Accepting that his current Middle East policy is not working, President Barack Obama has very discreetly commissioned a fast, top-secret review from National Security Council officials who took no part in forming the failed program, DEBKA-Net-Weekly reports from Washington.
Deputy National Security Advisor and Chief of Staff Mark Lippert and Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Dennis McDonough were last week assigned with collating all the relevant material, analyzing it and delivering their conclusions by the coming weekend.
The president chose officials for the task whom he considered to be outside the influence of the architects of the Middle East policy which fell through and unaffected by their views.
Our Washington sources report that Obama decided to keep National Security Adviser James Jones out of the picture and away from possible pressure from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, special envoy to the Middle East George Mitchell, special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke, or even Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for the Central Region Dennis Ross.
A third official has since been added to the Middle East Policy Review team as its leader. Our sources have not been able to penetrate the secrecy surrounding his identity or determine whether he is a White House staffer or an outside Middle East expert.
Pinpointing errors before charting new course
Before charting a new course, the group was directed to answer eight key questions showing where the White House had put its foot wrong:
1. Why did the president's fundamental policy of engagement with Tehran go astray?
2. How did Obama come to be misinformed about the standing of supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad? According to the briefings he received, both were firm in the saddle whereas the opposite turned out to be true.
3. How did Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu get away with flouting the settlement freeze which figured large in the US Middle East plan when the president was assured by his Middle East strategists that Netanyahu would fold?
4. And why was the president led to believe that Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak would defy Netanyahu on the settlements standstill when nothing of the sort happened? Instead, Barak stepped in to smooth the friction between the administration and Netanyahu.
5. On what grounds was the US president advised that the Saudi King Abdullah and his fellow Arab Gulf rulers would offer Israel goodwill gestures as levers for pressing Jerusalem for counter-concessions? This assumption was categorically refuted by the king in person.
6. How did relations between Washington and Riyadh come to roll downhill to a disastrous level when President Obama was led to believe he would find a key ally in the oil kingdom? The king greeted US officials whom he met recently with a sarcastic: “We've heard enough talk from you. Tell me now what you are doing.”
Obama's Cairo speech misfired
7. Why wasn’t Obama forewarned about Syrian ruler Bashar Assad's sudden decision to dump American mediation of Syrian-Israeli peace talks? Was US intelligence caught napping?
(Details of Assad's abrupt change of face in a separate article in this issue)
8. The US president's much-awaited speech on June 4 from Cairo intended as a dramatic outreach to the Muslim world was so sloppily thought-out and worded that it had the opposite effect. Because of the shower of applause descending on the event from the US and European media, it is a little-known fact that the speech still evokes protests from Arab rulers as damaging their security efforts and mores.
Egyptian, Saudi, Kuwaiti and Jordanian leaders complain in particular about two points in the Obama speech:
“Freedom of religion is central to the ability of peoples to live together. We must always examine the ways in which we protect it. For instance, in the United States, rules on charitable giving have made it harder for Muslims to fulfill their religious obligation. That is why I am committed to working with American Muslims to ensure that they can fulfill zakat.
Likewise, it is important for Western countries to avoid impeding Muslim citizens from practicing religion as they see fit – for instance, by dictating what clothes a Muslim woman should wear. We cannot disguise hostility towards any religion behind the pretence of liberalism.
…I reject the view of some in the West that a woman who chooses to cover her hair is somehow less equal…”
A bid for advice from outside the White House
The Saudis and Kuwaitis say that this apparent US dispensation has badly hurt their long campaign against the religious charities which funnel contributions to radical Islamic terrorist organizations including al Qaeda. Since the Obama speech, these efforts are challenged by charity executives who cite his approval of every Muslim's right to fulfill the command of zakat.
Egypt's Hosni Mubarak and King Abdullah of Jordan hold the US president responsible for slowing their campaign to block radical Islam and promote modern ways by encouraging women to dispense with the veil. His words about not dictating what clothes a Muslim woman should wear have had the effect of encouraging them to adopt the burqa and hijab.
Our Washington sources report that as soon as the new review is finished – “within days,” the US president hopes – he will begin circulating it among a list of Middle East specialists from outside the White House for their feedback before reshaping his next steps in the Middle East.