated settlement. The timing of Obama's speech was aimed to head off that attempt

As the President noted in his speech before the pro Israel lobbying group, AIPAC, May 22, increasing numbers of Palestinians being born and living within current Israeli borders would make Jews in their own country the minority and threaten the existence of Israel as a Jewish state.

The President had created a furor by explicitly stating a formerly implied policy that Israel's return to pre 1967 boundaries with land swaps. Israel had wished to discuss that matter later in the negotiation process, but Obama put it first on the agenda, perhaps hoping this concession would cause Hamas to soften its position. He hinted that land swaps could improve Israel's security and demographic situation, concluding that a two state solution was the only way to preserve Israel as a Jewish state and he made it clear the decision would be up to the Israelis. 

It appears nothing will happen until Israelis and their U.S. supporters see that is in their own enlightened self-interest to restart negotiations regarding pre-1967 boundaries. The time for Israel to decide is short since when the dust of their neighbors' turmoil settles, Israel will find neighbors more hostile and drive even harder bargains.

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