Leading From Behind on the Middle East

August 11, 2011


The Obama administration’s foreign policy with respect to the Middle East is a sorry excuse for leadership. It’s ironic that it was the Obama administration itself who coined the phrase “leading from behind” to describe it’s posture towards Libya and the region. That phrase has become the butt of many jokes and whoever in the Obama White House thought that it was a good idea to use it to describe the administration’s foreign policy, should be fired.

Writing over at the independent Israeli site +972, Naom Sheizaf articulates a common frustration of the Israeli left and moderates- that there is no real U.S. leadership on Middle East peace and time is running out. They feel that Israel is on a dangerous path and they expected President Obama to help prevent the far-right government from driving a wedge between itself and the rest of the world.

From Sheizaf’s article:

A few months ago, there was still speculation in Jerusalem that the White House is behind the new wave of diplomatic pressure from the EU. Some even wondered whether the administration is secretly supporting the Palestinian UN bid, hoping that this would finally get Israel to take a step or two towards the Palestinians, possibly even freeze settlement construction, so that negotiations could resume.

Nobody thinks so now. The administration has clearly decided to throw its entire weight behind Jerusalem and against the Palestinian move. Washington is threatening both in public and in private that the UN bid would seriously harm American relations with Ramallah, and might even bring to an end the financial aid for the Palestinian Authority. As usual, the US congress—which seems crazier than the Knesset, impossible as this is to imagine—is threatening to stop all financial aid to the PA, and there are even talks of withdrawing funds from the UN itself if its members dare to vote in the Palestinian favor.

Punishing the entire world for seeking to end the occupation! It seems that American foreign policy was taken hostage by the Likud. Current political circumstances in Washington could be blamed, but the facts are pretty clear. One could find in the Israeli mainstream media, and even in the Israeli administration, those who are inclined to support the Palestinian UN bid, yet America seems to be speaking in one voice against it.


It’s been twenty years—since the term of George H W Bush—that the United States has allowed Israel to continue its settlement activities. While Palestinian “unilateralism” consists of turning to the international community, with the blessing and support of most of the world, Israel is engaging every day in the real unilateral activities, ones that change the reality on the ground in ways that would make Palestine, if such a state is ever to be born, no more then a tiny Bantustan (just this week Israel has approved a couple more projects that would make a compromise in Jerusalem impossible).

While the destructive Israeli policy is answered with feable condemnations from Washington – yesterday’s statements hardly made it to the papers – the Palestinians are threatened with very concrete punishments, including a move that would leave thousands of Palestinian Authority employees without means to support their families (one could guess how happy they would be to continue doing Israel’s policing work in the West Bank).

[emphasis added]

As if to put an exclamation point on the “leading from behind” theme and what Sheizaf said in his article, I received this statement from the White House in my inbox regarding President Obama’s phone call with Israeli PM Netanyahu:

President Obama spoke with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu today to consult on regional issues and efforts to achieve Middle East peace. The Prime Minister expressed appreciation for U.S. support for Israel’s security, in particular the Iron Dome short-range rocket and mortar defense system. The two leaders agreed to continue to work closely together to address common security concerns.

Yup, that’s it! Sort of makes you wonder what the point of the phone call was. Nothing about the 900 plus illegal settlements that Israel just announced they were building in Har Homa, which will once and for all ensure that any future Palestinian state does NOT have contiguous borders and it settles the issue of Jerusalem in Israel’s favor. How about putting forth a plan to move forward Mr. President? How about doing something other than taking the path of least resistance ahead of 2012 by just engaging in rhetorical, politically-expedient Palestinian-punching? It would seem that all available diplomatic resources are tied up trying to prevent the Palestinians from exercising their rights at the United Nations. That makes no sense at all.

Then there is this from the State Dept. press briefing yesterday:

QUESTION: Yes. You said there is no accusation, but there are widespread accusations against the U.S. leadership. Do you see any credible to these arguments that you have leadership gap when you – we look at the last two decades of Middle East talks?

MS. NULAND: Well, how about we look at the last three months of U.S. leadership, beginning with the President’s speech and the incredible diplomatic efforts of Ambassador David Hale, the Quartet meeting, all of these kinds of things, the diplomacy that the President and the Secretary have personally engaged in with the parties on both sides, the visits here. These parties have to make the decision to come to the table. We can lay out the best case. We can offer our best offices. We can try to organize the international community for success, and we are doing all those things. But it’s up to the parties to make the tough decision for peace.

Anything else?

QUESTION: What has all that effort yielded, if I may ask, in the last three months?

MS. NULAND: It’s been difficult, as you see, and it continues to be difficult. But that doesn’t mean we’re going to stop trying.

QUESTION: But has it yielded anything tangible? I mean, the Quartet didn’t even issue a statement – correct? – after their last meeting.

MS. NULAND: The Quartet issued its statement after the President’s speech, and we continue to try to use that framework, that set of ideas, to try to get these parties back to the table.

I am absolutely dumbfounded that the State Dept. thinks that making speeches with no follow up amounts to leadership in the Middle East. As for the Quartet, no one takes it seriously- no one. The only thing the U.S. has done with it’s position on the Quartet is to go to fancy restaurants, drink fine wine and try to strong-arm the other members in an effort to prevent them from taking on a real leadership role in Mideast peace- something which they have tried repeatedly to do (most recently France) but at each turn the Obama administration, via the State Dept., has thwarted them.

Would a second Obama term give him the freedom to stand up to Netanyahu, Congress and the Lobby? Some say yes but history says otherwise. There is always another election on the horizon and Bibi knows that. Also, given Obama has shown an unwillingness to stand up for anything and his propensity for backing down at the slightest push-back, Netanyahu knows that he can annex all of the West Bank and Gaza tomorrow and Obama wouldn’t do one damn thing about it. Given that, why negotiate for the creation of a Palestinian state when Bibi knows he can annex all of East Jerusalem and make most of the final status issues nothing but a pointless rhetorical exercise? As it stands now, given the location of recent settlements it’s very unlikely that E. Jerusalem will end up under Palestinian control. The status quo is serving the Israeli and U.S. peace rejectionists quite well.


About Stacy

Attorney, Publisher, Foreign Policy wonk

View all posts by Stacy


Subscribe to our RSS feed and social profiles to receive updates.

One Comment on “Leading From Behind on the Middle East”

  1. Pilgrim Says:

    You are so right about the uselessness of that stupid Tony Blair quartet.


Leave a Response

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: