Stand up and fight, Mr. President!

The moment requires courage, conviction -- and presidential leadership. How will President Obama respond?

Topics: Obama, Netanyahu, Iran, United Nations, Editor's Picks, Israel, ,

Stand up and fight, Mr. President! (Credit: Reuters/Andrew Burton)

Remarkable doings at the U.N. this week. Remember these days. They are going to change the way we understand the dynamic in the Middle East — what is possible and what not.

General Assemblies ordinarily do no more than clog traffic on Manhattan’s East Side and fill tables at pricey French restos. This one, No. 68, is turning out differently. Something is happening at this session, which runs into next week — something small now but destined to grow large, in my view.

But we have to start with what did not happen.

Everyone was aflutter before the GA opened, given that President Obama would be milling around the same diplomatic lounges as Iran’s new reformist president, Hassan Rouhani. They were going to address the same heads of state, taking up the same topic: Can Washington and Tehran get beyond three and a half decades of enmity and advance toward a cooperative relationship? People fixated on the thought of a handshake. Nixon and Mao. Kissinger and Lê Đức Thọ. Begin and Arafat. Obama and Rouhani.

There was no handshake. Muted groans all around.

It matters not. The only interesting thing about the missing handshake was how Washington played it. Obama was ready; the ayatollah was just not up to it: This was the drift, faithfully conveyed by our media, which went, profoundly, from a fixation on the handshake to a fixation on the no-handshake. It is nonsense. Rouhani has his adversaries at home, plainly. But the man is out there in the political pit taking on the beast, and this is just as plain. Obama is the one tiptoeing past the political risk — less courageously, you have to say.

Obama’s courage, indeed, will be much at issue in coming weeks. He took the wise choice at the General Assembly — he opened the door to Rouhani’s invitation to negotiate past differences on Iran’s nuclear program, Syria, Israel and much else. Is he committed to it? Does he share the vision Rouhani articulates as to all that can come — all over the Middle East — from a renovated relationship?

It is hard to say, and one worries. Obama will require more guts than now seems evident if he is going to get this done. And his opener at the U.N. was less than promising. “The roadblocks may prove to be too great,” he said in reply to Rouhani’s demarche, “but I firmly believe the diplomatic path must be tested.” It is not much by way of compelling beliefs, fair to say. (Memo to speechwriters: It is upside down, reeking of diffidence. Do it this way next time: “Let us mount the diplomatic path and tamp it firm by treading it. Let us push aside what roadblocks may lie ahead.”)



The GA is not over yet, and the best may be yet to come. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stayed home this week, snubbing (rudely, as he does things) the Obama and Rouhani speeches (and instructing the Israeli delegation in New York to avoid Rouhani’s). He is due to address the assembly next Tuesday, having just journeyed to Washington for a face-to-face in the Oval Office. These are the next big moments. They will test Obama’s commitment and, let’s say, chutzpah. They will afford a glimpse as to how — with wisdom or violence — the Middle East can advance beyond its incessant state of crisis. It does not get much bigger.

This brings us to the significance of GA No. 68. The equation laid bare in New York this week is this: Washington needs to reimagine its policies in the Middle East, Iran being a self-evident example. This will require an adjustment in U.S. policy toward Israel. This is the core reality. The question is whether leadership finds this adjustment politically and diplomatically possible. If it does, Washington can respond at last to an awakening Middle East. If it does not, relations with Israel will set the limits of America’s capacity to recast its ties in a region demanding it do so.

This is what Rouhani carried to New York in his suitcase. Stripping this choice to its pith is the task he came to accomplish. It is why Netanyahu refuses to listen to him. It is what causes those simpering sounds emitting from the White House. The past (known) is often preferred to the future (unknown). Enemies proposing friendship can be more frightening than enemies. These are Rouhani’s challenges — I suspect, just as he intended them.

These days are so filled with event on the foreign relations side that we have a brief time to consider preference and probability, one next to the other.

You are reading a columnist with a vigorous preference for a new path forward in the Middle East. Three reasons:

• We and the Middle East need it. Americans love their technological innovations, but iGadgets are not true innovations — changes in the way we think and do things and understand others. We do not get much innovation done on the foreign relations side, for instance. This would be authentic innovation, but there is little to none so far as I can make out. Look at Egypt. We had a duly elected government and could manage nothing more than a reversion to support for military cruelty.  Even Obama, at the U.N., acknowledged “the hostility that our engagement in the region has engendered throughout the Muslim world.” All you have to do is think of why this hostility arises. It is not a given. We earned it and can earn our way out of it.

• Iran is a splendid potential friend. “All that’s gold doesn’t shine,” as the old Dylan lyric goes. It is an emerging regional power, regardless of whether we or the Israelis or the Iranians themselves want this to be so. Its influence will be inevitable in coming years. There are diverse tendencies within Iran, rather as there are everywhere, not least in the U.S., and Rouhani’s leap to the U.N. podium tells us the constructive, engaging tendency is on the ascendant now. To connect with it, all we have to do is drop our suspicion of all “difference,” in that the project cannot be to make Iranians be as we are. That is a loser. “The paradox of Iran is that it just might be the most pro-American — or, perhaps, least anti-American — populace in the Muslim world.” That is Karim Sadjadpour, an analyst in Tehran for the International Crisis Group, speaking in 2005. Anyone who knows Iran and its people knows this remains true times two. We have wasted an asset for a long time.

• Washington must recognize that the relationship with Israel is badly misshapen — damaging to the U.S., to Israel itself, and to the Arab world (and to the Iranians, obviously). The fact that writing the above sentence is a source of anxiety for an American columnist is a symptom of the problem. Honest Israelis know well the lock they have on American politics, our most powerful media, and the process wherein policy and conscience mix. Remaining quiet on this point is a failing option. A good reading of history will tell you that the Holocaust was made an industry in the U.S. after the 1967 war, when the Israeli war machine first proved itself and memory was leveraged into “strategy.” This good reading can be found in a book just named: “The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering,” by Norman G. Finkelstein. The point is credibly made — and by a Jew, which has spared the book big problems. Normalizing ties with Israel — it is just the word — will open the U.S. to new thinking in the Middle East and do Israel much good, providing the Israeli leadership has a fraction of the courage and humanity so many individual Jews have so famously displayed.

I will revel in my preferences while I can entertain them, because the probability is disappointment. Just two reasons this time:

• Obama appears not to register the magnitude of his moment. And without the vision, he will not have the fight. In my expectation, he will go down like a stick of butter when faced with lobby-manipulated men and women on Capitol Hill and Netanyahu’s strong-man act.

• Netanyahu, then. I have rated him before in this space as the Middle East’s most dangerous man, and he will now prove it once more — when, as is likely, he scuttles progress between Washington and Tehran. At the moment, Obama’s timid acceptance of Iran’s opening has Netanyahu on his back foot. His water-carriers in the Jerusalem think tanks deployed this week to get him across as a cautious man. But this is mere “media spin,” to apply a little immanent critique to Netanyahu’s irrational dismissal last week of Rouhani’s efforts. Netanyahu may work some openness and reason and good will into his GA speech. But add “pseudo” to each descriptive. The Jersusalem Post warns us he plans to compare Iran to North Korea, which will be clunky beyond all belief. In the Oval Office with Obama, the Israeli leader will open up with both guns blazing, and new diplomacy is unlikely to be among the survivors. He believes in violence. There are historical reasons for this, but none stands as a justification.

We need context fully to grasp this week at the U.N. It has to do with history, and it is always hard to see history when you are living it.

The U.S. entered a passage of fundamental change in what I have called in this space “the dangerous summer,” meaning these past several months. The earth’s crust is shifting, figuratively. Washington will either change the cast of its foreign relations or pay the price of not doing so. Preventing change is no longer on the table.

So far, it does not look good, and there is a reason why beyond sheer inertia. The travesty in Egypt, capped with Secretary of State Kerry’s defense of the army coup as “restoring democracy,” was for Israel’s sake. The rogue-nation plan to shell Syria, aborted at the last moment, was in large measure for Israel’s sake. We now witness a third chance to decide well or badly — the biggest of the three. Flinch from the Iranian challenge, and it will be for Israel’s sake — Netanyahu’s Israel, anyway.

It is the likely outcome at this moment. Netanyahu will do in all prospects for progress by reasserting his collection of purposefully invasive demands on Iranian sovereignty and rights under international law.

But let us watch. Surprise an hour these days.

Patrick Smith is the author of “Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century.” He was the International Herald Tribune’s bureau chief in Hong Kong and then Tokyo from 1985 to 1992. During this time he also wrote “Letter from Tokyo” for the New Yorker. He is the author of four previous books and has contributed frequently to the New York Times, the Nation, the Washington Quarterly, and other publications. Follow him on Twitter, @thefloutist.

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