Monday, March 3, 2014

"The single best US analyst of Middle Eastern politics is Barack Obama"

As regular readers here know, I've been pretty hard on the failure of our media lately. But the truth is, there are exceptions. Given that my focus over the last few years has been to try to understand President Obama, there are a few reporters who have ignored the "inside the bubble" conventional wisdom and eschewed partisan spin to simply listen/observe in an effort to provide us with insight into his approach.

Two of the people who have done that are Michael Lewis and David Remnick. In addition, two years ago Jeffrey Goldberg interviewed President Obama on the topic of Israel/Iran and provided us with some fascinating insights that I recently suggested go beyond that topic. And then yesterday, Goldberg published another lengthy interview he had with the President last week that provides the same kind of insight. While the interview took place prior to the most recent events in Ukraine, it provides us with some grounding that counters much of the spin we're currently being subjected to about his approach. So if you are reeling a bit from all of that, I highly recommend you follow the link and read this one.

What we see from this interview is confirmation once again of President Obama's long view, his pragmatism and his efforts to use his opponents objectives to accomplish his own (an affirmation of the Aikido Way).

The Long View

In reference to his communication with Netanyahu:
What I’ve said to him privately is the same thing that I say publicly, which is the situation will not improve or resolve itself. This is not a situation where you wait and the problem goes away. There are going to be more Palestinians, not fewer Palestinians, as time goes on. There are going to be more Arab-Israelis, not fewer Arab-Israelis, as time goes on...

And my assessment, which is shared by a number of Israeli observers, I think, is there comes a point where you can’t manage this anymore, and then you start having to make very difficult choices. Do you resign yourself to what amounts to a permanent occupation of the West Bank? Is that the character of Israel as a state for a long period of time? Do you perpetuate, over the course of a decade or two decades, more and more restrictive policies in terms of Palestinian movement? Do you place restrictions on Arab-Israelis in ways that run counter to Israel’s traditions?... of the things my mom always used to tell me and I didn’t always observe, but as I get older I agree with -- is if there’s something you know you have to do, even if it's difficult or unpleasant, you might as well just go ahead and do it, because waiting isn’t going to help. When I have a conversation with Bibi, that’s the essence of my conversation: If not now, when? And if not you, Mr. Prime Minister, then who? How does this get resolved?
Gotta love the combination of mom advice with the Rabbi Hillel quote, don't you? But basically what President Obama is suggesting is that - if we take the long view - the status quo means things get worse for Israel. Demographics alone make that the case. As challenging as the situation is now, it will only get worse in the future for Israel. That is the perspective a long view provides.


President Obama makes it clear that the focus must be on solutions.
I have not yet heard, however, a persuasive vision of how Israel survives as a democracy and a Jewish state at peace with its neighbors in the absence of a peace deal with the Palestinians and a two-state solution. Nobody has presented me a credible scenario.

The only thing that I’ve heard is, "We’ll just keep on doing what we’re doing, and deal with problems as they arise. And we'll build settlements where we can. And where there are problems in the West Bank, we will deal with them forcefully. We’ll cooperate or co-opt the Palestinian Authority." And yet, at no point do you ever see an actual resolution to the problem.
I think its safe to assume that what the President describes in that second paragraph is what he's hearing from Netanyahu. However, the long view suggests that the status quo is not sustainable. So the focus needs to be on pragmatic solutions that work for both Israel and Palestine.

What we can take from all of this is that while President Obama has been unwavering in his support of Israel, he is also placing tremendous pressure on Netanyahu to abandon the status quo and work with the Palestinians.

The Aikido Way

The end of the interview shifts from a focus on the Israel/Palestinian issue to the topic of Iran. A pragmatic assessment provides the President with this insight.
What I’ll say is that if you look at Iranian behavior, they are strategic, and they’re not impulsive. They have a worldview, and they see their interests, and they respond to costs and benefits. And that isn’t to say that they aren’t a theocracy that embraces all kinds of ideas that I find abhorrent, but they’re not North Korea. They are a large, powerful country that sees itself as an important player on the world stage, and I do not think has a suicide wish, and can respond to incentives. And that’s the reason why they came to the table on sanctions.
Based on that, President Obama has made the calculation that we can negotiate an end to Iran's quest for nuclear weapons in exchange for their involvement in the Middle East as a "competitor" rather than "enemy."
If...they are capable of changing; if, in fact, as a consequence of a deal on their nuclear program those voices and trends inside of Iran are strengthened, and their economy becomes more integrated into the international community, and there’s more travel and greater openness, even if that takes a decade or 15 years or 20 years, then that’s very much an outcome we should desire.
Throughout the article, President Obama demonstrates a deep understanding of history, the nature of the Sunni/Shia conflict in the Middle East and the balancing act of diplomacy vs military intervention. And so perhaps it shouldn't surprise us that at least one journalist responded to the article with this:

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