Clinton’s Camp David negotiations and Bush’s Annapolis process became signature foreign policy priorities in 2000 and 2007. However, the Israelis and the Palestinians remain as far apart as ever on the contours of an agreement, from the borders of their two separate states to issues related to refugees and resources.
Any Obama-led plan for the Middle East will be complicated by Israel’s fears about the Iranian nuclear program, civil war in Syria and the new reality of an Islamist-led Egypt having replaced the US’ most faithful Arab ally. Obama’s difficult relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could also complicate the process.
With Iran, the president is holding out hope that crippling economic sanctions will force the Islamic republic’s leaders to scale back its uranium enrichment activity.
Iran insists its program is designed for energy and medical research purposes, even as many in the West fear the ultimate goal is to produce nuclear weapons. Obama has stressed the narrowing time frame for Tehran to negotiate a peaceful solution to the standoff, while pressing Israel to hold off on any plans for a pre-emptive strike.
Officials say the administration is likely to adjust its two-track approach to Iran — which offers Tehran rewards for coming clean on its nuclear program and harsher penalties for continued defiance — in the coming weeks. Details are still being debated. However, in the end, Obama may have to resort to a military strategy if Iran continues to enrich uranium at higher levels and nears production of weapons-grade material — a possible scenario he acknowledges.
“The clock is ticking. We’re not going to allow Iran to perpetually engage in negotiations that lead nowhere,” Obama said in his last foreign policy debate with Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
“We have a sense of when they would get breakout capacity, which means that we would not be able to intervene in time to stop their nuclear program,” he said.
Syria’s widening conflict is another concern. More than 36,000 people have died in the last 20 months, as a brutal crackdown on dissent by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime has descended into a full-scale civil war.
Obama has demanded al-Assad’s departure, yet has ruled out military assistance to the rebels or US military actions such as airstrikes or enforcing a no-fly zone over Syria.
Last week, in a significant shift in policy, the secretary of state demanded a major shakeup in the opposition’s ranks in the hopes of rallying Syrians behind the rebellion. However, Clinton’s spokeswoman, Victoria Nuland, reiterated on Wednesday the administration still rejects the notion of providing weapons to anti-al-Assad fighters or any talk of armed intervention.
In other places, Obama’s engagement efforts may get another look. After some success with a rapidly liberalizing Myanmar, there are hopes for democratic reforms and human rights advances in Cuba and North Korea, among others.
However, short of a rapid change in attitude from these governments, Obama’s options for a landmark breakthrough in US diplomacy are limited. He won’t be able to reach out to Havana until it frees the jailed US contractor Alan Gross, while Pyongyang will have to denuclearize if it wants better relations with the US — steps neither regime has shown a willingness to entertain. The recent re-election of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has halted chances for now of any rapprochement between Washington and Caracas.