Obama Channels W. Except on Israel and Palestinians

Michael Barone

5/23/2011 12:01:00 AM - Michael Barone

"The State Department is a fitting venue," declared Barack Obama at the beginning of his speech on the Middle East last Thursday.

That's curious because in three-quarters of his speech Obama repudiated most of what has been traditional State Department Middle East policy. Only in the last page and a half of a six-page text, when he discussed the Israeli-Palestinian issue, did he revert to State Department mode.

Not once did Obama mention the name of George W. Bush, but much of his speech sounded like it came from his predecessor.

"Too many leaders in the region tried to direct their people's grievances elsewhere," Obama said, blaming the West "as the source of all ills, a half-century after the end of colonialism." Bush said almost exactly the same thing.

"It will be the policy of the United States to promote reform across the region," Obama said, "and to support transitions to democracy." Sure sounds like W.

Obama came to office with quite a different view. He wanted to skedaddle from Iraq and engage with "the Islamic Republic of Iran." Ousting tyrants seemed the last thing on his mind.

But events -- the mullahs' rejection of his overtures, the "Arab Spring" uprisings -- have apparently convinced him that history is moving in the direction that Bush perceived and encouraged.

In June 2009, Obama scornfully ignored Iranian protesters. But now "we still hear the chants echo from the rooftops of Iran" and remember "the image of a young woman dying in the streets."

Obama used to portray the Iraq War as folly and predicted that Bush's surge would fail. Now he felt obliged to salute "the promise of a multiethnic, multisectarian democracy" in Iraq.

True, Bush did not pursue democracy in the Middle East with perfect consistency, and Obama didn't propose to do so either. Sometimes it must be subordinated to other interests. "Universal rights apply to women as well as men," Obama said. But he did not mention Saudi Arabia, where women's rights are, er, not fully respected.

Obama denounced Moammar Gadhafi's strategy to "keep power by killing as many people as he likes" and said Gadhafi would "inevitably" be forced out in Libya.

But while Obama noted that "the Syrian regime has chosen the path of murder," he held out hope that Bashir al-Assad would lead "a transition to democracy" or "get out of the way."

For 40 years, State Department Arabists and secretaries of state seem to have believed that Assad pere et fils were on the brink of instituting reform and making peace with Israel. For reasons that are unclear, Obama evidently clings to that forlorn hope for change.

But on one issue Obama took the old State Department line. "The status quo" between Israel and the Palestinians, he said, "is unsustainable." The United States needs to pressure Israel into making concessions.

He emphasized this issue even though it's obvious that it's not a priority or even of much interest to the "Arab Spring protestors." And even though, as he mentioned in his speech, the merger of Fatah and Hamas means that Israel does not have a negotiating partner willing to recognize its right to exist.

He continued to press his demand, made by no previous president, that Israel stop all "settlements," even in Jerusalem. Of course, he failed to note that that demand derailed any possible negotiations, since no Israeli leader will ever agree and since, once Obama made it, Palestinian leaders had to insist on it, too.

And he asserted -- also a first for an American president -- that an agreement "should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps." Previous presidents have said that adjustments should recognize changes that have occurred in the last 44 years.

Obama did not, and he added that all Israeli troops should be withdrawn from Palestinian territory, undercutting any Israeli demand to leave a defensive force along the Jordan River.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, sitting next to Obama in the Oval Office after their meeting Friday, said flatly that the 1967 (actually 1949-67) lines were unacceptable and that asking Israel to negotiate with Hamas is like asking the United States to negotiate with al-Qaida.

Obama deserves credit for going to the State Department to renounce State Department policy on the Middle East. Unfortunately, he didn't follow through on that on Israel and the Palestinians.