Walter Russell Mead does the honors:
I had never thought there were many similarities between the pleasure-loving Charles II of England and the more upright Barack Obama until this week. Listening to his speeches on the Middle East at the State Department, US-Israel relations at the AIPAC annual meeting and most recently his address to the British Parliament the comparison becomes irresistible.
“Here lies our sovereign king,” wrote the Earl of Rochester about King Charles:
Whose word no man relies on.
Who never said a foolish thing
Or ever did a wise one.
This seems to capture President Obama’s Middle East problems in a nutshell. The President’s descriptions of the situation are comprehensive and urbane. He correctly identifies the forces at work. He develops interesting policy ideas and approaches that address important political and moral elements of the complex problems we face. He crafts approaches that might, with good will and deft management, bridge the gaps between the sides. He reads thoughtful speeches full of sensible reflections.
But the last few weeks have cast him as the least competent manager of America’s Middle East diplomatic portfolio in a very long time. He has infuriated and frustrated long term friends, but made no headway in reconciling enemies. He has strained our ties with the established regimes without winning new friends on the Arab Street. He has committed our forces in the strategically irrelevant backwater of Libya not, as he originally told us, for “days, not weeks” but for months not days.
Where he has failed so dramatically is in the arena he himself has so frequently identified as vital: the search for peace between Palestinians and Israelis. His record of grotesque, humiliating and total diplomatic failure in his dealings with Prime Minister Netanyahu has few parallels in American history. Three times he has gone up against Netanyahu; three times he has ingloriously failed. This last defeat — Netanyahu’s deadly, devastating speech to Congress in which he eviscerated President Obama’s foreign policy to prolonged and repeated standing ovations by members of both parties — may have been the single most stunning and effective public rebuke to an American President a foreign leader has ever delivered.
Netanyahu beat Obama like a red-headed stepchild; he played him like a fiddle; he pounded him like a big brass drum. The Prime Minister of Israel danced rings around his arrogant, professorial opponent. It was like watching the Harlem Globetrotters go up against the junior squad from Miss Porter’s School; like watching Harvard play Texas A&M, like watching Bambi meet Godzilla — or Bill Clinton run against Bob Dole.
Ouch. This seems rather harsh to me; while I believe that President Obama should not have made an unofficial American commitment to the restoration of 1967 borders into official American policy–such a move interferes with the ability of the parties themselves to come to an agreement that does not get attacked by some because it might not meet specific official American foreign policy demands–I don’t think that his call for the 1967 borders to be restored is the world’s biggest deal. People know that the U.S. has long been in favor of a peace agreement that would pretty much bring back the 1967 borders. But Mead is right in stating that American policy regarding the Middle East has become something of a muddled mess thanks to the Administration’s misadventures in Libya–misadventures that continue without any semblance of Congressional authorization, and with a continued refusal to engage the American people on the issue, and to garner their support for American military operations. And the fact that the President has been so publicly outmaneuvered by Prime Minister Netanyahu during the latter’s visit to the United States only serves to further undercut any impression that the Obama Administration has a good handle on what is going on in the Middle East.
To be sure, Netanyahu didn’t necessarily endear himself to a lot of people thanks to some overly tough talk in his joint photo op with the President. He should have sought to publicly minimize any differences with the Obama Administration, and should save saved his full and frank discussions on the matter for meetings behind closed doors. That would have prevented Israel’s enemies from being able to use any public split between the United States and Israel to further their own purposes. But there is no doubt that Netanyahu won the public battle with the Obama Administration during his time in the United States. And no, that has nothing to do with any Israel Lobby, or any pro-”Likudnik” sentiments in the United States, or any supposedly “non-patriotic” sentiment on the part of American legislators that has them cheering Netanyahu more than they cheer President Obama when the latter addresses Congress. Rather, it has to do with the fact that the Obama Administration’s Middle East policy has just not been all that impressive. And while Mead may be too harsh on the President in some respects, when it comes to the basics of his analysis, he is on the mark. As Mead alludes to, the only victory the Obama Administration has had in the Middle East is the killing of Osama bin Laden. A big deal, to be sure, but even that big deal now appears to be fading.