President Obama heads for the Middle East this week. Why is he going? What is he seeking to achieve? Good questions. I just got back from Israel, and they were asking the same thing. Indeed, here’s a confession: I have never gone to a foreign country and had government officials ask me why the president of the United States was visiting. But the Israelis haven’t a clue.
Yes, there’s a new government, but from Washington’s perspective, it’s not too different from the old government. There’s the same prime minister, now also holding the foreign affairs portfolio. So, there are a few possibilities:
- Could Obama be going to reassure the Israelis that, as he insisted during his presidential campaign, he “has their back”? Well, possibly, though the Israelis seem oddly persuaded (despite ample evidence to the contrary) that he does. In fact, several senior officials and former officials told me that they are “sure” Obama will preemptively attack Iran’s nuclear program this year so Israel won’t have to. (I don’t know what makes them think so, except for a rather touching faith.)
- Could he be going to talk tough on Iran, providing some credibility to the crumbling American deterrent against an Iranian nuclear weapon? Maybe, but telling the world he won’t “tolerate” an Iranian nuclear weapon, that “all options are on the table,” or that this time he really means it (despite having offered Iran even more enticements at the last round of nuclear talks in Almaty, Kazakhstan) seems a little, er, weak.
- Maybe he’s going to reassure the Israelis that the United States has a plan to help Egypt on a glide path away from Islamist extremism and collapse? Well, maybe. But that would be a really, really secret plan. Unknown to the rest of his administration.
- Perhaps Obama is going to tell the Israelis that he is planning on working with the shrinking group of moderates within the Syrian opposition to help oust Assad and stabilize a post-Assad Syria. But he just said he had no plans to arm the opposition. So unless a little training and 200,000 halal MREs are going to do the job, doesn’t look like that’s it.
- What of the peace process? That’s a perennial second-term priority. But the Palestinians don’t seem too ready. Fatah leader, the fading Mahmoud Abbas, pronounced over the weekend that his party was no different from Hamas. That will help. And the president has said he has no new peace plan.
- Or maybe he’s just going to Jordan, stopping in Israel for the good vibes. Jordan is, after all, host to more than 400,000 Syrian refugees, a weak government, and a worried king. Yes, that must be it. On the other hand, what exactly will Obama do to help Jordan?
It’s not hard to see why the Israelis are confused. Fundamentally, Obama is retreating from the Middle East, indifferent to the collapse of Egypt, uninterested in the return of al Qaeda to Iraq, the growth of al Qaeda in Africa and the Sinai and Syria, and he appears to have no blueprint for Iran other than more concessions. So why’s he going? Got me. Maybe he told Chuck Schumer he would when he persuaded him to vote to confirm now SecDef Hagel. Seems the most likely, fits the small-ball foreign policy that is this administration’s hallmark, and it’s as good an answer as any.