That retreat from the traditional American diplomatic role in brokering Middle East conflicts strikes many regional analysts as a mistake and potentially counterproductive both for the region and for US interests.
But that standing back from the fray and ceding the diplomatic ground to regional powers is also a reflection of the “cold-eyed” realist perspective of the president that the conflict doesn’t constitute the kind of significant threat to US national security interests that would require more urgent involvement, some experts say.
“There are several reasons for this lack of engagement, but probably the crucial one is that the Obama White House starts out from the basis of foreign policy realism,” says Chris Toensing, executive director of the Middle East Research and Information Project (MERIP) in Washington. “And from a cold-eyed perspective, what’s happening in Gaza just does not affect US interests negatively.”
On Friday, President Obama spoke with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by phone, reiterating the position the US has taken since hostilities broke out between Israel and Hamas nearly two weeks ago: Israel has a right to defend itself from rocket fire, but it should take care in its military actions to minimize civilian casualties.
Mr. Obama also told the Israeli leader that Secretary of State John Kerry is prepared to travel to the region to try to secure an end to the belligerence. The US has said it supports a return to the 2012 cease-fire between Israel and Hamas that the US brokered.
What stands out about Obama’s mention of a possible Kerry foray into the region – State Department officials say it could come within days – is how it underscores the US absence from the region as the fighting has deepened and the death toll has mounted, regional experts say.
“The US is visually absent. The American approach has been ‘on the horizon’ ” with phone calls and position statements from afar, says Robert Danin, senior fellow for Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) in Washington. “It’s been either John Kerry goes or no one goes,” he says, adding that the result is stark: “The US has deployed no senior officials to the region.”
Contrasting that absence with the diplomatic full-court press the Obama administration has deployed for the Iranian nuclear talks says something about the relative urgency of the Gaza crisis for the White House, says Mr. Danin’s CFR colleague, Elliott Abrams, who was deputy national security adviser for the Middle East in the George W. Bush White House.
Mr. Abrams ticks off the array of senior administration officials involved at various levels in the Iran talks – including chief negotiator Wendy Sherman, undersecretary of State for political affairs; Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns; Jake Sullivan, Vice President Joe Biden’s national security adviser; and even Secretary Kerry, “who has been in and out of the talks.”
“While there’s been this interagency effort at various levels [in the Iran talks], you don’t see that here” in the case of the Gaza crisis, Abrams says. “It’s kind of a one-man band,” he adds, meaning Kerry.
Mr. Toensing of MERIP says he can list other reasons for the Obama administration’s disengagement from the Gaza crisis. One is simply “Middle East conflict fatigue” in the White House, which he says comes from a conviction that “we tried really hard” to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with Kerry’s failed peace initiative.
“The default attitude is to just throw up their hands,” he says.
Another reason for the administration’s quiet, says Toensing, a critic of Israel’s incursion into Gaza, is that more robust involvement could get in the way of Israel accomplishing what it says are its goals in the incursion – and thus could be politically risky.
The Obama administration is no different from others before it, he says, in that it is “more afraid of offending the Israeli lobby in the US than [it is] interested in brokering a cease-fire or bringing the situation to some kind of peace.”
One consequence of the administration’s involvement from “the horizon,” as Danin describes it, is that regional powers are encouraged to intervene to try to reach a diplomatic resolution. The problem, he says, is that those players are deeply divided: Egypt is siding with Israel, he says, while Turkey and Qatar are siding with Hamas.
Add to that mix a Saudi Arabia that is basically saying to Israel and Hamas, “You’re both wrong,” Abrams says, and it becomes difficult to imagine the region working this out on its own.
“It’s going to take a traffic cop to try to manage this,” Danin says, “and it’s hard to imagine who other than the US can play that role.”
Some are sympathetic to the Obama view that the US can no longer afford to allow its diplomacy to be dominated by what seem to be never-ending Middle East crises. Certainly opinion polls show the American public to be largely in tune with that view.
But the problem is that the US does retain critical interests in the region, Abrams says, yet by standing back the US looks either uninterested or ineffective to its allies in the region. “What I see happening in the Middle East is a lot of people considering the US doesn’t know how to play the game well anymore,” he says. In the immediate crisis as well as more generally, he adds, allowing that perspective to take hold in the region could be dangerous.
Danin says he sees “Middle East fatigue” in Obama’s approach to the Gaza crisis, but the US needs to consider the consequences of pulling back, he says.
“A lot of people argue that we need to stay out of the Middle East, that we need to hold back, but I’m not sure that works,” Danin says. For one thing, “It underestimates the degree to which the US can be a force for positive change.”