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Obama and the Iron Cage

Barack Obama gave a major speech on the Middle East last week and it is clear from the subsequent commentary that he impressed few people. The main reason is that he did not say much new or indicate that there would be any serious changes in US policy in the region. It was essentially more of the same with the some tweaking here and there. Nevertheless, he did manage to anger some people. For example, Israel’s hard-line supporters were outraged that he said, “Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps.” For them, the 1967 borders are “Auschwitz borders” and thus can never serve as a basis for negotiations.

Many Palestinians, on the other hand, did not like Obama’s assertion that it made little sense for them to go to the UN General Assembly this September and win recognition for a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders. Surely they also noticed that shortly after saying that “every state has the right to self-defense, and Israel must be able to defend itself,” the president said that the Palestinians would have to be content with “a sovereign non-militarized state,” which means that they will not be able to defend themselves against Israel or any other state for that matter. Hypocrisy appears to be wired into the DNA of American foreign-policy makers.

Obama’s failure to impress and move US Middle East policy in new directions raises the intriguing question: did he blow an opportunity to give a truly important speech at what appears to be a plastic moment in history? I think not. The sad fact is that Obama has remarkably little maneuver room on the foreign-policy front. The most important item on his agenda is settling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and there he knows what has to be done: push both sides toward a two-state solution, which is the best outcome for all the parties, including the United States. Indeed, he has been trying to do just that since he took office in January 2009. But the remarkably powerful Israel lobby makes it virtually impossible for him to put meaningful pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is committed to creating a Greater Israel in which the Palestinians are restricted to a handful of disconnected and impoverished enclaves. And Obama is certainly not going to buck the lobby with the 2012 presidential election looming larger every day.

In addition to his problems with Israel and the lobby, Obama has little influence over events in the broader Middle East. The Arab Spring, which Obama fully embraced in his speech, happened in spite of American foreign policy, not because of it. After all, Washington has played a key role for decades in keeping friendly dictators like Hosni Mubarak in power. And not surprisingly, the Obama administration has remained quiet while Saudi and Bahrani security forces have been crushing the protestors in Bahrain. Why? Because the US Navy’s 5th Fleet is stationed in Bahrain and we have excellent relations with its authoritarian leaders. On top of all this, the US military is pinned down in messy wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and now Libya. Not surprisingly, Obama spends a great deal of time thinking about how to manage these conflicts, which leaves little time and room for bold new policy initiatives. Finally, the administration’s hard-nosed policy for dealing with Iran’s nuclear enrichment program is not working, but the president seems unwilling (or unable because of pressure from Israel and the lobby) to countenance a new approach for dealing with Tehran.

The bottom line is that the US is in deep trouble in the Middle East and needs new policies for that region. But regrettably there is little prospect of that happening anytime soon. All of this is to say that there was no way that Obama could do anything but disappoint with Middle East speech, because he is trapped in an iron cage.

John Mearsheimer is a professor of political science at the University of Chicago. He is the co-author of The Israel Lobby. His most recent book is Why Leaders Lie.

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