How Obama's Recent Speeches Complicate American Foreign Policy

The troubling implications for the United States in Egypt, in Libya, and on the Israel-Palestine question


Reuters/Jonathan Ernst

Barack Obama's liberal supporters have frequently criticized the president for what they perceive as undue silence on the domestic issues that so define their -- and his -- political priorities. How strange it is, then, that in the arena in which the president's expertise is most visibly lacking, he is disturbingly verbose. The most recent example of an overeager clumsiness is the bomb he has tossed into the long-standing feud between Israel and the Palestinians. But it is not the first mistake he has made in the region.

The Middle East is awash in turmoil. It has come to be known as the "Arab Spring," although whether the events will turn out to be spring or winter is still unclear, and what has been described as a succession of pro-democracy uprisings could yet turn out, as so many have, to be, at a domestic level, the mere trading of one oppression for another.

Rather than watching events unfold, however, the president, confident in his own analytical insights and persuasive abilities, wades in and takes us with him. In Egypt, with Hosni Mubarak agreeing to step down at the end of his current term and take his heir-apparent son with him (which would have allowed time for Egyptians to develop a new constitutional system), the president, at a time when a little public silence would have been appropriate, took to the airwaves to declare that "soon" was not good enough. Mubarak had to step down immediately. Demonstrators, emboldened, again took to the streets, new violence erupted, and Mubarak left behind a vacuum -- the filling of which remains up for grabs, and along with it, Egypt's role as the champion of peaceful Arab-Israeli relations.

Some have expressed a fear that, if given time, Mubarak would have rebuilt his base, crushed the movement, and reneged on his promise. That would not have happened. I have traveled frequently to Egypt and have met on a regular basis with top members of an Egyptian military that is heavily dependent on U.S. support. A president willing to operate with more diplomacy and less verbosity would have simply extracted -- in private -- a commitment from the Egyptian army to ensure that (a) Mubarak would indeed step down, and (b) the country's policies toward Israel would remain unchanged. Instead we are left with uncertainty.

We are at war now in Libya (I know, I know -- it's supposedly not a war, although when American forces fire weapons at members of another country's military, a war is exactly what it is). It is a war the president has taken us into without authorization from the Congress, which under the Constitution is the only body with the right to commit the United States to war. We are at war in Libya because a force about which we know little rose up in protest against the country's dismal dictator, Muammar Qaddafi, about which little good can be said. No sane person will miss Qaddafi if he is forced to relinquish power and disappear from the international stage. But even though Americans of all political stripes rightly despise Qaddafi, until the actual day of U.S. intervention, no president, including this one, had ever declared that he had to go, that he had to go immediately, and that it was our mission to make sure it happened. This is what is known as flying by the seat of one's pants, making up policy as we go.

At this point it would be appropriate, perhaps, to make note of the other "seat-of-the-pants" policies we seem to be following -- war here, sanctions there, silence elsewhere -- but the most recent stumble demands attention.

There is no question that peace, justice, stability, etc., all demand an end to the ongoing crisis/conflict/standoff between Israel and its Palestinian neighbors. Israel has legitimate concerns. How does a country relax its security protocols when surrounded by neighbors whose simple bottom line toward Israelis is: We want your country destroyed and we want you dead? Yet, even as a strong defender of Israel, I have seen, on my frequent visits to Israel and the Palestinian territory, the fences that bisect the property of Palestinian farmers, the checkpoints that make travel difficult, the everyday uncertainties that cause Palestinians to store water in rooftop tanks to protect against cutoffs. Negotiation, and the eventual creation of separate side-by-side countries, is essential.

President Obama has now stepped into this difficult quandary. But he has done so by undermining the Israelis with an insistence on setting the pre-1967 borders as the basis for negotiation. He claims that land swaps to account for Israel's growth in the intervening years will adjust those borders, but on Monday, a top Palestinian official made clear that Palestinians would agree to only the most minimal swaps and insist on borders almost exactly like those that left Israel vulnerable to its powerful neighbors. The president, convinced of his own infallible insights, demanded negotiations and undermined them at the same time. What was required was naming a new American representative to replace the retiring George Mitchell, devising packages to entice both sides back to the bargaining table, and doing so without staking out a position that would tilt the balance of the talks (Obama did not, for example, insist on the Palestinian authority breaking its newly formed ties with Hamas, a terrorist organization, or step back from its "right-of-return" demands, or declare its commitment to Israel's survival).

I do not question the president's desire to do good. But humility is an asset. Rhetorical skill is a powerful tool, but sometimes silence is golden.