Obama in the Middle East: The Seemingly Schizoid Man Proves to Be Pragmatic Pacific Pivoter

03/23/2013 03:47 pm ET | Updated May 23, 2013

"Looks like we got another schizoid embolism."

Total Recall (1990)

After a seemingly schizophrenic schedule of speaking to antithetical audiences in Israel and the Palestinian territories, President Barack Obama successfully brokered a sudden rapprochement between Israel and Turkey on Friday. Given how isolated Israel has been getting of late, it's a great benefit to Israel, at the cost of simply apologizing for a commando raid gone south in 2010 at the cost of nine Turkish lives on a Gaza aid flotilla. Israel has since loosened restrictions on the movement of goods into Gaza that helped give rise to the flotilla in the first place.

Israel issued a formal apology to Turkey on Friday, leading to a resumption of normal relations between the two countries.

It was an interesting move by Obama which made sense of his seemingly schizophrenic messaging in the Middle East: He's simply trying to keep a lid on things there as he moves once again on his geopolitical pivot to the fast-rising Asia-Pacific region. For, while Obama was on his high-profile Middle Eastern excursion, Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter was on a lower-profile week-long visit to defense ministers throughout the Asia-Pacific. And the U.S. Navy's newest and most versatile warship, a "relatively" low-cost littoral combat ship (LCS), deployed to the region for the first time. (Here's an archive of my Pivot-related pieces.)

Obama began with dramatic rhetorical wooing of Israel. Upon arriving in Israel, he spoke of unwavering support for "the historic homeland of the Jewish people." Notably, Obama did not mention the Palestinian issue in his remarks. Incidentally, U.S. media reports didn't pick up on this, but when Obama doffed his jacket to go about in a blue tie with his white shirt, walking side-by-side with the similarly garbed Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, he was wearing the national colors of Israel, where the very term "blue and white" has great intrinsic meaning.

After he viewed an Iron Dome missile defense battery, which his administration funded and helped develop, Obama launched into a round of high-profile ceremonies and meetings with Netanyahu, with whom he's most frequently been at loggerheads, and Israeli President Shimon Peres, a more consistent friend. There was no public hint of concern about the Palestinians.

It was all very Israeli-centric. But Obama may have delivered his most important message the week before, when he told Israeli television that Iran is at least a year away from being able to produce a nuclear weapon, a much longer time frame than Netanyahu claims. Netanyahu, incidentally, has been warning of an impending Iranian nuclear weapon for the last 20 years, and fervently urged the U.S. to invade Iraq with what proved to be clearly spurious claims. Something he did not discuss on the 10th anniversary of the U.S. invasion, which coincided with Obama's visit.

On the second day of his visit, Obama, notably not wearing blue-and-white, said that Palestinians deserve an independent and sovereign state and an end to occupation and continued settlement in disputed lands by Israel. He spoke at a news conference in the West Bank with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. He also met with Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and pointedly did several events with Palestinian youth.

Obama then returned to Israel to deliver remarks aimed at the youth of Israel. He urged them to think of themselves as the greatest military power in the Middle East, backed by the greatest power on Earth, rather than as a deeply imperiled people, and to look at the world more through the eyes of a Palestinian child.

With Obama prodding Israelis and Palestinians back toward the seemingly eternal yet stalled peace process, a new Gallup Poll survey indicates that large majorities on all sides want a peace agreement. But there is not much hope for it.

In fact, the level of belief is quite paltry. That may be because of history, including the most recent history, which is decidedly unpromising.

It may also be because the two-state solution is scarcely able to garner half support on either side, at least as far as Jewish Israelis and Palestinians in Hamas-controlled Gaza are concerned.

For too many on both sides, winning is more important than compromise, victory the goal rather than peaceful cooperation.

Is Obama unaware of all this? Certainly not.

It may be that his efforts are geared to staving off greater conflict going forward in the Middle East as he turns his attentions to potentially much more productive diplomacy in the Asia-Pacific region.

For all the rhetoric expended on this trip, the only substantive development that has yet surfaced is the apparent normalization of relations between Israel and Turkey.

Those relations were suspended, but have resumed now that Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu has apologized to the people of Turkey for the deaths of nine Turks killed when Israeli commandos raided a Gaza aid flotilla in May 2010.

The apology was issued in a phone call to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan made from Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion Airport Netanyahu just before Obama took off on Air Force One for Jordan. Obama also spoke to the Turkish leader during the phone call. Israel says it has substantially eased restrictions on the flow of goods into Gaza. Turkey is now resuming normal relations with Israel.

USS Freedom, the first of the new class of littoral combat ships to deploy to the Asia-Pacific region, underwent trials and prep a few weeks ago off the coast of San Diego, California, its old homeport. Its new home? Singapore.

While Obama and company have been in the Middle East, Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter just spent a week touring the Asia Pacific region, holding meetings in Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and Indonesia, where he took part in the annual Jakarta International Defense Dialogue and met separately with defense ministers from Singapore and Malaysia.

There is a great deal going on there.

North Korea has been testing nuclear weapons and more advanced missiles and making threats of nuclear strikes against the U.S. China is involved in major hassles with its neighbors on the South China Sea over its expansive claim to nearly that entire body of water. It is also involved in a high-stakes confrontation with Japan over disputed islands in the East China Sea.

Carter noted that the Senkaku Islands, long claimed by Japan -- which China calls the Diaoyu Islands -- fall under the protection of the U.S. security treaty with Japan.

If Carter met with Vietnamese officials, it escaped public notice. But the Socialist Republic of Vietnam has previously reached out to the U.S., and then Defense Secretary Leon Panetta visited the huge American-built naval base at Cam Ranh Bay last year.

Vietnam is ramping up a major naval buildup to counter China's claims in the South China Sea and is looking for friends. While Vietnam seeks advanced technology from the U.S., Russia is stepping up to aid the Vietnamese build-up to counter China.

Which makes new Chinese President Xi Jinping's first foreign trip in office -- to Moscow this weekend -- all the more significant.

While the various political machinations play out, the U.S. Navy's first littoral combat ship (LCS), named USS Freedom, has joined the 7th Fleet in the Pacific. This is the first of a detachment of such vessels that are to be based out of Singapore as the decade plays out.

These high-speed, relatively low-cost vessels are armed but are hardly capital ships. But they are able to counter the lower level warships that China increasingly deploys throughout the South China Sea. They are also suited for work in disaster relief, a frequent need in the region. The Navy's thinking, as it's explained to me, is that the littoral combat ship shows the flag on a regular basis without raising the stakes as a cruiser or aircraft carrier would.

Naturally, there have been problems with the LCS program. But that's for another day.

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