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Obama Trapped Behind Wall of Mideast Containment

It's the Iranians, stupid.

| Tue Oct. 6, 2009 6:25 PM EDT

This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

Damn the Iranians and full speed ahead. That was the U.S. policy in the Middle East. But the waters have proved treacherous, with torpedoes everywhere. Despite an initial hopeful sit-down with Iranian negotiators, this won't be the October the White House wanted on the foreign policy front. By now, Barack Obama was supposed to have announced—with ruffles and flourishes—the beginning of Middle East peace talks, leading to a final status agreement by 2012. But something didn't happen.

Israel didn't heed Obama's demand to stop all settlement expansion in the West Bank. So Obama didn't stick to that demand, settling instead for a temporary freeze after a spate of new building. The Palestinians, buoyed by Obama's initial strong stance on the settlements, refused to negotiate until Israel stopped all construction. Other Arab nations didn't offer Israel nearly as many concessions as the U.S. administration was demanding. Undermined by all that didn't happen, the president had nothing of substance to announce.

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What went wrong? The heart of the problem was not Israel's supposed power over U.S. policy. The U.S. still has plenty of leverage over the Israelis and everyone else in the region. Israeli columnist Nahum Barnea is right: "Everyone depends on America, its money, its military aid, and its moves vis-à-vis Iran."

But it is precisely those U.S. moves, meant to contain the power of Iran, that are the main stumbling block on the path to a U.S.-brokered two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Middle East is a textbook example of the perils of containment.

The Ghost Of Cold War Past

If Obama's troubles keep him awake late at night, he may hear the ghostly voices of past presidents echoing down the White House hallways—Bill Clinton saying, "I tried to get the Israelis and Palestinians together, too. It's a bitch," or Dwight D. Eisenhower recalling (as he once wrote to a friend) that he felt "forced to give constant attention... to problems that defy solution."

The loudest voice of all, though, may come from the ghost of the Cold War, whose spirit of containment still haunts the White House and shapes foreign policy decisions every day.

The drive for containment of "the commies" created problems that defied solution. After all, containment meant maintaining total control over the global chess board, always making exactly the right move at exactly the right time. The task was, quite literally, a mission impossible. Eisenhower revealed why when, resorting to the imagery of his era, he described the American "wall of containment" to his National Security Council as a "free world dike" holding back the rising "red tide." When that dike got "leaky," he said, the U.S. had to "put a finger in" rather than "let the whole structure be washed away."

As any high school physics student knows, plugging that dike with your finger merely increases the pressure somewhere else, inevitably leading to yet another crack. In other words, containment turned the U.S. into Sisyphus, laboring at a task that never ends.

As Obama and his advisors make policy for "the greater Middle East"—that huge swath of mostly Muslim lands from Somalia to Pakistan—they are guided by a regional version of containment, with Iran as its object. The longer the Israelis occupy Palestine, the more Iranian leaders profit by riding a wave of anti-Israeli fervor throughout the area. Hence, the big push for a negotiated peace.

Yet the first move in that push—the demand that Israel freeze settlement expansion—set off a whole new series of stresses and strains.

After all, the U.S. relies on Israel as a major weapon in its Iranian containment policy. It also relies on that weapon being under U.S. control, so that just the right pressure can be exerted on the Iranian leadership by making just the right threatening gestures to Teheran at just the right moment (without, of course, letting the Israelis actually act upon those threats, which would create chaos and mayhem in the region).

When the administration's freeze demand triggered right-wing outrage in Israel, Netanyahu turned his threats on Washington: If the demand persisted, it could bring down his government, he claimed, leaving no one holding the trigger on the necessary weapon of containment or (even worse) running the risk that some crazy leader might grab the weapon and actually pull the trigger.

So the U.S. backed off a total freeze and, according to one Israeli report, promised to deal with "Iran first... The Palestinians will have to wait their turn and pass the time in empty talks until Iran is restrained."

But the U.S. moves to shore up the Israeli part of its containment wall only created a new crisis elsewhere—in this case, with the West Bank Palestinian government headed by Mahmoud Abbas. His appointed role is to make his Fatah-led regime strong enough to keep Hamas out of power and out of any negotiations, since Hamas is seen as a proxy for Iran. Whether that perception is accurate hardly matters to policymakers. In the game of containment, perceptions are the realities that matter most.

In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, perceptions are the most important realities, too. As recent research shows, majorities on both sides are not as concerned about gaining substantive political and economic advantages as they are about inflicting symbolic defeats on the other side. Anything that looks like a victory, especially in intangible matters of prestige and pride, is a victory.

If Abbas accedes to U.S. demands to negotiate at a moment when Israel is rebuffing the U.S. on the freeze, he will look like a loser. That will make him a loser and so, by default, Hamas will be the obvious winner.

Abbas has already created that impression in some circles simply by agreeing to meet with Obama and Netanyahu, offering the Israeli leader a "tentative handshake" at the U.N. "The whole process has lost [Abbas] a lot of credibility with the Palestinian people," said veteran Palestinian diplomat Hanan Ashrawi. "For Palestinians it's very important that our leadership not constantly be the one to give in." "How will anyone from now on take him seriously?" another Palestinian official asked.

To answer that question Abbas, the designated agent of U.S. interests in Palestine, only has to look at other leaders who have been assigned the same role: Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Afghan President Hamid Karzai. They have both been holding on to power by publicly rebuffing the U.S., thus laying claim to independence and turning anti-American sentiment in their countries to their advantage. Why shouldn't Abbas do the same?

The Obama administration might be tempted to buy further concessions from Abbas by strengthening the hand of General Keith Dayton, who oversees the training of the Palestinian security forces that keep Hamas suppressed on the West Bank. However, what many Palestinians scornfully call "the Dayton government" is already unpopular. Giving it more power could easily boost the political fortunes of Hamas.

So the U.S. has to stand by, watching Abbas stiffen his spine and negotiate with Hamas, while hoping he doesn't emulate al-Maliki's game of cozying up to the Iranians as a counterweight to the Americans.

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