On the morning of Valentine's Day, as Dick Cheney was once again calumniating the President on network television, I was in Doha, Qatar, listening to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton attempt to explain Barack Obama's foreign policy to several hundred restive representatives of the Islamic world. The event was the annual U.S.-Islamic World Forum, sponsored by the Brookings Institution, and the mood was a bit more testy than last year's Obama-induced euphoria. There was a universal sense among the Muslim delegates that the President had offered fine words in the past year but not much action. And now, Clinton entertained a question from Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, on behalf of an interfaith group of religious leaders, about the suffering of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip: Why wasn't the U.S. doing more to alleviate it?
Good question. In fact, it cut to the heart of the Obamaforeign policy frustrations. Clinton's tough talk on Iran got most of the U.S. headlines, but her position on Gaza was far more important to the Islamic participants at Doha, especially the Arabs. The Israelis have stubbornly maintained a stiff blockade after pounding Gaza into submission in January 2009. Food is allowed in; Gazans aren't starving. But tight restrictions remain on construction materials for rebuilding homes and public buildings and on many of the nonessential necessities of life (Israel recently lifted the ban on cigarettes). Israel has suggested three conditions for lifting the siege to Hamas, which controls Gaza: no more rocket attacks against Israeli civilians, no arms smuggling into Gaza and the release of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier kidnapped by Hamas in June 2006. The rocket attacks have pretty much stopped and the arms smuggling I am told is an issue that can be negotiated, but the fate of Shalit has been an insane sticking point. On the evening before Clinton's speech, Recep Tayyip Erdogan the Prime Minister of Turkey and an erstwhile ally of Israel's was cheered when he raged against the conditions in Gaza, calling it "an open-air prison."
Clinton's response to McCarrick's question was forceful but inadequate. She reminded the delegates that "violence preceded the suffering," a local coup d'état by Hamas, which then used Gaza "as a launching pad" for wholesale rocket attacks against Israel. She acknowledged the humanitarian suffering and said the U.S. had pressured Israel to increase the flow of essentials like food "from a trickle to a flood," but ultimately, she concluded, the fate of Gaza would have to await a comprehensive settlement between Israel and the Palestinians.
Wrong answer. And not merely because the Islamic participants in Doha were hoping for something more concrete. It was wrong because it demonstrated the chronic weakness of Obama's Middle East strategy. As soon as he was inaugurated, the President went directly for the big prize: a comprehensive two-state solution. But the timing was lousy. The Israelis had just elected a right-wing government led by Benjamin Netanyahu, whose coalition partners were vehemently opposed to negotiations. The Palestinians were fiercely divided between Fatah, which controls the West Bank, and the more militant Hamas. U.S. envoy George Mitchell's slow-moving effort to start talks tanked because of Israel's unwillingness to stop building illegal settlements on Palestinian land. The Administration seems boggled now; the President told me in a January interview that the Middle East had proved tougher than he'd expected. It was not an admission that inspired confidence in the region.
It might have been more profitable for Obama to have concentrated on trying to fix Gaza first. It was the immediate crisis when he took office, and it remains so. It is difficult to solve, but not impossible. Success would set a predicate: the Administration could be relied upon to work hard, and pragmatically, on vexing issues along the way to an ultimate deal. It could be trusted by all sides. That possibility still exists, although senior Administration officials seem unduly pessimistic about the chances of success. And there is a big obstacle here: the best way to resolve Gaza is for the U.S. to quietly convince Hamas that if it gives up Shalit a huge issue for the Israelis the U.S. would work to persuade Israel to lift the siege. The trouble is, the U.S. won't talk to Hamas. But if Obama's policy really is about engaging our enemies, he needs to engage Hamas and Hamas needs to respond. Quickly.
There are other obstacles. Three of the four interested parties the Israelis, the West Bank Palestinians and Egypt are more than happy to let Hamas suffer in perpetuity. That may make political sense in the short term, but it is creating an intractable long-term problem: the rise of a new generation that's even more radical than Hamas and even more angry at Israel.
Which brings us back to Cheney. He and his hard-line allies are rooting for Obama to fail. The leaders of Hamas and other potential interlocutors, like the Syrians need to understand that this may be their last best chance for progress. After Obama, the deluge.