Barack Obama's graduation speech at West Point Academy last week said much about the way the US may intend to proceed in the Middle East.
Mr Obama’s vision of force as a last resort, terrorism as the primary threat and a strikingly narrow definition of American interests does seem to sound a new tone, albeit one that elaborates on his long-standing foreign policy approach. Those most persuaded by the speech note that it’s strongly in line with American public opinion and commensurate with the US role in a world that is no longer strictly or simply monopolar.
Perhaps Richard Nixon’s landmark Lakeside Speech at the Bohemian Grove in July 1967 is an apt analogue. At this confidential meeting, Nixon first floated the logic that became the “Nixon doctrine”: that both economically and strategically the US could no longer “fight others’ wars for them.” It would provide support, funding and weapons to allies and clients, but there would be no repetition of Korea or, once it was concluded, Vietnam.
This vision held for decades. Even the First Gulf War was more of an anomaly than a repudiation of it. It was only the invasion of Iraq in 2003 that fully broke with Nixon’s Lakeside logic. And it is precisely the folly of the Iraq war, and the mishandling of the Afghan one, that most fully informed Mr Obama’s new conceptualisation, summed up in an analogy about the dangers of people with hammers seeing nails everywhere. Mr Obama, though, seemed to go even further than Nixon had in rethinking the American worldview. Arguably this is because the US is now operating even more among economic and political, if not military, equals than it was several decades ago. But his approach has significant implications for US policy in the Middle East, for its regional allies and for the area’s most volatile issues.
Mr Obama did not mention the problem of Palestine at all. This might be seen as curious, given that even a few months ago it continued to rank among his administration's top foreign policy priorities. Nonetheless, the president has expressed scepticism in interviews with David Remnick of the New Yorker and Jeffrey Goldberg of Bloomberg about the prospects for diplomatic progress between Israel and the Palestinians. And this is hardly the first significant recent speech in which Mr Obama has avoided the topic altogether.
Still, that a major US presidential foreign policy address could go forward without even an implicit reference to the conflict and the occupation can only be alarming for Palestinians. And it should worry Israelis as well.
Palestinians have seen their issue receding from not only the world stage, but the regional agenda. Former prime minister Salam Fayyad was, perhaps, most forthright in ringing alarm bells about this towards the end of his term in office. It seems that secretary of state John Kerry, who has been courageous and resolute in pursuing the issue, may not have given up entirely. But when, and how, he intends to revisit it, is not clear. For the meanwhile, the policy appears to be to allow the parties to “stew in their own juices.”
The problem is that such a recipe will not have its desired effect if the experience feels more like a gentle candying than boiling in oil. And political leaders on both sides, particularly in Israel, may find the hiatus a relief. Palestinians have found an alternative in the national reunification project, which so far has not resulted in a profoundly negative response, even from Israel. Yet, the price that will ultimately be paid has yet to be reckoned.
The Israeli government and right-wing are probably very comfortable with the current hiatus. But if they were listening carefully to Mr Obama’s address, they should think twice. Not only does “benign neglect” of Palestine almost always end badly for everyone involved, reduced American interest in the Middle East in general, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in particular, does not suggest a bright future for Israel’s strategic position.
Indeed, the one Middle Eastern issue that seems to have genuinely captured the president’s sustained attention from the outset of his second term is Iran. Looking for some accommodation with Tehran is perfectly consistent with the rest of his stated worldview. A limited understanding preventing a confrontation over nuclear issues may indeed be achievable. But a broader rapprochement is unlikely to be attempted, and, if it were, almost certainly would create more problems than it would resolve.
Mr Obama had been expected to announce a much more robust engagement with Syrian rebels, including US training. He didn’t. That, too, may reflect both an Iran-centric agenda – with Syria policy seen as essentially a subset of that – and the generalised reduction in American power projection he described.
Syria may indicate where Mr Obama is going well beyond where Nixon had. Not only will the United States not fight others’ wars for them. Now, perhaps it might be increasingly less inclined to offer them as much support either. Everyone in the Middle East, Israelis included, should think seriously about the long-term implications of that, if this is indeed what Mr Obama was implying and if, in fact, it presages a sustained new era in American foreign policy.
Hussein Ibish is a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine and blogs at www. ibishblog.com
On Twitter: @ibishblog