Michael Omer-Man’s article is followed by an excerpt from President Obama’s speech on counter-terrorism
Why does the US administration want to be the peace-maker? Photo by Benedikt von Loebell/WEF.
Obama clarified last week that the United States has its own distinct interests, and renewing Israeli-Palestinian peace talks is certainly one of them. But is the U.S. actually aiming for peace, or does the peace process itself serve American interests in the region?
By Michael Omer-Man, +972
May 27, 2013
The United States is once again thrusting itself into one of the more intractable conflicts of the past century. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has touched down in Israel every few weeks since taking office and Barack Obama finally made his first visit as president, throwing his weight behind Kerry’s efforts. Although it may seem like a given, there is one important question: why?
In his second term, President Obama appears to be taking seriously his goal to reverse the foreign policy disaster his predecessor created in the Middle East. By pulling U.S. troops out of Afghanistan he will have ended both of George W. Bush’s conventional wars, and just last week, he announced an eventual end to Bush’s more ambiguous war on terror. Going even further, Obama announced limitations and offered explanations for his own – extremely unpopular and deadly – drone program, which has exponentially increased ill will toward the U.S. in Muslim countries.
But hidden in his speech on drone and counter-terrorism strategy, Obama gave context to the U.S.’s interests in its latest attempt to jump-start the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
“We are working to promote peace between Israelis and Palestinians – because it is right, and because such a peace could help reshape attitudes in the region,” the President explained. (Emphasis added)
It’s a concept Obama introduced in a much-anticipated and quickly forgotten speech outlining his administration’s foreign policy in the Middle East two years ago. Speaking to diplomats at Foggy Bottom, he said, the Israeli-Palestinian “conflict has come with a larger cost to the Middle East, as it impedes partnerships that could bring greater security and prosperity and empowerment to ordinary people.”
In other words, the perpetuation of Israel’s life-long conflict with the Palestinians and wider Arab world harms U.S. interests in the region. Taking the conflict off the table would shrink many of America’s hurdles to advancing its diplomatic, military, economic and energy interests in the Arab and Muslim worlds.
Without explicitly mentioning American interests, the U.S. secretary of state this week warned that failure to resolve – or at least address – the Palestinian-Israeli conflict would result in “perpetual war.” That war is not Israel’s alone, it is also Washington’s, irrespective of whether there are American boots on the ground.
It is in that context that the United States is making its latest push to restart negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. As Obama affirmed last week, the United States does have a moral interest in ending the occupation and making peace. But the greater interest is freeing the United States from the bonds of negative association with Palestine’s occupier.
So what does an American president do? He makes a public effort. If something comes of it, great. If it never goes further than resurrecting the long-exhausted and self-interested process with little hope making actual peace, well at least he can say he tried.
A few days ago, Noam Sheizaf argued that the best thing Kerry can do for peace is to admit that there’s no peace process: “Kerry would have done his own cause justice if he simply stated that there is no peace process, nor has there been one in recent times.” The argument holds water. Israelis need to be shown – and made to feel –that the situation is not tenable, and forcing them to deal with the occupation’s consequences may accomplish that goal.
Sheizaf’s mistake, however, lies in his assessment of Kerry’s “cause.” Peace is not America’s primary interest, although it would certainly serve Washington – and especially the State Department. America’s interest is what a peace process, and perceived American determination to end injustice in Palestine, can do for American foreign policy, standing and influence in the region.
Although not the topic of his recent speech, Obama put significant emphasis on the need to enlarge and strengthen Washington’s soft power in the world. “American leadership has always been elevated by our ability to connect with peoples’ hopes, and not simply their fears,” he said, in defense of domestically unpopular foreign aid programs.
Connecting with peoples’ hopes and dreams may sound like a continuation of Obama’s 2008 election campaign and a humanistic approach to world leadership by making and strengthening friendships. Primarily, however, it is a vehicle for furthering foreign policy goals and rebuilding American hegemony.
As Henry Kissinger once paraphrased Charles de Gualle, “America has no permanent friends or enemies, only interests.”
Obama is not venturing back into Middle East peacemaking with the pure intention of making the world a better place, or of making peace. He needs a peace process for his administration’s and his country’s own interests in the region. If Kerry is successful in achieving what both Israelis and Palestinians have largely given up on, Obama will be happy. But even if the next peace process bears no fruit, he will also be able to claim a quiet victory. It is entirely possible that at least as much as peace, the process is the goal: a convoluted good-will gesture toward the Arab world.
Of course, a fruitless process could spell disaster for Israelis and Palestinians. Even when it provides only miniscule hope for those on the ground, a peace process inherently raises expectations, and high expectations can lead to greater disappointment and despair, which in turn can bring violent deterioration on the ground.
Michael Omer-Man is an American journalist and writer living in Jaffa, Israel. He is the managing editor of +972 Magazine and previously worked as the news desk manager for The Jerusalem Post‘s online edition. He has a degree in Conflict Resolution and Middle East Studies from IDC Herzliya.
This is a short excerpt from President Obama’s lengthy speech on counter-terrorism, delivered on May 23 at the Defense Department’s top institution for military matters. Its primary themes were drones, the use of lethal force and Guantanamo bay – and the resilience of the American spirit.
I believe, however, that the use of force must be seen as part of a larger discussion about a comprehensive counter-terrorism strategy. Because for all the focus on the use of force, force alone cannot make us safe. We cannot use force everywhere that a radical ideology takes root; and in the absence of a strategy that reduces the well-spring of extremism, a perpetual war – through drones or Special Forces or troop deployments – will prove self-defeating, and alter our country in troubling ways.
So the next element of our strategy involves addressing the underlying grievances and conflicts that feed extremism, from North Africa to South Asia. As we’ve learned this past decade, this is a vast and complex undertaking. We must be humble in our expectation that we can quickly resolve deep rooted problems like poverty and sectarian hatred. Moreover, no two countries are alike, and some will undergo chaotic change before things get better. But our security and values demand that we make the effort.
This means patiently supporting transitions to democracy in places like Egypt, Tunisia and Libya – because the peaceful realization of individual aspirations will serve as a rebuke to violent extremists. We must strengthen the opposition in Syria, while isolating extremist elements – because the end of a tyrant must not give way to the tyranny of terrorism. We are working to promote peace between Israelis and Palestinians – because it is right, and because such a peace could help reshape attitudes in the region. And we must help countries modernize economies, upgrade education, and encourage entrepreneurship – because American leadership has always been elevated by our ability to connect with peoples’ hopes, and not simply their fears.
Success on these fronts requires sustained engagement, but it will also require resources. I know that foreign aid is one of the least popular expenditures – even though it amounts to less than one percent of the federal budget. But foreign assistance cannot be viewed as charity. It is fundamental to our national security, and any sensible long-term strategy to battle extremism. Moreover, foreign assistance is a tiny fraction of what we spend fighting wars that our assistance might ultimately prevent. For what we spent in a month in Iraq at the height of the war, we could be training security forces in Libya, maintaining peace agreements between Israel and its neighbors, feeding the hungry in Yemen, building schools in Pakistan, and creating reservoirs of goodwill that marginalize extremists.
America cannot carry out this work if we do not have diplomats serving in dangerous places. Over the past decade, we have strengthened security at our Embassies, and I am implementing every recommendation of the Accountability Review Board which found unacceptable failures in Benghazi. I have called on Congress to fully fund these efforts to bolster security, harden facilities, improve intelligence, and facilitate a quicker response time from our military if a crisis emerges.
But even after we take these steps, some irreducible risks to our diplomats will remain. This is the price of being the world’s most powerful nation, particularly as a wave of change washes over the Arab World. And in balancing the trade-offs between security and active diplomacy, I firmly believe that any retreat from challenging regions will only increase the dangers we face in the long run.
Targeted action against terrorists. Effective partnerships. Diplomatic engagement and assistance. Through such a comprehensive strategy we can significantly reduce the chances of large scale attacks on the homeland and mitigate threats to Americans overseas. As we guard against dangers from abroad, however, we cannot neglect the daunting challenge of terrorism from within our borders.
Official full transcript of President Obama’s counter-terrorism speech: Remarks by the President at the National Defense University May 23, 2013
Official full transcript of President Obama’s speech on MENA policy: Remarks by the President on the Middle East and North Africa, May 19, 2011
Noam Sheizaf Admitting there is no peace process is the best thing Kerry can do for peace, May 25, 2013
US only country where majority have positive view of Israel Findings on attitudes of Palestinians and Israelis towards US role as peace=broker, among other things.