The bold new initiatives US president Barack Obama launched in his first months at the White House to woo the Muslim world, bring Iran to the negotiating table and break through the Israel-Arab impasse to a negotiated two-state peace are foundering.
Obama himself feels they have failed to connect with – not to say reshape – the region's intransigent realities – and is taking a fresh look at his policies and options without the help of some of his closest advisers, DEBKA-Net-Weekly sources in Washington report exclusively.
One particular source close to the president and familiar with his thinking has told this publication on condition of anonymity, because of the sensitive nature of his information, that in recent weeks, Obama rounded on those advisers and accused on them putting him on the spot in key Middle East affairs by bad council. He even used the word “fiasco” for the way his moves in the region have turned out.
The advisers he targeted were mostly close aides and National Security Council members.
He first sensed his plans were going awry on June 3 at his tete-a-tete with King Abdullah in Riyadh, the day before his grand speech of reconciliation with the Muslim world from Cairo.
Obama made the gesture of conferring with the monarch in advance of his historic speech.
He went to Riyadh to offer the Saudi king the role of senior partner in promoting his blueprint for the region which aimed at strengthening stability in Iraq and Lebanon, coordinating the handling of the Iranian nuclear issue and adding a constructive Arab regional dimension to an Israeli-Palestinian peace.
But the US president was dismayed to find himself at the receiving end of a furious royal anti-Israel diatribe which lasted two hours and for which he had received no preparation from his Middle East staff.
Unprepared for Saudi king's furious rejection
He was therefore without weapons for preventing the Saudi king taking charge of the conversation and ranting on. When Obama managed at length to get in a few comments about his ideas, Abdullah rejected them out of hand in amazement, pretending this was the first time he had heard about them.
Feeling poorly served by his staff, Obama blamed them for the low-key resonance of his speech to the Muslim peoples which he delivered the following day and its skimpy results.
Far from being mollified, he was even more incensed when he saw an op-ed in an American newspaper Friday, July 17, by the Bahraini crown prince Sheikh Salman bin Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, urging Arab leaders to “start talking to Israel media in order to communicate their desire for a lasting Middle East peace… We as Arabs have not done enough to communicate directly with the people of Israel,” the prince wrote, concluding: “Essentially, we have not done a good enough job demonstrating to Israelis how our initiative can form part of a peace between equals in a trouble land holy to three great faiths.”
Obama saw the article as a lame effort by some of his Middle East advisers to demonstrate that, notwithstanding his unfortunate experience with Abdullah, the policies they had sold the president were not as misguided as he thought because Gulf rulers were ready to take them on board.
The president was unimpressed. He dismissed the Bahraini heir apparent as a Middle East player of no value and his opinions as no baseline for US strategy.
But, the downward course had meanwhile gained momentum leading Obama to take an equally dim view of the advice he received on Lebanon and Iran from his Middle East team and National Security Council.
Iran, Israel-Palestinian policies reworked
The intelligence briefings and analyses put before President Obama by his teams forecasted a victory for the Hizballah-led bloc in the Lebanese elections of June 7 – whereas it lost – and a landslide win on June 12 for opposition leader Mir-Hossein Mousavi – when he was routed by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. A different result might have eased the way to the nuclear talks with Tehran to which Obama was committed. But it was not to be.
His advisers went on to misread the post-election situation on Iran's streets and corridors of power, leading Washington into a false position in the aftermath with no grip on the course of events.
President Obama has not paraded the displeasure with his top aides which peaked around mid-June and is outwardly carrying on with his Middle East plans as though nothing untoward has happened. But, according to our sources, from that time on, he began distancing former close advisers from policy-making and dispensing with their help in reconfiguring important courses of action – first and foremost on Iran and the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
Regarding Iran, the President has reversed his priorities: He has decided to place some military heat under Tehran before engaging their leaders so as to bring them to the negotiating table from a position of weakness. The way the Islamic Republic has been handled until now, Obama realizes, gave the ayatollahs too much clout against the United States.
(The next two articles focus on Obama's revised tactics on Iran and Israel. Defense secretary Robert Gates visits the latter next Monday.)
While promoting Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, the US President proposes now to lift his relations with the Binyamin Netanyahu government out of their present slough and stop bickering with Israel and conservative US Jewry.
General Jones – no real strategist
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's special source cites the President as remarking in recent days that the policies his close circle shaped for him were counter-productive on all fronts: Arab rulers dug in their heels against lending Washington their cooperation – not only regarding Israel but also on Iraq and Lebanon – while those same policies sank his administration into an ever-deepening pit with the Israelis and mainstream American Jewry.
The time had come, said the president, to draw a line on this sorry situation, because the only loser here is Washington.
Some of Obama's personnel changes are already in the works, our source reports.
He pointed to the unusual tone of a Washington Post article on Sunday, July 19 by well-informed David Ignatius captioned: “The Big Decisions to Come” within the administration, which contains this comment: “Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and national security adviser Jim Jones — sometimes are treated as ceremonial doormats.”
This is an exceptionally derisory term for a Washington writer to use in reference to dignitaries as august as these.
While no further comment is forthcoming on Clinton, our source reports his impression, though not the president's words, that Obama thinks highly of General Jones' administrative and organizational skills, but finds him short of the tools for serving as strategic adviser to the President – which is after all the National Security Adviser's main function.
The source did not say whether General Jones would soon be out of a job, but stressed that the President is now listening more than any other aide to Dennis Ross, first appointed envoy to Iran then last month moved laterally to the White House as a special presidential adviser. Ross served the Clinton administration as a Middle East peace envoy and has recently co-authored a book urging a tougher policy on Iran.
Some projects whisked off some desks
Two of the staffers whose desks have been cleared of some of their work projects include Daniel Shapiro, Middle East deskman at the National Security Council, and Mara Rudman, Middle East envoy George Mitchell's top adviser on the region.
In August 1999, Rudman was appointed Deputy Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs and Chief of Staff for the National Security Council. In the Obama administration, Rudman preferred to join the Mitchell team rather than hold onto a more senior position on the NSC.
The source confirmed that George Mitchell himself has informed the President that he will continue as special envoy to the Middle East until the end of the year. He has sharply denied any intention of resigning soon and calls these claims “utter fabrications.”
DEBKA-Net-Weekly sources in Washington note that when he took up his position as Middle East envoy, he told Obama it would be for a limited time only. There is no doubt that Mitchell's decision about retiring at year's end will depend on President Obama's revised positions on the future of Israeli-Palestinian contacts (read next article on Obama and Israel).
Our source disagrees with the impression conveyed by some American Jewish and Israeli media that the senior architects of Obama's Israel policies were and are White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel and his personal adviser David Axelrod.
In recent weeks, the president has resolved to build his reworked policy on the separation of himself and future White House decision-making from the influences of assorted Jewish organizations and European diplomats who keeping on pushing him to foist on Israel a solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
But as we report in the next article, his most important new departure will be to hang a military battering-ram over Iran.