Date: Wed, Sep 23, 2009 at 12:20 PM
Subject: Exigency in the Middle East
I have had several very thoughtful responses to my suggestion that the concept of a nuclear-weapons-free Middle East might be reconsidered in light of the present impasse in the region. Alas, as expected, all have cited Israel's furious resistance to any thought of even acknowledging the existence of its nuclear arsenal. That well-known reality was, of course, my own point of departure, established up front as a premise underlying any consideration of how to reverse the situation.
I was impressed this morning to hear Barack Obama, addressing the United Nations, identify nuclear arms reduction and non-proliferation as the FIRST of four "pillars" of a new world policy. He called for urgent universal adherence to the NPT, promised reenvigorated efforts by the United States to reach agreement with Russia on substantial reduction of nuclear arsenals, and called on all nations to permit unrestricted inspections the IAEA. Those statements may have been aimed primarily at Iran and North Korea, but they apply equally to players in the Arab-Israeli context. No one could possibly have missed that obvious point.
Then, immediately after giving nuclear arms reduction and non-proliferation the position of highest priority, he pledged to continue a relentless effort to bring about a peace settlement between the "states" of Israel and Palestine.
By so publicly and unequivocally committing himself to two such high-profile policy obligations, especially in combination, Obama has effectively painted himself into a very tight corner. The president is putting his credibility, and that of the United States, squarely on the line. Obama has already lost a great deal of his unique leverage by failing to respond robustly to Netanyahu's disrespectful (almost insolent) rejection of his earnest and very personal request for a freeze on Israeli settlement expansion. Now he has issued an even larger and more conspicuous challenge, issued from the highest possible forum. He's in a desperate position, I believe.
At some point very soon, therefore, Obama will realize that in addition to failing in the immediate context to achieve forward progress on the Israel-Palestine issue, he will, by continued passive acceptance of Israeli rejection, be further squandering his credibility and his political leverage throughout the entire Muslim world --- with all that that will mean in terms of American capabilities to manage effectively other equally urgent crisis situations in Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, etc. Many around the world may conclude that this new president, uplifting as his rhetoric may sound, lacks the fortitude and political courage to uphold his proclaimed goals.
That's a huge price for America to pay just because those who make the most impassioned appeals for international support and protection are unwilling to make a reasonable contribution to a team effort --- one that is being proposed by the single individual most capable of helping them meet their needs.
In short, what Obama will soon be searching for --- desperately --- a specific strategic proposal that recaptures for the United States (and for him personally) the psychological upper hand --- the initiative --- the momentum --- something that is bigger than any one of the little pip-squeak players on the ground like Netanyahu and Ahmedinajad, who are jerking around the President of the United States of America. Stated another way: Obama needs to challenge his political adversaries in the Middle East (a group that includes several very unhelpful Arabs, of course, as well as Netanyahu and Ahmedinajad) to accept or reject a seemingly very rational and pragmatic formula by which each of the parties would commit to a nuclear-free regional compact that gives every one of the countries exactly what it needs most --- a path to lasting security without sacrifice of personal and national dignity.
A nuclear-weapons-free Middle East MIGHT be a way to achieve that objective for the US president. The important thing to focus on is not the predictable negativism of any particular players on the ground, but rather the political and psychological gains that the United States might achieve EVEN IF THE PROPOSAL WERE REJECTED by Iran and Israel. (The Arab states are already on board.)
At the moment, we seem unable to act positively in the face of obdurate resistance from those primary actors who least want to see progress achieved.
As I see it, we have no option, therefore, but to turn the debate on its head --- to capture the political, psychological and moral high ground, and the diplomatic momentum, even if it means proposing something that many might initially dismiss as totally "outside the box".
Otherwise, I see Obama (and America) emerging as impotent failures --- a result that we can ill afford at this dark moment.
The greatest weakness of this suggestion, unfortunately, as so many have observed, lies in the improbability that the Obama Administration could ever overcome the domestic political obstacles that defy that pragmatic calculation. In a word, it is doubtful that this administration could summon the will to implement such a bold strategy.
Let's not, to our grief, discover once again that the enemy is still us.