President Barack Obama laid down an important marker on the Middle East recently: He declared that settling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was a "vital national security interest of the United States."
His predecessors have said much the same thing. But then he upped the ante. He said the chronic failure to settle the conflict was "costing us significantly in terms of both blood and treasure."
Now that drew attention. Obama was claiming a direct link between the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate and the safety of U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Yet neither of Obama's assertions stand up to scrutiny, and the administration's ham-handed approach could, at best, succeed only in damaging U.S. credibility.
Obama's extraordinary recent hostility to Israel is a big departure from the traditional U.S. approach.
The latest flashpoint was an apparent bureaucratic foul-up by Israel, which announced plans for new housing units in Jerusalem right in the middle of a visit by Vice President Joe Biden. The Israeli move was boneheaded, but Obama's reaction was completely out of proportion.
That takes us to the administration's approach on Iran. As far-fetched as it sounds, Obama's apparent strategy is to pound on Israel to get the "peace process" moving, in the hope that will draw Arab support for the U.S. effort to curb Iran's nuclear program.
If that's the strategy, it makes little sense, as Ray Takeyh of the Council on Foreign Relations argued recently. If Tehran senses friction between Israel and the United States, it will only "harden its nuclear stance." The mullahs will assume Israel won't dare attack Iran's nuclear facilities in the midst of a squabble with Washington.
The belief that Israeli-Palestinian peace is the key to the entire region is based on a falsehood, writes Aaron David Miller, a former State Department official who served as a Middle East adviser to Republican and Democratic administrations.
Miller's recent article in Foreign Policy, "The False Religion of Mideast Peace," ought to be required reading in the Obama White House. Miller writes as a former believer who realizes that whether or not the "religion" was true in the past, it is no longer as relevant.
Certainly it would help if the Palestinians and Israelis could settle their differences. The long-running struggle feeds Arab anger. But it is not a magic key to resolving other regional challenges, such as the future of Pakistan or the threat of Iran, not to mention a successful resolution to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Big decisions require strong leaders. But Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu presides over a divided coalition, and his counterpart, Mahmoud Abbas, presides over a broken national movement riven by the schism with Hamas.
Obama has botched his opening moves. He demanded that Israel scrap plans for the Jerusalem housing project, as well as all other such plans in the city. Netanyahu refused.
The State Department response? A climbdown: Washington acknowledged that Jerusalem's future would be decided by negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians — Israel's position all along.
In his Foreign Policy piece, Miller essentially accused the administration of incompetence. He didn't use the word, but the message was clear. Obama went to the mat over an issue — housing in Jerusalem — without connecting it to a larger strategy "whose dividends would make the fight worthwhile."
In other words, the rookies in Washington escalated a spat without any purpose in mind other than perhaps impressing the Arabs.
"In the spring of 2010 we're nowhere near a breakthrough, and yet we're in the middle of a major rift with the Israelis," Miller wrote. "Unless we achieve a big concession, we will be perceived to have backed down again."
Amid these pratfalls, there’s talk of the administration coming up with its own settlement and ramming it down the throats of the Palestinians and Israelis.
Right. That would work about as well as everything else this crew has tried.