Barack Obama is occasionally photographed carrying a weighty and important book around with him. One of those books — which he seemed to carry around for nearly a year (it is a very long book at 738 pages) — was Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001 by my New America Foundation colleague Steve Coll.
Another book that Obama took very seriously and had his pic snapped with is Fareed Zakaria’s The Post-American World.
What Obama likely learned from Coll’s book is that Afghanistan would be a tough grind, one that America couldn’t easily walk away from without running the risk that the drama in that region will come knocking on America’s door if not dealt with. What the President learned from Zakaria is that the tools of American power are severely diminished, that enormous global doubts exist about the United States and its future course, and that foes and allies alike are not doubling down on American leadership but are rather placing new bets.
America is not completely out of the global power game. In my view, a combination of brilliant leadership and well orchestrated “strategic leaps” coupled with visionary re-crafting of America’s global social contract with other of the world’s leading stakeholders could actually restore significant American leverage (and power) in global affairs.
Much of being a leading superpower is about managing mystique — and Obama is the kind of President that can restore the mystique that previous administrations shattered by displaying military, economic, moral, and institutional leadership lapses.
Barack Obama needs to generate “strategic leaps” — but he is surrounded by a large number of policy practitioner incrementalists who are so well acquainted with the weeds and granular detail of historically insoluble national security problems — like Israel/Palestine, or Iran, or Cuba, or Syria — that they have a hard time not bringing their lethargy, depression, or obsessive compulsiveness about the past into discussions about the policy challenges today and how to pragmatically move these problems and American interests forward.
Obama needs to hang out with some creative thinkers, those who know something about Nixon’s and Kissinger’s assessment of China when we had no relations, or are experts in Eisenhower’s “Solarium Exercise”, or others who are thinking in creative and innovative ways about the global system and America’s place in it.
Those who have seen it all, heard it all, done it all on the Israel/Palestine conflict for instance should be heard and comments noted — but then they need to be showed the door so a new discussion about the future can begin. Time needs to be given to those who see this as a moment of “historical discontinuity” when doing tomorrow mostly what the nation did yesterday is recognized as a recipe for disaster and failure rather than success.
Dennis Ross, who now serves on President Obama’s National Security Council team, is author with David Makovsky of an important book, Myths, Illusions, and Peace: Finding a New Direction for America in the Middle East, that strongly argues that there is no ‘linkage’ between the Israel/Palestine issue, Iran, and broader Middle East dynamics. The strongest part of their argument rests on the notion that there have been dozens of conflicts, coups, and other instabilities in the Middle East since Israel’s founding in 1948 and that most were unrelated to the Arab-Israeli conflict and would have occurred whether the Israel-Palestine divide had been bridged or not.
With all due respect to the writers, they are trapped in the inertia that came from those who lived and breathed foreign policy deal making and analysis during the Cold War.
Today is different. The ongoing and repeated failures to resolve the Israel-Palestine conflict are increasingly consequential to American security and US interests.
In other words, this used to be a conflict that America, Europe, Russia, the Arab States, and Israel could all afford to lose — with increments of progress now and then, a few steps forward and predictable steps backward. Jumps forward won for the key protagonists Nobel Peace Prizes — but essentially, the Arab-Israeli conflict was a side show pursued with the passion of Sunday school do-gooders and philanthropists.
The Israel-Arab standoff was dramatic but not really vital, sort of like the Northern Ireland mess — which Senator George Mitchell showed so much patience and capacity to help move forward. But today, it is vital conflict that is a defining challenge for the United States — and can’t without great risk be approached by Senator Mitchell and the administration as a conflict that can just bubble on and simmer for a few centuries. This conflict matters far beyond the Israeli and Palestinian populations and is a screaming, right now challenge.
Beyond this conflict itself, particularly after 9-11 and the U.S. invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, tensions of many sorts have exploded across a wide band of the world stretching from North Africa to South Asia with spots in Southeast Asia, Russia, China and more.
The United States and its core allies have decided to try and remake parts of the world and as might be expected, much of the Arab Middle East and the global Muslim community have institutionalized grievances about their place in the modern world and wonder if the West values their lives and societies. The Palestinian mess is for many of these people the packaged microcosm of their anger about exploitation and humiliation by the West and by their own governments.
Solving the Israel-Palestine conflict will not solve all the political and identity tensions which will continue to boil in Arab and Muslim-dominant states — but the echo effect of resolving the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians will knock down many walls in these societies that have been resisting change.
Ross and Makovsky think that this argument is wrong. Many do. But from my perspective, these thinkers are not recognizing the vital demands of ‘strategic leaps’ at historical pivot points. Nations rise or sink at times like this — and America can’t return to be the kind of benign global power it used to be, inspiring other nations to follow its lead, unless it demonstrates a capacity to shape the environment in a way that constructively confronts Iran’s ambitions and which reorders the security and political environment surrounding Israel, which is essentially a client state of the United States.
The quid pro quo of moving Palestine and Israel toward a credible two state track is normalization of relations between Israel and 57 other now hostile countries.
Will Israel still have security problems? Of course. Will Israel likely work to keep the Palestinian state dependent on Israel in all sorts of ways? Yes. Will Israel allow a large, strong state to develop next to it? Probably not — at least not in terms of military capacity. There are many big questions ahead — and all of them are manageable.
But what will result is that Israel will be able to collaborate much more directly, if not in the warmest of terms, with the major Arab stakeholders in the Middle East on regional security. Israel needs to do this as a supplement to their security relationship with the United States as a region-wide buffer against the encroachment of Iran’s power.
America’s security relationship with Israel is very close and strong but is nonetheless something like a New Orleans levy — doing the job today but of diminishing capacity over time.
Overcoming the chasm between Israel and 57 Arab and Muslim-dominant nations is the strategic leap that the world most needs to see at this moment.
While Washington, DC and foreign capitals in Europe and the Middle East are buzzing with intoxicating (and mostly wrong) rumors of an Israeli bombing strike against Iran’s nuclear program, the obvious question needs to be asked of what the so-called “concerned states” in the region will do if such a strike were to take place. What would the leaders in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Jordan, Egypt and so on do if they showed even veiled support for Israel’s actions without concomitant gestures by Israel to solve the biggest grievance burning in the hearts and minds of their citizens?
The Arab street could catch fire and burn down a few of these governments. Perhaps that is part of the plan that neoconservatives and others hope for. But that would be disastrous for the United States and most likely create conditions for a terrorist super highway up to the edge of Israel with few control valves. And there are just many more consequences, unseen and unexpected, that await any time some conflict of this scale is unleashed.
In my estimation, Barack Obama sees the vital and obvious linkage between resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict over Palestine and any sensible strategy rolling back and/or containing Iran’s nuclear and regional hegemonic pretensions.
The interesting thing is that progress on a Palestinian state is what Arab governments may most need in order to be more robustly supportive of American, European, and Israeli designs with Iran. Delivering on Palestine may actually create conditions in which these states accept an “all options on the table” approach to Iran. And just as in other cases of deterrence, this ASEAN Regional Forum-like collaboration may impact fundamentally Iran’s leadership calculations.
Achieving a Palestine-Israel track that is inclusive and operates at levels higher and broader than the mutual irresponsibility of both Israeli and Palestinian interlocutors would allow Barack Obama to show that his administration is changing global gravity.
The key stakeholders in the region would be in a better position then to either contain Iran — or to militarily challenge Iran. And if the Iranian leader’s calculations shift, to embrace Iran on a more positive track.
Obama, National Security Adviser Jim Jones, Deputy National Security Adviser Tom Donilon, and NSC Chief of Staff Denis McDonough — and I’d add Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns — are all about “strategic leaps”. However, a good chunk of Obama’s team is intimidated by the political downsides of this kind of vision and strategic leadership.
These naysayers surround themselves with and thrive in anachronistic assessments of these challenges in a way that have been appropriate and worked out over the last several decades — but which are simply out of place and passively reckless in the post-Cold War period.
In his book, Second Chance: Three Presidents and the Crisis of American Superpower, which Barack Obama should read (if he hasn’t) and have his picture snapped with, Zbigniew Brzezinski assesses the performance of the three U.S. Presidents who held office after the collapse of the Soviet Union — George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush.
Brzezinski applies systematic criteria to evaluate the vision and foreign policy efficacy of these Presidents in not only dealing with the global power turbulence left in the wake of the Soviet empire’s collapse but also their success in instituting a new pathway for America’s place in a post-Cold War world (the topic of Brzezinski’s next book along with Brent Scowcroft and David Ignatius).
Brzezinski gave George H.W. Bush an A- for reasons that are better explicated in the book than here. Clinton received a “C”, and George W. Bush flunked in the eyes of Brzezinski.
Obama has a chance still to earn an A and to reorder the global environment and America’s place in it in a way that re-invents American power and leadership.
But Barack Obama needs to instill in his team the consequence that incrementalism will take the U.S. over a cliff and will lead to either head on military confrontations with Iran that leave all parties worse off with enormous implications for American primacy over the oil and energy sector not to mention what is left of America’s global power position.
The Israel-Palestine conflict is a global fault line, a San Andreas fault of conflicts that ranks higher today than even the tension between India and Pakistan. Resolving the tension in that fault will have a disproportionately positive impact on global stability, but letting it fester and allowing Iran and others to continue to exploit this division will severely constrain U.S. options and eventually undermine both America and Israel.
It’s time to start jumping more seriously into the dynamics of the Israel-Palestine conflict.
President Obama has always been correct about the fundamental inter-connectedness of the challenges posed today by Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan with the Israel-Palestine standoff.
President Obama gets this. I know he does, but he needs to demonstrate that he can rise above reacting to crises which the region forces on him and instead exhibit his strategic skills.
Strategic opportunity and awareness of costs and folly are what Zakaria’s, Coll’s, and Brzezinski’s books should really be conveying to the President.
– Steve Clemons