Barack Obama spoke in Cairo two weeks ago. The Middle East has been roiling since. The street scenes in Iran have pushed the surprise pro-Western victory in Lebanon's elections out of the headlines, along with Benjamin Netanyahu's pained, precondition-crippled acceptance of a two-state solution and the enraged Palestinian response. Two top Israeli intelligence figures scaling down the Iranian nuclear threat from looming Holocaust to mid-range risk -- a major story for a calm week -- has gone almost unnoticed.
So did Obama set this off, or was he like the king in The Little Prince who ordered the sun to rise at the precise moment when it would have done so anyway? With that come two more questions: Will the crisis in Iran shake up the region even more? And what should Obama do in response?
Let's go a step at a time. And assume that the requisite qualifier -- everything could change in an hour -- is present in every sentence.
First, the Obama Effect: The standard, and well-founded, view is that Iran has come apart on its own. Under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the regime has been more oppressive than under his predecessors -- harassing intellectuals, journalists, and bloggers. Young Iranians have supported reformist candidates in past elections; this time their vehicle was Mir Hussein Mousavi.
That said, Mousavi did attack Ahmadinejad for destroying Iran's international image with his delusional statements, especially his denial of the Holocaust. Were Bush still president, suggests Meir Litvak, a senior fellow at Tel Aviv University's Center for Iranian Studies, the criticism wouldn't have resonated. Iranians would have felt, "What difference does it make how we look in the world? The Americans despise us anyway." Facing Obama and his call for dialogue, "how Iran is seen is important, at least to some Iranians."
In Lebanon's elections, on the other hand, the parties' positions toward the United States and Iran were a central issue, and America made no secret of its preferred outcome. The winning March 14 alliance is pro-West; the Hezbollah-led opposition is pro-Syria and pro-Iran. And foreign interference was heavy-handed, says Lebanese political scientist Amal Saad-Ghorayeb. Saudi Arabia and Iran poured funds into the campaign, with the Saudis supplementing March 14 leader Saad Hariri's prodigious personal funds. Over 100,000 expatriates flew home to vote -- reportedly on tickets bought for them -- and "the overwhelming majority voted for March 14," says Saad-Ghorayeb. Even so, she notes, the coalition won its 71-57 legislative majority because of the winner-take-all system in electoral districts, without gaining a majority in the popular vote.
The United States was seen as expressing its preference directly through the visits of Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. But silence also spoke loudly, says Alon Liel, the former director-general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry. In his Cairo speech, Obama did not say a word about Syria, and the American dialogue with Damascus was put on ice before the Lebanese election. Liel reads both moves as a signal to Lebanese Christians, the crucial swing vote, that the U.S. was not giving any seal of approval for voting for the pro-Syrian side in Lebanon.
Direct, public pressure from Obama was the sole reason that Netanyahu uttered the words "Palestinian state" on Sunday. Yet Netanyahu's speech is evidence that pressure, even applied to a dependent ally, works in very small increments. With his countless caveats, Netanyahu rendered his offer an insult to Palestinians and kept his right-wing coalition intact. Read closely, says Dr. Iyad Barghouti, director of the Ramallah Center for Human Rights, Netanyahu was offering colonial-style "self-rule" in Areas A and B -- the enclaves of the West Bank assigned to the Palestinian Authority under the Oslo Accords. Palestinian disappointment is partly a result of the high hopes they had after Obama's Cairo speech, says Menachem Klein, a Bar-Ilan University expert on Palestinian-Israeli relations. Count that as another, inadvertent part of the Obama Effect.
One more development that might be attributed to Washington: Mossad chief Meir Dagan told a Knesset committee on Tuesday that Iran would have its first nuclear bomb in 2014 -- pushing back previous Israeli predictions. But Dagan was actually using a new benchmark, says Litvak. In the past, Israeli officials have spoken of the "point of no return," the stage after which it would be impossible to prevent an Iranian bomb. The following day, the former chief of Israeli Military Intelligence, Aharon Zeevi-Farkash, said in an Army Radio interview that Israel isn't the primary target of an Iranian bomb. Lowering the rhetoric may signal acceptance that there's no chance of an Israeli military strike against Iran on Obama's watch.
And given those events, what should Obama do now?
Whether Obama has had a small influence or a large one, the Middle East has already changed significantly. A few months ago, as Liel points out, the radical bloc of Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas appeared unstoppable. Now Hezbollah has suffered a political defeat. No matter what the immediate outcome in Iran, Liel suggests, this week's events will leave "a certain scar" politically. The image of the Iranian regime as strong and stable has been shaken.
Nonetheless, the best thing Obama can do about Iran -- outside of keeping Twitter operating -- is to resist firmly all political pressure at home to say too much. Iranian protesters don't need America to cheer them on. Those committed to an Islamic regime, albeit a more liberal one, don't want an American embrace -- and no one wants to give the regime more excuses to blame outside agitation.
On the Israeli-Palestinian front, America has much more direct influence -- and for that reason, should again avoid speaking too quickly or changing course. The White House's immediate response to Netanyahu's speech was to label it an "important step forward." That's akin to "a teacher telling a child with learning difficulties, "You've shown you can do it. Now keep going,'" argues Israeli analyst Menachem Klein. Nonetheless, the kind words may have been too hasty, suggesting to Netanyahu that he'd gone far enough.
By the next day, Obama was reiterating that he wants a "cessation of settlements." It's critical to maintain that message. The worst outcome is for Netanyahu to make a small rhetorical concession on two states and "get cut slack" regarding settlement construction, asserts the Amman-based Mouin Rabbani, a senior fellow at the Institute for Palestine Studies. Rabbani is right: settlement is a change on the ground, long-term and hard to reverse.
In other words, the campaign strategy of last year is still true. Obama must stay on message rather than respond to the daily news cycle. The Middle East is roiling. To make the best of that, Obama must be even calmer than ever.
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