Adrian Hamilton: Peace isn't what Obama is achieving

Rarely has a President bent on change been met with such adverse cirumstances
Click to follow

President Obama should never have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize (as he himself acknowledges) not because it's too early but because it's precisely the wrong moment to do it.

Obama's rhetoric on peace has been impeccable. But just at this time it has to be said almost everything he is actually striving to achieve is turning sour. In the Middle East, the Palestinians have now declared that their hopes in the new US President have "evaporated" while the Israeli Foreign Minister has openly stated that he doesn't believe peace is feasible. Meanwhile Obama's effort to forge a new more amenable relationship with Iran has become locked in exactly what he didn't want – a confrontation over Tehran's nuclear plans with deadlines set and threats of more painful sanctions. As for Afghanistan, the pervasive impression at the moment is of a White House in confusion in the light of a political situation that gone wrong and a mini-surge that has succeeded.

You can't blame it all on the man. Rarely has a new President with the ambition to change things been met with quite such unpropitious circumstances on the ground. It's not his fault that the Israelis have elected a right wing coalition opposed to most of the measures he deems necessary to get peace talks underway with the Palestinians. Nor could he have expected such a contested election result in Iran with all the uncertainties this has caused within the country's elite and in its external relations.

As for Afghanistan, the failure of its election to provide a clear result was perhaps more predictable (although the White House does not seem to have been fully forewarned of it) but it has nonetheless made US policy infinitely more difficult. If President Bush came unstuck trying to impose democracy at the end of a bayonet, ironically it has been elections around the world that have proved his successor's undoing.

Yet it must also be admitted that Obama is the author of some of his own frustrations. His intentions are good. But to move from tone to effect actual change needed a much better understanding of what was happening on the ground than he has so far shown.

The problem is partly one of personnel. If the President was really to change direction he needed, like John F Kennedy, to surround himself with a young team determined on change. Instead, on foreign affairs, he has largely appointed old Clintonians such as Dennis Ross in the Middle East, Richard Holbrooke for Afghanistan and Pakistan and, of course, Hillary Clinton herself, while in defence he has kept Robert Gates in post.

It has given him experience, but not fresh thinking. And that matters, particularly in the Middle East where so many initiatives have ended in failure, but also in Afghanistan, where more of the same clearly can't work, or in Iran, where past policies of confrontation and isolation have proved fruitless.

But it is also the nature of US politics that is defeating Obama. In himself I believe he is different from the past in his view of America's role in the world and, just as important, its real power to influence events. Yet, on the Hill, the world is still seen through the prism of American superior power, its ability and indeed is right to shape events as it sees fit; its decades-old dislike of the Iranian revolutionary regime and, above all, its absolute commitment to Israeli security, which has determined policy in the Middle East for so long.

You don't have to believe the wilder conspiracy theories, to know that, as far as America's relations with Israel are concerned, it is the latter which holds the whip hand if only because, when push comes to shove, Washington will never force an Israeli government to do what it doesn't want to. And so it has proved in this case.

In the end Obama has been unable to pressure Benjamin Netanyahu in to halting settlement building, the Arab litmus test of the White House's willingness to adopt a more even-handed policy in the region. Worse, over the UN report on Israel's invasion of Gaza and the recent reconciliation talks between Hamas and Fatah in Egypt, Washington has actively intervened to protect Jerusalem in the one case and to undermine Palestinians' efforts at a unity government in the other.

So too with Iran. Obama had the choice of using the reconvened direct talks with Iran this month either to encourage Iran with a new spirit of co-operation or alternatively to press harder America's demands that it cease uranium enrichment. That Obama so disappointingly chose the latter route, imposing a time limit of the end of this year and drumming up international support for sanctions if Tehran did not comply (submit, as the Iranians see it), is at least partly due to Israel's insistence that Iran be confronted or it would take direct military action against them.

All is not lost. It is still possible that the White House could use the period of reassessment of its Afghan policy to step back from additional deployment and to think again whether it can and should impose its ideas of civil society on Afghanistan and instead concentrate it attentions of rooting out al-Qa'ida and supporting Pakistan in its attempts to reassert control of the tribal lands.

There is still time for Washington to develop more a nuanced and more productive relationship with Tehran, turning down the volume on nuclear and raising its concern about democracy there. It could still manage by sheer persistence to get the Israelis and Palestinians talking again, however tentatively.

One fears, however, that it will be more of the same. It will be the Palestinians not the Israelis who will be pressured into concessions so that Washington can claim progress in a charade that only humiliates the Arab leaders. The screws will be tightened on an Iran which will retreat more and more into its own shell with greater oppression inside and no meaningful progress outside. And America, like Britain, will go on sending troops to Afghanistan with no visible end in sight.

It's not what Obama came in intending to achieve. But it is where he will go unless he takes a personal grip on foreign policy and forces change. Or unless a major crisis develops which shows, as Cuba showed Kennedy, what the new President is really made of.