President Obama and the Middle East Challenge

By November 6, 2008

BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 50

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Barack Obama’s general outlook on foreign policy is the opposite of George W. Bush’s approach. He has enunciated a clear program for Middle East policy based on multilateralism and negotiations to deal with Iran, Iraq and the Arab-Israeli conflict. In reality he will have to make tough choices about what to prioritize and do when other countries reject the US approach. The most important challenge he faces concerns Iran, rather than the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Obama’s Foreign Policy Outlook

One of the main themes of Obama’s campaign was “change,” including a rejection of George W. Bush’s “ideological” approach to foreign policy, in favor of “pragmatism.” Whereas Bush viewed the world in terms of good and evil and asked countries to choose sides, Obama speaks in terms of bridging divides. In contrast to Bush’s unilateralism, Obama has emphasized the importance of American leadership acting multilaterally, in concert with allies. The Bush Doctrine called for the preventive use of force, while Obama has stressed diplomatic engagement, viewing the use of force as a last resort.


The key dividing line between Obama and Bush is the Iraq War, which Obama opposed. His watchword was pragmatism. He argued that while war was morally justified, Saddam was not an imminent threat, and war would be expensive and not achieve its political objectives. However, Obama also explicitly rejected the anti-imperialist, pacifist language of much of the anti-war movement.

Obama advocates a staged withdrawal of US forces over a period of 18 months, at the end of which the US will retain a military force “over the horizon.” Simultaneously, he plans to push a comprehensive regional and international diplomatic initiative, which includes Syria and Iran, designed to broker an end to civil war in Iraq.

The War on Terror

Obama has argued that the US needs to refocus the war on terror by reinforcing the commitment in Afghanistan and being more proactive vis-?-vis Pakistan. He views Iraq as, at best, a distraction from combating al Qaeda.


Obama recognizes that a nuclear Iran is a major threat to the stability of the Middle East and a global threat to the non-proliferation regime, which he has championed. He has not ruled out the use of force, and he promised both AIPAC and Israeli leaders that he will do everything in his power to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. But his policy is, first and foremost, to vigorously pursue direct negotiations in which he will offer “big carrots and big sticks.”

In terms of carrots, there is talk of a grand bargain which will include the US providing the regime a security guarantee, the opening of normal relations, and economic cooperation. In terms of sticks, Obama has supported a serious ratcheting up of international sanctions, including banning the export of refined petroleum to Iran. One consequence of such a ban could be a naval blockade and ultimately military confrontation.

The Arab-Israeli Arena

Obama differed from the norm for candidates in US elections. His rhetoric was certainly pro-Israel; but it was not uncritical. Overall it resembled the language used by many of Israel’s center-left friends in Europe, such as Tony Blair. Obama praised Israeli democracy, emphasized his commitment to Israel’s security and his support for continued aid to Israel as “one of America’s most important allies.” He also rejects negotiations with Hamas and Hizballah, unless they recognize Israel, abandon terrorism and accept previous agreements.

On the other hand, he came out clearly against settlements and what he termed the “Likud approach” to the peace process. Joe Biden also indicated a willingness to confront the pro-Israel lobby by declaring that AIPAC does not define the meaning of being pro-Israel. In the past, Obama was critical of President Clinton’s closeness to Israel in the peace negotiations and referred to the Second Intifada in terms of a “cycle of violence.”

Obama has promised to make the peace process a “key diplomatic priority”; though he has rejected the idea of an imposed settlement. He views the conflict as a “constant sore” that affects US foreign policy. He argues that the US must work towards a settlement, not only for its own sake, but also because it will assist the war on terror and remove the excuse of Arab regimes for blocking the social, economic, political, and education reforms that are needed to deal with the underlying causes of instability and extremism.

The Importance of Foreign Policy Appointments

Analyzing Obama’s foreign policy program helps us get a sense of his thinking, but it is far from a blueprint for action. There is always a gap between campaign rhetoric and the real business of foreign policy. Obama’s campaign promised to vigorously pursue peace between Israel and the Palestinians based on the two-state solution. But what does this mean in practice? One way of assessing this is by looking at the approach favored by those touted for senior foreign policy appointments.

Broadly speaking there are three approaches to the Arab-Israeli conflict among Obama associates. First, there is the approach of Carter’s former National Security Advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, former Clinton NSC official Rob Malley and Samantha Power. They are generally hostile to Israel and the pro-Israel lobby and favor the view that the US should seek to impose a settlement on Arab terms. This approach has been somewhat marginalized as Malley and Power had to resign from the campaign; though Republican senator Chuck Hagel has also been mentioned as a possible Secretary of State and his record on Israel is quite hostile.

A second approach is exemplified by Dan Kurtzer, the former US ambassador to Israel and Egypt, who believes that the US should vigorously pursue a comprehensive settlement based on the Clinton Parameters of 2000.

Finally, there is the approach of Dennis Ross, who argues that given Hamas’ control of Gaza and other factors, there is currently no prospect for a permanent settlement and consequently the US should focus on improving the situation on the ground through more modest measures such as security cooperation. Ross argues that at present the main priority is Iran.

These different approaches could all find expression in parts of the future Obama administration. In turn, this could lead to bureaucratic in-fighting and consequently policy incoherence, as has frequently occurred in the past.

Facing Reality – Difficult Choices

Reality has a way of forcing a president to make hard choices, by prioritizing some polices over others. Obama’s primary focus is bound to be on ensuring the recovery of the American economy. This might make him more circumspect about using force against Iran, fearing the economic fallout of a rise in oil prices. However, a focus on Iran is preferable, where time is of the essence.

On paper it is possible to pursue a negotiated settlement vis-?-vis Iran, Iraq and the Arab-Israeli conflict simultaneously. In practice, hard choices will have to be made about what is the true priority. Here, it is important for Obama to realize that while containing and managing the Arab-Israeli conflict is a vital US interest, resolution of the conflict is a secondary concern. The US will probably need to engage in peace process diplomacy for a variety of reasons, but the prospects for implementing a workable Israeli-Palestinian final settlement are poor indeed.

Moreover, the central strategic challenge emanates from Tehran, not Jerusalem or Ramallah. This is a message he is bound to hear not only from Israel but also, privately, from America’s Arab allies. A nuclear Iran will trigger the nuclearization of the Middle East more broadly, which could allow radical actors access to these dangerous weapons. Given the past use of non-conventional weapons by Middle East actors and their penchant for using terrorist proxies to preserve deniability, there is no guarantee that deterrence will hold.

If Obama does proceed with his stated policy, he will have to make a stark choice regarding the Russian role on Iran. Obama has taken a tough line against Russian policy in a number of important spheres; yet at the same time he seeks to work with Russia to convince Iran to stop developing nuclear weapons. It is highly unlikely that he can square the circle.

Carrots and Sticks

On a more fundmanetal level there are bigger questions about Obama’s strategy of multilateral engagement. Obama criticized Bush for pursuing a policy based mainly on sticks, but he could have equally criticized Clinton for focusing too much on carrots. Obama seeks to entice Iran and Syria to cooperate by offering them economic and political benefits based on inclusion in the global liberal economic system and an honorable place at the table in a multilateral, but still American-led, global order.

In the past, as part of the carrot for peace, the Syrians and Palestinians were offered aid packages worth tens of billions of dollars by Clinton; yet they refused. At least part of the reason for this is that these authoritarian regimes view economic liberalization and normalization as a threat and not as an opportunity. First, they see it as an ideological threat, as Ayatollah Khomeini once scoffed, “revolution is not about the price of watermelons.” Second, they oppose it because peace, openness and reform threaten their grip on power.

Pradoxically, the only way to make the carrot appetizing is to make the alternative unappealing. In other words, for Obama’s diplomatic engagment to stand a chance of success, it must be backed by the credible threat of a large stick.

The Implications for Israel

There is no doubt that McCain would have been the more comfortable option for Israel. If Netanyahu does form the next Israeli government, there could be difficult times ahead. This has happened previously, when Shamir and Bush Senior, as well as Clinton and Netanyahu, clashed in the 1990s. But this time Netanyahu’s position would be weaker. In the past, Netanyahu was able to work with a Republican-led Congress to thwart a Democratic president hamstrung by political intrigue. This time Obama will have a Democratic-led Congress. In addition, the new dovish “J Street” lobby would support Obama against Netanyahu and would lessen the ability of AIPAC to challenge Obama. On the other hand, Netanyahu, if elected, may well adopt a relatively pragmatic position, and US attention may be focused elsewhere.

More broadly, Obama’s preferences regarding Iran and Iraq have serious implications for Israel. If the US were to leave Iraq unstable, with the perception being one of American weakness and failure, it will strengthen the resolve of all radical forces in the region that threaten Israel and its de facto allies in the Arab world, such as Jordan. Israel also fears that any US-Iranian grand bargain could come at its expense in terms of an arms control regime that could be detrimental to Israel or in terms of American policy on the Palestinian issue. Finally, Israeli is concerned that the Iranians would simply use the dialogue to buy time, as they have done with the Europeans for years.

Still, from Israel’s perspective, a dialogue is not necessarily bad, if only because it is a prequel to building the international support required for a military strike. Even in the event that both the US and Israel decide not to strike Iran, it is unlikely that the US will abandon Israel. Rather, we can expect the US to be drawn into providing a form of extended deterrence to Israel and its Arab allies in the region.


Aside from his policy preferences, Obama’s foreign policy will be dependent on his managerial and decision-making abilities. He is smart and has run a superb campaign, but he lacks experience. The real tests are yet to come, and given the volatility of the Middle East, they will come thick and fast. In such situations, ideologues can fall back on a set of assertions that provide a clear guide for resolving ambiguity; pragmatists have to be more analytical and pay attention to shifting realities. The central challenge for Obama in the Middle East is neither democratization nor securing a comprehensive resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict (though those are worthy long term objectives), but rather the maintenance of a stable pro-American balance of power in the region. First and foremost that means dealing with the Iranian nuclear issue.

BESA Center Perspectives Papers are published through the generosity of the Littauer Foundation

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Prof. Jonathan Rynhold
Prof. Jonathan Rynhold

Dr. Jonathan Rynhold, a senior research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, is a senior lecturer of political studies at Bar-Ilan University, and director of its Argov Center for the Study of Israel and the Jewish People. Email: [email protected]