President Obama spoke on Israeli-Palestinian peace, the Iranian nuclear negotiations, and the Syrian civil war in a wide-ranging interview with The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg conducted on Thursday and released on Sunday afternoon.
After a global economic depression, the turmoil of the Arab Spring, the U.S. military's withdrawal from Iraq, and a catastrophic civil war in neighboring Syria, Obama sees a much different Middle East than when he took office. Perhaps the most significant change is the growing sense of rapprochement between Iran and the great powers as they inch closer to a diplomatic deal on the Islamic Republic's nuclear program. For Obama, this progress comes despite Iran's other activities in the region.
OBAMA: Here’s what I understand. For years now, Iran has been an irresponsible international actor. They've sponsored terrorism. They have threatened their neighbors. They have financed actions that have killed people in neighboring states.
And Iran has also exploited or fanned sectarian divisions in other countries. In light of that record, it’s completely understandable for other countries to be not only hostile towards Iran but also doubtful about the possibilities of Iran changing. I get that. But societies do change -- I think there is a difference between an active hostility and sponsoring of terrorism and mischief, and a country that you’re in competition with and you don’t like but it's not blowing up homes in your country or trying to overthrow your government.
GOLDBERG: And you feel there’s a real opportunity to achieve a genuine breakthrough?
OBAMA: Here’s my view. Set aside Iranian motives. Let’s assume that Iran is not going to change. It’s a theocracy. It’s anti-Semitic. It is anti-Sunni. And the new leaders are just for show. Let’s assume all that. If we can ensure that they don’t have nuclear weapons, then we have at least prevented them from bullying their neighbors, or heaven forbid, using those weapons, and the other misbehavior they’re engaging in is manageable.
If, on the other hand, they are capable of changing; if, in fact, as a consequence of a deal on their nuclear program those voices and trends inside of Iran are strengthened, and their economy becomes more integrated into the international community, and there’s more travel and greater openness, even if that takes a decade or 15 years or 20 years, then that’s very much an outcome we should desire.
Negotiations with Iran are closely linked to another perennial American diplomatic endeavor: resolving the long-standing conflict between Israel and Palestine. Since Obama won re-election over a year ago, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has spearheaded the administration's toughest push yet on advancing the peace process. Kerry's efforts have borne some tentative signs of progress, with a framework accord planned to be announced in the coming weeks.
At times, the Obama administration's increased sense of urgency has caused friction with Israeli officials. Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon publicly apologized in January after telling an Israeli newspaper that Kerry is "acting out of misplaced obsession and messianic fervor." When Kerry warned that boycotts against Israel could intensify without a peace deal, Israeli minister of strategic affairs Yuval Steinitz retorted that Israel "cannot be expected to negotiate with a gun to its head."
GOLDBERG: Let me read you something that John Kerry told the American Jewish Committee not long ago: “We’re running out of time. We’re running out of possibilities. And let’s be clear: If we do not succeed now -- and I know I’m raising those stakes -- but if we do not succeed now, we may not get another chance.” He has also suggested strongly that there might be a third intifada down the road and that if this peace process doesn’t work, Israel itself could be facing international isolation and boycott. Do you agree with this assessment? Is this the last chance?
OBAMA: Well, look, I’m a congenital optimist. And, obviously, this is a conflict that has gone on for decades. And humanity has a way of muddling through, even in difficult circumstances. So you never know how things play themselves out.
But John Kerry, somebody who has been a fierce advocate and defender on behalf of Israel for decades now, I think he has been simply stating what observers inside of Israel and outside of Israel recognize, which is that with each successive year, the window is closing for a peace deal that both the Israelis can accept and the Palestinians can accept -- in part because of changes in demographics; in part because of what's been happening with settlements; in part because Abbas is getting older, and I think nobody would dispute that whatever disagreements you may have with him, he has proven himself to be somebody who has been committed to nonviolence and diplomatic efforts to resolve this issue. We do not know what a successor to Abbas will look like.
I believe that President Abbas is sincere about his willingness to recognize Israel and its right to exist, to recognize Israel’s legitimate security needs, to shun violence, to resolve these issues in a diplomatic fashion that meets the concerns of the people of Israel. And I think that this is a rare quality not just within the Palestinian territories, but in the Middle East generally. For us not to seize that opportunity would be a mistake. And I think John is referring to that fact.
We don’t know exactly what would happen. What we know is that it gets harder by the day. What we also know is that Israel has become more isolated internationally. We had to stand up in the Security Council in ways that 20 years ago would have involved far more European support, far more support from other parts of the world when it comes to Israel’s position. And that’s a reflection of a genuine sense on the part of a lot of countries out there that this issue continues to fester, is not getting resolved, and that nobody is willing to take the leap to bring it to closure.
Another challenge for Obama's efforts toward Israeli-Palestinian peace is his rocky relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (the two leaders are scheduled to meet this week). Netanyahu, who took the helm of the Israeli government for a second time two months after Obama's first inauguration, vowed to "stand steadfast" against "various pressures" on Israel. Speaking with Goldberg, Obama struck an amicable chord.
GOLDBERG: My impression watching your relationship with Netanyahu over the years is that you admire his intelligence and you admire his political skill, but you also get frustrated by an inability or unwillingness on his part to spend political capital -- in terms of risking coalition partnerships -- in order to embrace what he says he accepts, a two-state solution. Is that a fair statement? When he comes to Washington, how hard are you going to push him out of his comfort zone?
OBAMA: What is absolutely true is Prime Minister Netanyahu is smart. He is tough. He is a great communicator. He is obviously a very skilled politician. And I take him at his word when he says that he sees the necessity of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I think he genuinely believes that.
I also think that politics in Israel around this issue are very difficult. You have the chaos that’s been swirling around the Middle East. People look at what's happening in Syria. They look at what’s happening in Lebanon. Obviously, they look at what’s happening in Gaza. And understandably a lot of people ask themselves, "Can we afford to have potential chaos at our borders, so close to our cities?" So he is dealing with all of that, and I get that.
What I've said to him privately is the same thing that I say publicly, which is the situation will not improve or resolve itself. This is not a situation where you wait and the problem goes away. There are going to be more Palestinians, not fewer Palestinians, as time goes on. There are going to be more Arab-Israelis, not fewer Arab-Israelis, as time goes on.
And for Bibi to seize the moment in a way that perhaps only he can, precisely because of the political tradition that he comes out of and the credibility he has with the right inside of Israel, for him to seize this moment is perhaps the greatest gift he could give to future generations of Israelis. But it’s hard. And as somebody who occupies a fairly tough job himself, I’m always sympathetic to somebody else’s politics.
But he also mixed sensitivity with concern. Without a viable peace deal to resolve the West Bank occupation and the status of Palestinians and Arab Israelis, Obama questioned what the long-term effects on Israeli society and political culture would be.
OBAMA: I have not yet heard, however, a persuasive vision of how Israel survives as a democracy and a Jewish state at peace with its neighbors in the absence of a peace deal with the Palestinians and a two-state solution. Nobody has presented me a credible scenario.
The only thing that I've heard is, "We’ll just keep on doing what we’re doing, and deal with problems as they arise. And we'll build settlements where we can. And where there are problems in the West Bank, we will deal with them forcefully. We’ll cooperate or co-opt the Palestinian Authority." And yet, at no point do you ever see an actual resolution to the problem.
It’s maintenance of a chronic situation. And my assessment, which is shared by a number of Israeli observers, I think, is there comes a point where you can’t manage this anymore, and then you start having to make very difficult choices. Do you resign yourself to what amounts to a permanent occupation of the West Bank? Is that the character of Israel as a state for a long period of time? Do you perpetuate, over the course of a decade or two decades, more and more restrictive policies in terms of Palestinian movement? Do you place restrictions on Arab-Israelis in ways that run counter to Israel’s traditions?
This, Obama fears, could weaken Israel's position in future negotiations, especially as Europe and other members of the international community grow increasingly critical of Israeli policies.
OBAMA: Look, sometimes people are dismissive of multilateral institutions and the United Nations and the EU [European Union] and the high commissioner of such and such. And sometimes there’s good reason to be dismissive. There’s a lot of hot air and rhetoric and posturing that may not always mean much. But in today’s world, where power is much more diffuse, where the threats that any state or peoples face can come from non-state actors and asymmetrical threats, and where international cooperation is needed in order to deal with those threats, the absence of international goodwill makes you less safe. The condemnation of the international community can translate into a lack of cooperation when it comes to key security interests. It means reduced influence for us, the United States, in issues that are of interest to Israel. It’s survivable, but it is not preferable.
Whatever cautious optimism Obama has for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and negotiations with Iran did not extend to Syria. Earlier last month, Bashar al-Assad's regime missed a February 5 deadline to transport all of its estimated 1,300-ton chemical weapons stockpile out of the country, with only 11 percent of its chemical-weapons supply moved.
The U.S., which brokered the disarmament deal with Russia last year after a deadly chemical weapons attack killed over 1,000 Syrians in a Damascus suburb, accused the Syrian government of dragging its feet in implementing the deal. Diplomats hammered out a new timetable last week to complete the challenge by August. Obama acknowledged critics of his Syria policy by pointing out the lack of viable alternatives.
GOLDBERG: I was reading your Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech last night, and I wanted to quote one thing you said: “I believe that force can be justified on humanitarian grounds, as it was in the Balkans, or in other places that have been scarred by war. Inaction tears at our conscience and can lead to more costly intervention later.”
I was really struck by that last sentence. I’m wondering at what point in Syria does it become too much to bear? I’m not talking about the bifurcated argument, boots on the ground or nothing, but what does Assad have to do to provoke an American-led military response? Another way of asking this is: If you could roll back the clock three years, could you have done more to build up the more-moderate opposition groups?
OBAMA: I think those who believe that two years ago, or three years ago, there was some swift resolution to this thing had we acted more forcefully, fundamentally misunderstand the nature of the conflict in Syria and the conditions on the ground there.
When you have a professional army that is well-armed and sponsored by two large states who have huge stakes in this, and they are fighting against a farmer, a carpenter, an engineer who started out as protesters and suddenly now see themselves in the midst of a civil conflict -- the notion that we could have, in a clean way that didn't commit U.S. military forces, changed the equation on the ground there was never true.
Obama also challenged the conventional wisdom that Bashar al-Assad and his allies are "winning" the bloody civil war that will enter its third year later this month, with over 200,000 dead and millions displaced.
OBAMA: Over the last two years I have pushed our teams to find out what are the best options in a bad situation. And we will continue to do everything we can to bring about a political resolution, to pressure the Russians and the Iranians, indicating to them that it is not in their interests to be involved in a perpetual war.
I'm always darkly amused by this notion that somehow Iran has won in Syria. I mean, you hear sometimes people saying, "They’re winning in Syria." And you say, "This was their one friend in the Arab world, a member of the Arab League, and it is now in rubble." It’s bleeding them because they’re having to send in billions of dollars. Their key proxy, Hezbollah, which had a very comfortable and powerful perch in Lebanon, now finds itself attacked by Sunni extremists. This isn’t good for Iran. They’re losing as much as anybody. The Russians find their one friend in the region in rubble and delegitimized.
And although Obama concluded the interview with a final note on his administration's policy towards Syria, his words also reflect the broader challenges of U.S. foreign policy in an increasingly unstable world.
There is a great desire not just to stand there, but to do something. We are doing a lot; we have to do more. But we have to make sure that what we do does not make a situation worse or engulf us in yet another massive enterprise at a time when we have great demands here at home and a lot of international obligations abroad.