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CFR-Brookings report reveals Obama's Mideast strategy

By MARTIN SIEFF   |   Dec. 3, 2008 at 11:24 AM   |   Comments

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WASHINGTON, Dec. 3 (UPI) -- Israelis and Palestinians alike should be in no doubt. The new report on the Middle East from the Brookings Institution and the Council on Foreign Relations is no mere straw in the wind: It spells out in considerable detail what the Obama administration's strategy and priorities for Iran and the Israeli-Arab peace process are going to be.

The report covers the entire Middle East. But it is notable for its explicit rejection of and reversal from eight years of deliberate neglect of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations by the outgoing administration of current U.S. President George W. Bush.

The report clearly states that Arab-Israeli peacemaking, "after seven years on the back burner of American foreign policy," needs to be a major priority for President-elect Barack Obama when he takes office.

There are many reasons to take these recommendations seriously. First, the Brookings Institution has been for more than half a century the most influential and significant think tank to influence Democratic administrations, especially on foreign policy.

Its chief, Strobe Talbott, was deputy secretary of state in the Clinton administration. Kenneth Pollack, who runs the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, has already forcefully advocated a hands-on U.S. role in reviving the Israeli-Arab peace process and in promoting democracy and human rights throughout the Arab world in his new book, "A Path Out of the Desert." There is strong and enthusiastic agreement on all these issues in the inner circles of the Democratic Party foreign policy establishment.

The fact that the report is a joint effort of Brookings with the Council on Foreign Relations gives it even greater clout. The small but tightly organized and exceptionally influential network of neoconservatives who kept a tight grip on U.S. policymaking in the Middle East for the entire length of the Bush administration are going to be cast into the outer darkness.

If Likud Party leader Binyamin Netanyahu wins the Israeli general election on Feb. 10, as opinion polls indicate he may, he will find his neoconservative allies no longer even have the clout on Capitol Hill that they enjoyed when he was prime minister the last time from 1996 to 1999. The discrediting of the neocons follows the many failures of their policy prescriptions in Iraq. Add to that the virtually rump status to which the demoralized Republican minorities in both houses of Congress have been relegated.

The power of personality also will give a boost to peacemaking diplomacy. Sources in Sen. Hillary Clinton's inner circle have made clear she is eager, as secretary of state, to finish the job her husband, President Bill Clinton, started in his enthusiastic commitment to the seven-year Oslo Peace Process that broke down at the Camp David II summit in 2000.

Former veteran Middle East peace envoy Dennis Ross is expected to hold a senior position in either the State Department or the National Security Council in the Obama administration, and negotiating a compromise peace between Israel and the Palestinians has been his lifelong dream.

Much of the report, however, deals with Iran. Here it is consistent in following the same broad conceptual and strategic approach it applies to the Israel-Arab conflict.

The report suggests a "comprehensive diplomatic initiative to attempt to engage (the United States') most enduring Middle Eastern foe." It also says the approach "should involve direct and unconditional talks" with Iran.

This approach is open to criticisms of naivete. But its advocates counter that the Bush administration failed to significantly slow, let alone stop, the Iranian drive to develop nuclear weapons and long-range missiles to carry them during its two terms in office.

The report's policy recommendations on Iran also will give Obama political cover for implementing his famous campaign rhetoric -- some of which he was castigated for -- in favor of engaging the leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran without preconditions.

The likelihood that this approach actually will get the mullahs in Tehran to change direction, in fact, appears negligible. Their entire diplomatic strategy has consistently been focused on playing for time while they push ahead with their nuclear programs.

Obama's foreign policy team and the liberal think tank establishment serving them will take office filled with energy, confidence and good intentions. But the pattern of history is against them.

Every Democratic president over the past 45 years since Lyndon Baines Johnson has been badly burned in the region. LBJ failed to deter Egypt from militarizing the Sinai Desert in 1967, and he also failed to prevent Israel from destroying the Egyptian army in its famous pre-emptive strike of the 1967 Six Day War.

President Jimmy Carter was so obsessed with brokering the tortuous Israel-Egypt treaty negotiations in 1977-79 that he failed to take the developing Islamic Revolution in Iran seriously until it was too late.

President Bill Clinton's widely praised obsessive involvement in the Oslo Peace Process ultimately broke down and distracted his policymakers from taking the rising threat of al-Qaida sufficiently seriously.

It remains to be seen if Obama and his team, eager to revive and apply all their old orthodoxies, will do any better.

Topics: George Bush
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