Show Me the Strategy

05/20/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Steve Clemons Washington Editor at Large of The Atlantic and founder and senior fellow of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation.

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According to the Washington Post's Glen Kessler, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a surprising comment to the BBC this week. She said that the recent US-Israel confrontation was "paying off."

This would imply that the public declarations on both sides of the relationship being at historic lows was more John Bolton-like bluster deployed tactically to try and win some leverage rather than a real break. If someone in outer space was feeling really generous toward the Obama administration, one might even consider the tiff a sign of real strategy.

But not on this planet. What has been completely missing from President Obama's Israel-Palestine efforts is serious, deep engagement in the complex challenges there. He has an envoy, George Mitchell, who seems to be groveling for Israeli and Palestinian support.

We've seen systemic irresponsibility on both the Israel and Palestine sides of the equation for a very long time -- and it amazes me that Dennis Ross and other well-informed advisers to the President aren't making it clear that at this point, only a process that actively involves most of the responsible stakeholders in the region will move past the paralysis. That demands an expression of Presidential expectations of what a final status package might look like -- and would make clear what the US, Arab neighbors, Europe, the UN, and Russia would expect Israel and Palestine to abide by.

There has been no sign that the administration is willing to deal with the region as it is -- rather than as it might fantasize about. The failure of negotiations under George Mitchell, the failure to get Israel to agree to Obama's cessation of settlement demands, the recent blow up during Biden's visit -- all of these cannot be blamed on the regular pin-up target for problems in the region -- Hamas.

Hamas has been mostly quiet despite the assassination, allegedly by the Mossad, of one of its military leaders. Hamas was negotiating directly with Netanyahu's government over a prisoner exchange, and Hamas has been a credible participant in unity talk efforts brokered by the Egyptians.

The reality behind the scenes with these negotiations is that Netanyahu doesn't want to achieve Shalit's release and secure a deal with Hamas -- both because it will empower Hamas and put him in an odd spot. The Egyptians are both brokering a unity government peace effort in Palestine with one hand and blocking it with the other.

The Egyptians, the Americans, and Netanyahu are the blocks on dealmaking in the region that might lead to a different equilibrium that could be more productive than the mess we have now.

Has the US even noticed the shift in Hamas' behavior? Are we doing anything to test the reality of this shift or to take advantage of it?

I think not as George Mitchell is still chasing a "too much, too late" strategy to shower so-called Palestinian moderates with his attention, US resources, and his 'hopes.' Mitchell also doesn't get that Israel-Palestine is a globally significant fault-line, unlike Northern Ireland, which could have raged a few hundred more years without having the same global consequences of an unresolved Israel-Palestine conflict.

Whether the US is going to punish Israel for its ongoing settlement misbehavior or appease it doesn't really matter.

What does matter is whether the Secretary of State expresses a sense of vision and direction for the region that rises above Israel's regrettable behavior and moves beyond the fragmentation and incompetence of the Palestinian government. All eyes and ears will be waiting for some sign that the administration has strategic depth during her speech before the annual AIPAC national policy summit on Monday.

If not, she will be reinforcing the sense much of the world has of Obama's lack of seriousness about America's geostrategic position. She will be reinforcing a global, profound sense of doubt about America's ability to achieve the objectives it declares itself committed to.

And as Joe Biden warned appropriately during the campaign, President Obama will continue to be tested and tested and tested -- not just by Netanyahu but many other world players who sense lack of resolve, an absence of strategy and weakness on the US side.

It took Kennedy the Cuban Missile Crisis to finally regain his balance and restore American global credibility.

I wonder what crisis Obama will finally have to confront to restore global confidence in him -- and what risks that will entail.

This article first appeared at the Middle East issues blog, the Palestine Note.

-- Steve Clemons publishes the popular political blog, The Washington Note. Clemons can be followed on Twitter @SCClemons

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