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The Mediator Takes on the Middle East

The Mediator Takes on the Middle East

By David Paul Kuhn - June 4, 2009


Barack Obama hopes to turn another page. Instead of domestic issues like race relations, the Mediator-in-Chief steps deep into the throes of Middle East diplomacy today.

Obama seems most himself when tackling a big issue. He identifies the big problems, affirms angst and points out the failings on all sides (that all sides can tolerate being pointed out). He sets a flag on common ground. He talks of bold outcomes but favors incremental action. We know the script and cadence.

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But, as Obama gives a major address to the Muslim world today, there are real questions of where Obama will plant the flag of compromise this time. The Iranian nuclear program is the most pressing regional issue. Iran's domestic election has nearly arrived. But even moderate Iranian candidates support the nation's nuclear track.

Israelis constantly debate the Palestinian issue. But every top Israeli leader believes a nuclear Iran is a real threat. The Arab powers quietly agree. At some point, this president may have to take sides.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is different. Obama may have more success walking the middle road. Obama is hoping to prove to the Muslim world that the United States can be an impartial broker. This explains Obama's early pressure on Israel, asking it to freeze settlement construction.

But Obama is in Cairo after all, not Jerusalem. He began his trip in Saudi Arabia. These nations have two of the more repressive regimes in the Middle East. And he has come to Egypt on the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, a distant reminder of the very repression Obama does not want to become the story. This raises more difficult questions. How compelled is a U.S. president to emphasize freedom?

White House officials said that Obama would speak to repression in his address. Human Rights Watch asked Obama to "signal clearly to Egyptians that human rights in their country are one of his administration's central concerns."

Obama may signal concern but he will neither preach nor push for freedom. "The United States' job is not to lecture, but to encourage," Obama told BBC ahead of his trip.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak represses, harasses and jails political opposition. Prominent Egyptian dissident Ayman Nour, a public opponent of Mubarak, was recently attacked and left with first-degree burns across his body.

Obama is not going to highlight Nour's struggle. He is more consumed by earning Arab support to walk back Iran's nuclear program. Obama wants the Arab states to engage the hard issues of the Israel-Palestinian conflict, rather than pay still more lip service.

A moral fight, Obama will not make. Obama's not one to beat the drum of democracy. Nearly every Obama speech eyes compromise over conviction. And this speech, of all speeches, is meant to ease tensions rather than escalate them. He is, as we now know him, even keel by character. "By nature," he wrote in the "The Audacity of Hope," "I'm not somebody who gets real worked up about things."

Obama is, after all, a wary heir to American missionary diplomacy. Since James Monroe, presidents have been framing foreign policy as a battle of freedom versus repression, precisely the moral language Obama avoids.

Obama sees complexity where Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush saw a binary conflict. Obama will wade into the abstractions of freedom. But Obama is not Woodrow Wilson's kind of Democrat. Conciliation, rather than freedom, is at the bow of this president's foreign policy.

Obama now stands at the heart of a region at least as repressive as the China of two decades past, when Tiananmen occurred and was denounced by the United States and western allies. But Obama knows that the same Arab parties he asks for steps toward peace are threatened by freedom. And then there is U.S. concern over Muslim radicalism, receded since the September 11th attacks but hardly gone.

Asymmetrical threats breed asymmetrical diplomacy, as well as morality. The rub for Obama is that he was expected to represent a narrowing of the gap between what America stands for and what it sometimes allows itself to become.

Moralists, however, make poor mediators. The Middle East requires realpolitiks. It's indeed intriguing that Obama came to Egypt for this speech. The location and timing underline the moral choices made. And on the Middle East no less, where the means so often define the effort because the ends constantly prove elusive.

That's Obama, trying to mediate where other presidents have failed. This is a region where new beginnings require agonizing choices and great risk. But why take those risks now? A hawk is at the helm in Israel. Radicals control half of Palestine. Containment seems more in order than conciliation. The mediator has met his match. 

Perhaps Obama sees little to lose by talking about the problem, which is probably true. Perhaps starting early leaves time for the hard stuff, certainly true. Perhaps he believes he can undermine the hawks or find their inner dove, maybe. The opposite would be worse. Neglect risks more than engagement. But Obama, of course, risks the least by engaging.

George Shultz once remarked that, "He who walks in the middle of the road gets hit from both sides."

Obama must welcome those hits, if he is to mediate this dispute. It will take the heat off others. The question is whether regional leaders can withstand pressure from all sides or if they are even willing to try. It's always easier to ask someone else to take a leap of faith, especially in the Middle East.

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David Paul Kuhn is a writer who lives in New York City. His novel, “What Makes It Worthy,” will be published in February 2015.

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