Mosaic Magazine

What Was He Thinking?

By seeking reconciliation with Iran, Washington alienates its allies and contributes to ever greater mayhem in the Middle East.

  

On Friday July 25, as war raged in Gaza, John Kerry delivered a draft ceasefire agreement to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who then presented it to his security cabinet for consideration. Because the proposal granted Hamas a significant political victory—acquiescing, up front, in a number of the terrorist group’s key demands while failing even to mention Israel’s two primary concerns of infiltration tunnels and rockets—the ministers unanimously rejected it.

When unnamed officials leaked the document to Israel’s habitually left-leaning press, along with an account of the government’s thinking, a firestorm of indignation erupted—not, however, at Netanyahu but at the American Secretary of State. The views of one highly respected journalist were typical. Kerry’s proposal, he wrote, “raises serious doubts over his judgment. . . . It’s as if he isn’t the foreign minister of the world’s most powerful nation but an alien who just disembarked his spaceship in the Middle East.”

The journalist in question, Barak Ravid, is the diplomatic correspondent for Haaretz, the flagship publication of the Israeli Left. Remarkably, Ravid was not alone among his colleagues. Some of the most vituperative attacks on Kerry came from critics of Netanyahu—columnists and others who regard the prime minister’s support for Israeli settlements as the greatest impediment to peace with the Palestinians.

What accounts for this unprecedented show of unanimity? Wartime solidarity, in part—but only in part. No less dismaying to the Israeli Left was the way Kerry’s proposal shunted aside both Egypt and the Palestinian Authority (PA) in a mad rush to embrace Hamas, Turkey, and Qatar as trusted interlocutors. In the eyes of Israeli leftists, the PA and Egypt are essential to a two-state solution of the conflict with the Palestinians, and any proposal that diminishes their standing is ignorant and misguided.

“It’s not clear what Kerry was thinking,” Ravid wrote. Indeed, Kerry’s Israeli critics assumed that he was not thinking at all. One commentator accused him of a “rookie mistake.” But this evaluation assigns responsibility to the wrong man, and incorrectly identifies the nature of the miscalculation. The true architect of the fiasco was not Kerry but President Obama, and the blunder was no tactical mishap. Rather, it was the logical product of a grand strategy, and fits seamlessly into an unmistakably broad pattern.

All across the Middle East, the traditional allies of the United States, just like the Israeli Left, feel that Obama has betrayed them. Egyptians, Saudis, Jordanians, Emiratis, and Turks, despite the very real differences among them, nurture grievances similar in kind to those expressed on the pages of Haaretz. Ravid’s question—“What was Kerry thinking?”—deserves to be recast. It would get closer to the heart of the matter to ask what the president was thinking.

The answer is as simple as it is surprising: the president is dreaming of an historical accommodation with Iran. The pursuit of that accommodation is the great white whale of Obama’s Middle East strategy, and capturing it is all that matters; everything else is insignificant by comparison. The goal looms so large as to influence every other facet of American policy, even so seemingly unrelated a matter as a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas.

 

During the latter decades of the cold war, American presidents developed a strong sense of “our team” and “their team” when it came to the Middle East. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, that attitude persisted—even as “their team” transformed itself from the Soviet camp into Iran’s so-called Resistance Alliance, which includes such otherwise disparate partners and proxies as Syria, Hizballah, and Hamas.

Obama has abandoned that conception entirely. To be sure, he still pays lip service to countering Iran’s malign influence in the region. But in practice, nothing could be farther from his mind. Last January, he offered what is undoubtedly a more accurate account of his thinking when he mused about Iran becoming a stabilizing force in the Middle East. “[I]f we were able to get Iran to operate in a responsible fashion,” he told David Remnick, the editor of the New Yorker, “you could see an equilibrium developing between . . . [Sunni] Gulf states and [Shiite] Iran in which there’s competition, perhaps suspicion, but not an active or proxy warfare.”

Two key assumptions inform this line of reasoning. First, the president posits that Iran is now a defensive power. Holding on for dear life in the volatile Middle East, it has no sustained interest in undermining the United States, which might even serve as its ally in countering Sunni extremism. Second, Hamas and Hizballah are similarly defensive—and ready, under the right circumstances, to moderate their aggressive hostility.

In brief, President Obama now thinks of the region’s politics in terms of a roundtable. Everyone seated at it is potentially equal to everyone else, and the job of the United States is to narrow the gaps among antagonists in an effort to bring the system to the desired state of “equilibrium.” It was precisely this concept that informed American diplomacy over the Gaza ceasefire. Although the administration was quickly forced to backpedal and abandon its proposal in the face of opposition from Israel, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, the incident illustrated starkly how its Ahab-like fixation on a grand bargain with Iran has created a culture that makes stiffing American allies just a normal part of doing business.

Is it necessary to point out that those allies see the politics of the region very differently? They envisage not a round table but, at best, a rectangular one, with their team sitting on one side and Iran and its proxies on the other. They expect the United States either to join their side or to tilt heavily in their favor.

They also see something else: the complex and multiform divisions on the ground that make the Middle East so challenging. In addition to the rift between Iran and its opponents, there also exists a rivalry between those states, preeminently Turkey and Qatar, that support the Muslim Brotherhood and those, preeminently Egypt and Saudi Arabia, that oppose it. Because Hamas is both an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood and a proxy of Iran, these two rivalries have intersected in the Gaza war—which is why, in the eyes of Egyptian and Saudi leaders, Hamas represents a double threat. Even though the spectacle of a Jewish military victory over a Palestinian adversary is profoundly unpopular on their own streets, they are eager to see Israel crush that threat.

When John Kerry developed his ceasefire proposal, he largely ignored all this, and particularly the preferences of Riyadh and Cairo. Not only was he enhancing Hamas’s power and prestige but, through his courtship of Turkey and Qatar, he was also offering it a path out from under the thumb of the Egyptians. Still worse, Kerry’s proposal was a windfall for the Iranians, who have played an indispensable role in building Hamas’s military machine and who, even as Kerry was working to settle the conflict, egged Hamas on against Israel. Whether Kerry consciously intended to benefit Iran is immaterial. The roundtable approach to Middle East problems, the fruitless search for equilibrium, automatically works to Iran’s advantage.

 

No wonder, then, that Obama’s policies are in a shambles. It is impossible to succeed in the Middle East without partners, and so long as he remains bent on empowering Iran and its proxies (who, for their part, continue to make no secret of their loathing for the United States), America’s traditional allies will withhold their own support for Washington’s initiatives. This fact raises a question: when it finally becomes obvious not only that the president’s policy will never work but that it has, in fact, contributed to producing ever greater mayhem and carnage in the region, will he reverse field? 

The answer is no. Early on his presidency, perhaps even before he was inaugurated, Obama resolved that he would be remembered in history for pulling the United States back from the Middle East—for ending wars, not starting them. The roundtable approach is his scenario for what should replace the American-led order of yesteryear. To admit that an equilibrium with Iran is a chimera—and that instead of ending wars he has helped prolong and multiply them—would be tantamount to renouncing his cherished legacy.

The president has already displayed an extremely high tolerance for turmoil in the Middle East, and he will display an even higher one before entertaining the notion that his strategy is profoundly misconceived. “Apparently,” Obama said in a recent press conference, “people have forgotten that America, as the most powerful country on earth, still does not control everything around the world, and so our diplomatic efforts often take time. They often will see progress and then a step backward. That’s been true in the Middle East.”

Our current step backward will undoubtedly last for at least two more years—at untold cost to the region, to us, and to “our team.” As Libya crumbles, Syria and Gaza burn, and the “caliphate” leaves a trail of headless corpses from Baghdad to Damascus, more rivers of blood will flow. America’s allies are on their own. 

_______________

Michael Doran, a senior fellow of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, is a former deputy assistant secretary of defense and a former senior director of the National Security Council in the George W. Bush administration. He is finishing a book on Eisenhower and the Middle East. He tweets @doranimated.

Comments

  • Beatrix17

    The Mideast is important because of oil and whether we personally depend on this supply or not, our allies do. Iran, one of the most modern countries in the world under the detestable Shah, has now reverted to the Middle Ages. If, as is probable, oil ceases to be necessary sometime in the 21st century, and the Middle East becomes a giant maw of neediness, we will have armed one of the most backward countries in the world with the most powerful weapon known to mankind.

  • Raymond_in_DC

    A fine explication of a critical element in the thinking driving US policy in the region, but it overlooks yet another flawed conception: that “political Islam” is a viable alternative to “violent Islam”. As a way of eliminating the motivation for “violent extremism,” Obama has encouraged their political path to power.

    Thus, for example, we see Obama’s embrace of increasingly Islamist Turkey as a model of how Islam can coexist with democracy – never mind the jailing of journalists and the open anti-Semitism. A Muslim Brotherhood-led Egypt, they hoped, would adopt that Turkish model. The Brotherhood were operating according to their own designs, of course, which sparked massive opposition. When they were overthrown, the US tried to bring them back.

    Consider too the ongoing hope that Hizbullah would become just another political party in Lebanon and, more recently, the implicit embrace of the Palestinian “unity” government including Hamas. The US, we learned, would continue its financial support and only judge that new arrangement by their actions over time. (Yes, they think Hamas too can be tamed by political participation.)

    What ties Hamas, Qatar, and Turkey together is the Muslim Brotherhood, while Egypt today symbolizes the anti-Brotherhood. The abortive Kerry play would have strengthened the former while weakening the latter – which is why so many in the region were so vocal in opposing it. So far, unfortunately, the US is more inclined to accusing Israel of “insulting” the US by its criticism than learning from the experience.

  • Harry Taft

    When the voters elect, and then reelect, a President who is so far out of the mainstream of American political thought as to easily qualify for the appellation, radical, his Administration will obviously do things very differently from all his predecessors. Whatever you think of past Presidents: Bush, Clinton, Carter, Ford and all the others as far back as Washington, one thing they all shared in common, was a love of this country. In President Obama you have someone who sees the country as the cause of untold world problems. This as a result of a narrative he has been taught all of his life by people on the margins of political thought in the United States. His objectives in many important areas where the President wields great power, are likely different than would be any previous officeholder. If we don’t want radical answers to questions important to us, we shouldn’t elect radical politicians.

    • Archie1954

      Why do you think that acknowledging the truth of the horrors your country has done in order to prevent them from happening again is somehow not love? I think you are dead wrong! Only someone who truly loves his nation will show the people what any number of other US administrations have done in the World, without mincing words and ask them if it shouldn’t stop!

      • Beatrix17

        Sure if you’re on the left and see your country as imperial, you have to apologize. I’m not and I don’t. In fact, I’ve been here long enough to be aware of America’s greatness. Lincoln had to change his thinking and the country’s thinking completely, though it was mid-century. Now we need someone to take us into the 21st century—we’ve been in the 1960s
        too long. No one waiting in the wings seems particularly great, and
        Rand Paul worries me, but by 2016, someone may be ready and we may be ready for him/her.

  • Lucien Wilbanks

    Liberals cannot tell the difference between a feeling and a thought. Ask them what they think and they respond with “I feel that……” Therefore trying to apply logic to their actions is a waste of time.

  • Scorebear

    Sadly, I must agree with this analysis. Although the Bush 42 presidency had its own share of delusional thinking and delusional thinkers (Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Bremer, to name just three), and also inadvertently empowered Iran by destroying Sunni Iraq, by the end of his second term, Bush had, more or less, corrected course. I’m afraid Obama is dug in on his approach, despite the serial failures he has encountered. He seems focused on his legacy, which, I’m afraid, is a deal with Iran; and despite the rhetoric, he may not truly believe that no deal is better than a bad deal.

    • Beatrix17

      The problem is that Iraq wasn’t Sunni, it was Shiite ruled by an unpopular Sunni leader who was making incursions into his neighbor’s land for their oil. Trying to judge the Mideast’s politics by its religious preference is like judging Christian Europe by whether a country is predominantly Catholic or Protestant. By that reasoning Nazi Germany was okay because it was Protestant—it was the Catholics who caused all the trouble with the inquisition.

  • jobardu

    Excellent analysis. It was hard for me to have any non-paranoid idea about why Obama was backing Islamists like Morsi, the Brotherhood and Iran. Doran’s model at least makes sense on some level. It makes Obama seem human, profoundly naive, weak and ignorant of history or geopolitics, but at least human. I wonder what the media’s excuse is?

  • Arup_2

    “What was he thinking?” – First, about Afghanistan.

    Let’s be honest. We know now that US has to be in Afghanistan – labelled as “token presence” – for a long long and long time and we need a supply route that bypasses the tribal regions of Pakistan. The western supply route via Iranian ports on the Gulf taking a highway to Kabul is the safer and faster way.

    …. except we do not have a diplomatic relationship with Iran.

    Secondly, despite whatever people say, Iran is far far ahead technologically and manpower wise than Saudi and other erstwhile convenient allies. With US energy self-sufficiency – both conventional and sustainable – the convenience is gone. Saudis and Pakistan are the real centers of terrorism today.

    Yes. Saudi led Arab order and Pakistan is worried that USA is tilting towards Iran & India.

    Finally, Kerry knows that the real reason of the Gaza war is the blockade and the “open air prison”. The party that fights for it gets the support. It really does not matter if it is Hamas, the Islamist or Jamas, the neo-liberal, or Kamas, the communist. All that matters is removal of blockade.

    That alone will bring in lasting peace. Anything else one is duping oneself!

    So the deeper answer to “What was Kerry thinking?” is…

    … “He was thinking!”

    • mark abrams

      The US doesn’t have to be in Afganistan at all and Obama is committed to leaving completely within 2 years.

      Iran is a is hardly a technological marvel. It was fought to a standstill by Iraq which was no technological powerhouse either. The Saudis buy the tech they need, Iran just lies about theirs. As an example the mig-29 and F14 fighters that Iran cant even maintain (their aircraft fall out of the sky quite often) are definitely NOT technologically superior to the Suadis’ F15s , quite the contrary. Also Iran has the lowest rate of population growth in the middle east, far below replacement rates.

      If the gaza war was about an open air prison (a nonsense hamas propaganda meme) then why not negotiate with Egypt to open it border ? The reason is the same as that which requires Israel to only allow through non-military materials. That is because Hamas is attacking Egyptian force at the same time it is attacking Israel, both by kidnapping/murders and rockets. Allowing through military supplies just means more rockets into Israel and more attacks on Egyptian border positions, so that is never going to happen.

      When all your presumptions are false it is hardly surprising that your conclusions are garbage.

    • invention13

      “We know now that US has to be in Afghanistan ”
      Really? I don’t know any such thing.

      Also, you mention the blockade of Gaza – I take it this was also a fiendishly clever way of pressuring the Egyptians as well?

  • moderate Guy

    Bimbo Johnny Kerry, “thinking”??? That’s funny, dude.

  • Realist

    While President Obama is not a Muslim, his father was and named him for Husayn ibn Ali, whose first name is sometimes spelled Hussein. When viewed in light of his father’s background, it is not a surprise that he supports Iran as a Shia over those of the Sunni nations.

  • DMH

    An administration so hell bent on an accommodation with Iran will certainly look the other way while Iran acquires nuclear weapons. That is not “accommodation,” it is the beginning of a nuclear arms race in the middle east. What could possibly go wrong?

    • rampantlion

      The media rarely mentions this. If Iran becomes a nuclear state, the Saudis, Turks and Egyptians will also seek nuclear weapons. It is sad when we are debating whether Obama is merely a naive fool…or, because no one could be THAT incompetent, he is pursuing an anti-American (and anti-ally) strategy.

  • Metatrona

    You cannot negotiate with people who want to murder you. That’s not the way it works. HELLO, IT’S TIME TO WAKE UP!

  • KoolAid

    “As Libya crumbles, Syria and Gaza burn, and the “caliphate” leaves a trail of headless corpses from Baghdad to Damascus, more rivers of blood will flow. America’s allies are on their own. ”

    Sounds like fun, let the games begin!!

  • Andrew Allison

    John Kerry thinking? Surely you jest. Like his boss, he has no idea what’s going on in the real world.

    • Mojo

      I think they do know what they’re doing, as the author describes.

  • Beatrix17

    Eisenhower rebuked Israel, England and France and later admitted his actions in the Mideast was the policy that he was the most ashamed of.

  • jalee

    Your first mistake is to believe that they are thinking!

  • Beatrix17

    Like many of your readers, I agreed with Harry Taft’s deleted letter. Obama is a familiar radical and his attempts to arm Iran with the bomb (while saying he’s not going
    to arm Iran) could destroy Israel. His approach to the war in Gaza—agreeing that Israel has the right to fight back while criticizing every move Israel made—was radical.

    Europe gets the message and was unashamedly critical of Israel—they sense Obama’s hostility and no one wants to get too close to Israel. Every normal military move Israel made was criticized as though it was an act of terror.

    Liberals are stuck in the 1960s, but instead of attacking America for being in Vietnam, they attack Israel for being in Gaza. Instead of supporting black people fighting for
    their rights under MLK, a great man, they support the West Bank and Gaza under that fatuous little propagandist Abbas and a terrorist group with no purpose except Israel’s destruction.

  • Barry M. Watson

    ‘It’s as if he isn’t the foreign minister of the world’s most powerful nation but an alien who just disembarked his spaceship in the Middle East.
    I presume that this worry would be that the ‘Alien’ would actually judge the situation in a fair and unbiased way! Not in the usual partial pro Israel way the US has conducted its foreign policy since 1948!

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