Commentary: Obama's Foreign Policy Gamble

Sep 30, 2013


In the same week Congress decides on whether or not to defund the Affordable Care Act and/or prevent a government shutdown, President Barack Obama made his remarks to the United Nations General Assembly, outlining the role of the United States in the Middle East and Worldwide. Commentator, Murray State History Professor and Foreign Policy Analyst, Dr. Brian Clardy examines the underlying message of the Presidents' speech and its potential challenges. Please note that the views expressed in this commentator are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of WKMS.

With the crisis over Syria’s production and use of chemical weapons looming in the background, and tensions in the larger Middle East reaching a near boiling point, President Obama addressed the United Nations General Assembly to outline a broad vision for peace and stability for the region, as well as the intimate role that the United States would play in resolving future conflict.

The speech was bold and imaginative. And if taken literally, it could signal the start of larger engagement in the region that privileges practical diplomacy over the use of military force and a possible rapprochement with 34 year old enemy: Iran.

Evoking the compassion of Jimmy Carter, but the firm resolve of George W. Bush, the President suggested:

In the near term, America’s diplomatic efforts will focus on two particular issues: Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and the Arab- Israeli conflict. While these issues are not the cause of all the region’s problems, they have been a major source of instability for far too long, and resolving them can help serve as a foundation for a broader peace.

These two broad objectives are now at the center of the Obama foreign policy in the Middle East, but what is needed is more specifics as to how each goal will be achieved.

While Secretary John Kerry will be engaged in efforts to achieve the first goal, the President must clearly spell out how a Washington-Tehran rapprochement will take place against the backdrop of Tehran’s flagrant human rights abuses, its recent bellicose rhetoric concerning Israel’s safety, and their sponsorship of terrorist groups like Hezbollah.  

The key to all of this will rest in whether or not PresidentHassan Rouhani is sincere and speaks for all of the Iranian government and if he is willing to take Iran towards a more moderate diplomatic course. If President Obama can secure cooperation on nudging Tehran to abandon its nuclear program, then he could use that same leverage to induce Iran to be a full partner in the larger Middle East peace process and to combat the spread of weapons of mass destruction among non-state actors. This is a risky gamble.

If this effort fails, then it is back to the proverbial post 1979 “Square One.”

On the larger initiative in the Arab-Israeli conflict, the President will need to successfully resolve the Syrian crisis in a way that allows for a peaceful resolution the results in the Assad regime fully transferring their chemical weapons stockpiles in cooperation with the Russian Federation and the UN. This will give the President real credibility to approach the Israelis, the Palestinians and other stakeholders to come to the negotiating table to build on Camp David, Oslo, and Wye River to assure a stable peace.

But here, the President must be extremely careful not to back the Israelis into a corner by pressing for a resolution of Jerusalem’s status. And he must not evoke the earlier request that Israel retreat to its pre 1967 borders. That would be a non-starter. Instead, the Obama Administration should act with a quintet including the UN, the Russian Federation, The Arab League, and NATO to hash out issues as water sharing rights, the right of return, and settlements before tackling any possible issues that could lead to a debilitating stalemate.

In essence, President Obama has his work cut out for him. The stakes for his presidency, and indeed America’s place in the world, are high. And like a game of chess, the President must not be too careful to sacrifice his pieces in order to achieve an early checkmate, but instead to move cautiously as to give his and future administrations the latitude that they need to bring about stability.

Dr. Brian Clardy is an Assistant Professor of History and Coordinator of Religious Studies at Murray State University. He is also the Wednesday night host of Cafe Jazz on WKMS.