Barack Obama gives a fine speech. He did it again in occupied Jerusalem. Few can match the US president in wrapping intelligent understanding in the pentameters of poetry. That is why the vaulting rhetoric so often begets disappointment. The words become a substitute for, instead of a prelude to, action.
Leaders divide between those who respect the established parameters of power and politics and those who break out of them. Obama has so far fitted into the first category. For all his eloquence, last week’s trip has shown the limits of US ambition. The Middle East is burning and yet the US president has concluded there is nothing much to be done.
His officials say this is unfair. The effort to repair relations with Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, and to reassure Israelis of America’s unbending commitment to their security was vital groundwork in the effort to restore peace talks with the Palestinians. The task will now be picked up by John Kerry, a Secretary of State eager to navigate the minefield of Middle East diplomacy. That is all very well, but Kerry’s good intentions are worthless if the president is not ready to take risks.
When he spoke to young Egyptians in Cairo four years ago, Obama had offered a persuasive message of reconciliation with the Muslim world. Last week, he addressed Israeli students. The space between the two speeches has not been filled with policy successes. The president had started out promising to revive a moribund peace process, to check Iran’s nuclear programme and to refurbish America’s reputation among Muslims. He could set precisely the same ambitions for his second term.
The White House says that, by speaking directly to Israelis, Obama will gain leverage over Netanyahu. They will be pleased with the audience’s noisy applause for his insistence that the absence of war with the Palestinians is the only true guarantee of Israel’s security. But past presidential visits have usually been framed by more tangible aims. Leverage is useful only if it is put to good purpose.
Netanyahu scarcely disguises his disdain for a two-state agreement — nor, for that matter, for a president he had hoped would lose to Republican Mitt Romney in last November’s election. The Israeli prime minister’s expansion of illegal West Bank colonies is designed to create facts on the ground that forestall the Palestinian state that Obama deems essential to enduring peace.
Most Israeli voters have seemed ready to acquiesce in Netanyahu’s strategy. They may not share the goal of a greater Israel embracing biblical Judea and Samaria, but the turmoil in Syria and in the Arab world beyond has persuaded them that it is too risky to take risks for peace. As for Netanyahu, he has appointed a leading politician from the colonisation movement as housing minister in his new coalition government.
Obama made a different case: That the more dangerous the neighbourhood, the more reason for Israelis to seek an accord with Palestinians. He could have added that, by humiliating the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) led by Mahmoud Abbas, Netanyahu’s policy gives succour to Hamas. He did observe that the colony issue has isolated Israel within the international community.
The imperative, though, is US leadership. Whatever slim hopes of a two-state settlement that now remain will disappear completely without sustained presidential engagement. Unless Obama is prepared to invest his personal authority in the attempt to bring the two sides together, he is simply scattering eloquent phrases on barren ground.
Obama’s broader approach to the Middle East does not give cause for optimism. It mixes hard-headed realism with debilitating fatalism. Once the region’s leading power, the US has opted for observer status. It cannot end the war in Syria, so better to keep out of it. Marching Netanyahu and Abbas to the negotiating table risks expending precious presidential capital, so better not try.
One has always to be careful about castigating the US for stepping back from the Middle East. From its role in ousting an elected government in Iran in the 1950s to its backing for Saddam Hussain in the 1980s to the subsequent invasion of Iraq, Washington’s record in this part of the world has hardly been exemplary. The Sunni-Shiite civil war now raging across the region has left a US president, who champions the advance of democracy, with some pretty authoritarian bedfellows.
Necessary caution, however, is not the same as studied inaction. However much it would like to “pivot” to Asia, the US cannot escape its interests and responsibilities in the region — not least, as Obama reminded the students, its commitment to the security of Israel. Remaining aloof, as the conflict in Syria throws up a new cohort of jihadists with potential access to weapons of mass destruction, carries its own risks. The absence of solid progress towards a Palestinian state will confirm rising anti-Americanism among Muslims that Obama had hoped to counter in Cairo.
The US president, of course, has it in his power to confound the sceptics. He reminded the Iranian regime that he was ready to deploy America’s military might to prevent Tehran building a nuclear bomb. Every conversation I have had with those close to Obama tells me that he is not bluffing. However, there is the puzzle: How could a president with sufficient resolve, if needed, to start a war against Iran fail to invest the power and prestige of his office in the cause of a Middle East peace?