The year 2010 is going to be interesting. Well, all years in the Middle East are interesting; many of them are far too interesting.
For the Obama Administration, I’m going to predict, it will not be a fun year. True, the best face will be put on things. Since it is protected-perhaps next year to a lesser degree–by the media, the administration has a special advantage over its predecessors. Yet there are two huge and two potentially serious problems which it cannot solve.
The first unsolvable problem is the Arab-Israeli conflict. Last January, President Barack Obama promised a quick solution to the issue. Then he promised that an Israeli freeze of construction on settlements would lead to a diplomatic breakthrough. A few months later, he promised he’d get some Arab concessions in response to an Israeli freeze. In September he promised that final status negotiations would begin in two months.
None of these things happened.
In fact, Obama’s policy sabotaged progress. After all, if he was bashing Israel to some extent and demanding a freeze, why should the Palestinians give Israel a way out by negotiating and accept anything less than a total freeze? U.S.-Israel relations have now improved considerably and are good, but there’s no talks going on because the Palestinian Authority is saying “no.”
Remember in his Cairo speech, Obama said the Palestinian situation was “intolerable.” The Palestinians disagree with him. They know they are doing pretty well materially, the world is criticizing Israel, and they don’t have to make any concessions.
But here’s where it gets interesting: there is a very serious prospect of no direct or any serious Israel-Palestinian negotiations during all of 2010. And in late September, Israel’s ten-month freeze ends. No progress, no continued freeze.
There is literally no way out for the Obama Administration. The only route to getting talks is either to get more unilateral concessions from Israel (isn’t going to happen) or to pressure the Palestinian Authority (also isn’t going to happen). Checkmate; deadlock; no way out.
The Obama Administration is not likely to say: We were wrong. This is tougher than we thought. Nor are they probably going to put the issue on the back burner openly. Nor are they going to criticize the Palestinian Authority. So they will pretend to be working hard, sending their envoy zipping around, looking for some opening to leap into action. But isn’t this going to be pretty obviously a charade? Well, only if the media wants to say so.
Then there’s Iran. Originally, the administration was going to increase sanctions in September. That was moved back to the end of December. Now it is too late to meet that deadline. At best, we are going to see negotiations in January and maybe-maybe-increased sanctions in February. But who knows?
That’s not all. The administration keeps pretending that it has China and Russia on board for sanctions. Anyone who actually reads Chinese and Russian statements should know this is untrue. Can this be kept secret for very long in 2010? Either there will be no sanctions, ridiculously weak sanctions or sanctions without these two. Once again, there is no way out for the administration from looking like a failure.
And by the end of the year or earlier it will be clear that any sanctions applied aren’t working. The year 2010 is the make or break year for stopping Iran. Not hard to guess which it will be.
I’m not chortling over this as I’d greatly prefer the administration would be brilliantly successful in bringing peace-a good one, of course, not just any deal-and ensuring Tehran didn’t get nuclear weapons. But it’s not going to happen.
Two other issues may cause problems but are not likely to bring benefits in 2010, though they are designed to bring political dividends for when Obama is up for reelection in 2012. Iraq will be a headache if the Iranians decide, in part due to their more belligerent mood and as a response to sanctions, to escalate the violence. Syria, unhappy that the United States has not caved in to them, may also do so. This could lead to higher casualties making the troop withdrawal look either like running away or at least ineffective.
The same basic point holds for Afghanistan, where Obama’s version of the surge will be in full implementation. The Taliban might decide to make America look defeated; Pakistan isn’t going to help. Again, there could be high U.S. casualties and the appearance of failure.
Then there’s the chance that Obama’s vaunted popularity will crack. Palestinians will claim he isn’t giving them everything for nothing; Iran, Syria, Hamas, and Hizballah will try to make short work of making America look bad. What if, for example, Obama has to veto some far-out UN Security Council resolution that, for example, demands that Israel return to the 1967 borders? Maybe he’ll be able to get it watered down but that could happen.
There’s always the chance of a major terrorist attack against some American target succeeding.
In short, 2010 does not look good at all for Obama. Is there any chance of a big success in the region for him? (Your eyes dart around the room trying to think of something. Finally, you give up and give the inevitable answer.) No.
The most critical question of all is whether the administration will learn from its experience. There are a lot of mistaken conceptions to learn from:
The Palestinians aren’t desperate to make peace. Moving away from Israel doesn’t bring you any material gains and indeed makes it even harder to get progress toward peace. Arab states won’t help you. They aren’t going to lift a finger to stop Iran while demanding you do so. Engaging Iran and Syria doesn’t work. Being popular among Muslims and Arabs is a fragile thing and doesn’t get you much more than a cup of coffee when you visit the Saudi king. Apologizing makes you look weak and everyone will then take advantage of you. Shall I go on?
Usama bin Ladin says that everyone wants to bet on the strong horse. Obama’s policy makes America look like a dead horse. And, yes, Middle East dictatorships and revolutionary Islamist groups love flogging a dead horse.
Shall Obama hope that 2011 comes fast? Well, that’s the year Iran will probably get nuclear weapons.