Friday, November 14, 2008

Phillip Stephens to Obama: Next Year in Jerusalem

Today, a second Wolf-Munch-Rock Award goes to the Financial Times's Phillip Stephens for a superb specimen of the kind of fact-based, non-ideological, think-your-way-to-a-conclusion commentary that sets the FT apart.

Stephens would have the new President believe that brokering an Israeli-Palestinian accord should be his first foreign policy priority. Since that's counter-intuitive on its face, he takes a contrarian route, setting up multiple hurdles to jump his argument over.

First, there's the insane competition for the President's attention:

The challenge for a US president rests in separating the urgent from the important..When he is not taking telephone calls from foreign leaders, we can assume president-elect Barack Obama is already being deluged with both the important and the urgent. Thick intelligence briefings will warn him of this emerging threat here, that rising peril there. His foreign policy advisers will be jostling to fix his focus on every part of the globe.

Next, the apparently more urgent and obviously interlocking other problems in the "multi-dimensional jigsaw of the Islamic world:
Mr Obama is committed to a speedy drawdown of US troops in Iraq; likewise to bolstering the fight against the Taliban in Afghanistan and to rooting out al-Qaeda from the tribal areas of Pakistan. Iran promises to test both the new president’s strategic diplomacy and America’s relations with its allies; likewise Afghanistan.

All these problems, of course, are connected. Progress in Afghanistan is contingent on the co-operation of its neighbours – Iran as well as Pakistan. It may be too late to stop Tehran from acquiring the capability to build a nuclear bomb, but a serious effort to persuade it not to start a nuclear arms race will demand recognition of its security interests. On the other hand, the stability of a Shia-led and Iranian-backed government in Iraq will depend on the comfort levels of its Sunni Arab neighbours.

Finally, there's the extreme difficulty of the task itself:

The polls suggest that the Israeli elections are unlikely to deliver a coalition with the authority to strike a land-for-peace bargain with the Palestinians. Benjamin Netanyahu, the hawkish Likud leader, may emerge as prime minister. During his last spell in office Mr Netanyahu sought to derail the Oslo accords. I have heard it said that the one meeting that went badly during Mr Obama’s tour of the Middle East and Europe this year was his encounter with Mr Netanyahu.

For their part, the Palestinians remain divided in spite of the best efforts of Egyptian mediation. Hamas has so far refused to offer the recognition of Israel demanded by the international community. In the absence of a committed interlocutor on the Israeli side, it is hard to see what would prompt Fatah and Hamas to settle their differences.

But here's the alleged payoff:
The largest, and most important, piece in this multi-dimensional jigsaw is the Israel-Palestinian conflict. It is the issue that more than any other shapes attitudes in the region towards the US. On almost everything else, probably the best the incoming president can hope for is to damp the fires. A deal between Israel and the Palestinians would change the game.
Paradoxically, the very factors mitigating against settlement provide the stongest impetus to get it done:
The early years of his presidency will be his best, and quite possibly the last, chance to broker a two-state solution. Facts on the ground – demography, the West Bank barrier, Israeli settlements across swaths of the West Bank, Palestinian radicalism in Gaza – are steadily undermining the bargain that would give Israel security and the Palestinians a state.
Finally, Stephens invokes the enormous worldwide political capital Obama has won to close his own jigsaw puzzle: Obama has the capital; the opportunity in Israel/Palestine is fast waning; it's where he can have the largest impact; and success would change the chemistry of Western/Middle Eastern relations.
For all the formidable obstacles to an agreement, Mr Obama’s heritage and the nature of his victory has bestowed as much authority among Israelis, Palestinians and in the wider Arab world as any US president can ever expect. This precious political capital will diminish over time.

A serious and even-handed effort to promote peace between Israel and the Palestinians would disarm the most serious charge against US policy in the region: that everything it does is rooted in double standards.

A deal would not settle all the problems and conflicts. Nor, of itself, would it repair the relationship between the west and much of the Islamic world. Al-Qaeda and its affiliates would find plenty of other reasons to attack America. Yet the creation of a Palestinian state would change profoundly the dynamics of the Middle East. It would make possible much that now seems beyond all reasonable reach.

As coup de grace, Stephens casts this Herculean task as the best conduit for success in Obama's own terms:
Brokering such an accord would be tough and thankless. Mr Obama might well fail in the attempt. But there lies the existential choice for Mr Bush’s successor. Does he want to patch things up? Or does he want to redraw the strategic map of the Middle East and thereby set a new direction for America’s role in the world? That, in the final analysis, is what will mark out the difference between a competent and a transformational presidency.
Much as I admire this argument's construction, I confess I'm not convinced. As Stephens highlights at the outset, to govern is to triage. So why start here? Why would Obama be less likely to effect a transformational victory in, say, our relations with Iran or in effective aid to Pakistan? It's not possible in 1000 words to take the measure of the relative difficulty of those tasks, and I'm not sure I buy the "change the chemistry" argument. Clinton was an honest broker between Israel and the Palestinians, and that fact did not tamp down Islamist rage. On the other hand, Clinton was not a successful broker. And to end on a crushingly obvious note, success is the sine qua non of (good) transformation.

But where in Stephen's jigsaw is success likeliest?

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