Paul Pillar

Who Made Messes in the Middle East?

John Bolton's anti-Obama missive in these spaces—in which the former Bush administration official tries to tie the current president to a globe full of miseries but especially to problems in the Middle East, where Bolton says that Obama's “failings as president” are “most evident”—is a history-erasing attempt to shift blame for failures that, to the extent they reflect U.S. responsibility at all, are far more the doing of the team of which Mr. Bolton was a part. Many examples could be drawn from Bolton's tendentious tour d'horizon—for example, the nuclear program of North Korea, which detonated its first nuclear device during the George W. Bush administration. But since Bolton emphasizes the Middle East, let us just note a couple of the more obvious bits of blame-shifting involving that region.

Regarding the much-discussed Palestinian statehood initiative, Bolton says this initiative “likely came about because it [the Palestinian Authority] had become so committed to some kind of UN action it could not reverse course without being humiliated.” Bolton blames the whole situation on Obama's “passivity and mixed signals.” As anyone who has opened a newspaper and followed any news out of the Middle East for some years can see, the initiative came about because after 44 years of post-conquest Israeli occupation and nearly two decades of off-and-on diplomacy on the subject, the Palestinians were no closer to getting the state that the U.N. partition plan of 1947 had promised them. Instead, with the continuing Israeli colonization of the territories, the Palestinians saw that statehood was becoming an ever more remote possibility. Much of this happened during the eight-year watch of Mr. Bush, who effectively enabled the unilateral Israeli creation of more facts on the ground, who did not want to be bothered by peace diplomacy, who was more interested in pursuing a different project in the Middle East, and who made a feeble stab at getting a peace process back under way only late in his administration after the other project went awry.

Bolton laments that Iran has “marched inexorably forward with its nuclear weapons program” (is it marching any more now than it was throughout the eight years of the Bush administration?) and that President Ahmedinejad will be “this week's real winner in New York.” Well, Iranian influence in the Middle East certainly has increased in recent years. And by far the single biggest reason for that increase was that big Bush administration project in the Middle East, the Iraq War.

President Obama is indeed making a couple of mistakes about the Middle East and especially the Israeli-Palestinian issue. One he already has made was to back away from his initial insistence that the Israeli colonization project must stop. One he is about to make, depending on what direction the diplomacy in New York takes in the next few days, is to veto a Security Council resolution on Palestinian statehood. Bolton says if the Palestinian initiative goes forward there would be “no option” but to cast a veto. Nonsense. The only reason the veto would be cast is fear of the political power of the lobby that punishes American leaders for differing with the preferences of the Israeli government, regardless of where U.S. national interests lie. I wrote earlier why a veto would be a moral and policy mistake. It may also be a political one; as David Rothkopf observes:

Once again, the transformational Obama has been sold out by the political Obama. The fact that the President is unlikely to receive credit for his stance with Jewish voters might be seen as a bitter irony associated with the calculated shift. But it's not. It's a recognition that Jewish voters ... like healthcare reform advocates and those hoping for a break from Washington business as usual and those seeking true financial services reform and those seeking economic policies that can produce growth for all segments of American society ... are not suckers. They recognize when they are being played and pandered to and they distrust leaders whose most dependable trait is their willingness to shift their positions to suit their momentary political needs.

Meanwhile, let us not forget, despite the spirited efforts of the likes of Bolton, what policies have led to or exacerbated the messes in the Middle East that Barack Obama inherited.