US President-elect Barack Obama has properly sought to maintain a low profile in foreign affairs in this transition period ahead of his January inauguration. But while Obama has stipulated that the US can have only one president at a time, his aides and advisers are signaling that he intends to move US foreign policy in a sharply different direction from its current trajectory once he assumes office.
And they are signaling that this new direction will be applied most immediately and directly to US policy toward the Middle East.
Early in the Democratic Party's primary season, the Obama campaign released a list of the now-president-elect's foreign policy advisers to The Washington Post. The list raised a great deal of concern in policy circles, particularly among supporters of the US-Israel alliance. It included outspoken critics of Israel such as Zbigniew Brzezinski, who served as national security adviser under president Jimmy Carter, and Robert Malley, who served as a junior Middle East aide to president Bill Clinton. Both men are deeply hostile to Israel and both have called repeatedly for the US to end its strategic alliance with Israel.
In the months that followed the list's publication, the Obama campaign sought to distance itself from both men as the president-elect's advisers worked to position Obama as a centrist candidate.
Brzezinski was cast aside in February when he headed a delegation to Syria to meet with President Bashar Assad. The purpose of his "fact-finding" mission was to castigate the Bush administration for its refusal to pursue Syria as an ally, and to decry Damascus's international isolation caused by its support for the insurgency in Iraq, its strategic alliance with Iran, its support for Hizbullah as well as Hamas and al-Qaida, its illicit nuclear program and its subversion of the pro-Western Lebanese government.
To Brzezinski's dismay, his mission was overtaken by events. The depth of Syria's support for terror was graphically displayed during his visit when arch-Iranian/Lebanese terrorist Imad Mughniyeh was killed in Damascus the day after he called on Assad.
Although he was a junior staffer in Clinton's National Security Council, since 2000 Malley has used his Clinton administration credentials to pave his emergence as one of America's most outspoken apologists for Palestinian terrorism against Israel. Immediately after the failed July 2000 Camp David peace summit, Malley invented the Palestinian "narrative" of the summit's proceedings. While Clinton, then-prime minister Ehud Barak, and Ambassador Dennis Ross, who served as Clinton's chief negotiator, have all concurred that Yasser Arafat torpedoed the prospects of peace when he refused Barak's offer of Palestinian statehood, Malley claimed falsely that Israel was to blame for the failure of the talks.
In succeeding years, he has expanded his condemnation of Israel. He insists that not only Palestinian aggression, but Syrian, Lebanese and Iranian attacks against Israel are all Israel's fault. The Obama campaign distanced itself from Malley in May after the Times of London reported that he was meeting regularly with Hamas terror leaders.
As the election drew closer, the Obama campaign expanded its efforts to present its candidate as a foreign policy moderate. Moderate foreign policy advisers such as Ross were paraded before reporters. Both Obama and his surrogates insisted that he supports a strong American alliance with Israel. Obama abandoned his earlier pledge to withdraw all US forces from Iraq by 2010. He attempted to temper and later deny his public pledge to hold direct negotiations with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad without preconditions.
Due in large part to media credulousness, Obama's new image as a centrist was widely accepted by the public. And it is likely that he owes a significant portion of his support in the American Jewish community to the campaign's success in distancing Obama from men like Brzezinski and Malley.
BUT NOW that the campaign is over, it appears that as his critics warned, Obama's moves toward the center on issues relating to the Middle East were little more than campaign tactics to obscure his true policy preferences.
Two days after his election, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius gave a sense of the direction in which Obama will likely take US foreign policy. And, apparently directed by Obama's campaign staff, Ignatius based much of his column on his belief that Obama's foreign policy views have been shaped by his "informal" adviser, Brzezinski.
Based on what Brzezinski and Obama's "official" campaign told him, Ignatius wrote that the two major issues where Obama's foreign policy is likely to diverge from Bush's right off the bat are Israel and Iran. Obama, he claimed, will want to push hard to force Israel to come to an agreement with the Palestinians as soon as he comes into office. As for Iran, Obama plans to move immediately to improve US relations with the nuclear-weapons-building ayatollahs.
As for Malley, an aide of his told Frontpage magazine this week that acting on Obama's instructions, Malley traveled to Cairo and Damascus after Obama's electoral victory to tell Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Assad that "the Obama administration would take into greater account Egyptian and Syrian interests."
In a related story, Hamas terror operative Ahmad Youssef told the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper that in the months leading up to his election, Obama's advisers held steady contacts with the leaders of the terror group in Gaza, and had asked that Hamas keep the meetings secret in order not to harm Obama's chances of being elected.
Both Obama's transition team and Hamas leaders were quick to deny Youssef's statements. Yet, together with the earlier Times of London story about Malley's contacts with Hamas and the new revelations about Malley serving as Obama's unofficial Middle East envoy, the Al-Hayat report has the ring of truth.
Even more foreboding than these reports are statements by Obama's foreign policy advisers regarding his plans to open direct contacts with Iran. On Wednesday The Washington Post reported that Obama intends to move quickly to seek an accommodation with Iran regarding Afghanistan. Obama's advisers assert that such a deal is possible because as far as they are concerned, the Shi'ite Iranians oppose Sunni jihadists just as much as the US does.
But the facts do not support this view. Top US and British military commanders have asserted repeatedly that Iran is a major sponsor of the Taliban and al-Qaida in their war against the Afghan government and NATO forces in the country. Since 2006, Iran has provided advanced weapons, money and political support to the Taliban and al-Qaida insurgents in the country.
The Obama team's rejection of the demonstrated reality of Iran's support for the Taliban and al-Qaida in favor of a policy based on the fantasy that it is possible to cut a deal with the ayatollahs will undoubtedly not be his last move in the mullahs' direction. It will likely be quickly followed by an offer to conduct direct, high level talks with Iran's leaders about their nuclear weapons program.
What is most disturbing about Obama's emerging foreign policy is not simply that it ignores the reality on the ground – a reality that clearly demonstrates that Iran and its Syrian, Palestinian and Lebanese surrogates are implacable foes of Israel and America and therefore not interested in being appeased. It is also not just the fact that it sends a signal of American weakness to Iran and its proxies just as Iran reaches the nuclear threshold. And Obama's emerging foreign policy is not merely disconcerting because by speaking with Iran and its proxies, Obama will be legitimizing the genocidal reg
ime in Teheran.
WHAT IS most alarming about Obama's emerging foreign policy toward Iran and its proxies on the one hand and Israel on the other is that it will cause actual harm to the Jewish state.
By pressuring Israel to cede land to Syria and the Palestinians, Obama's apparent foreign policy will provide Iran with still more territory from which to attack Israel both through its terror proxies and with its expanding ballistic missile arsenal. By embracing the Syrian regime in spite of its support for terrorism, its nuclear proliferation activities and its subversion of Lebanon, the incoming Obama administration will embolden Syria to increase its subversion of Lebanon and Iraq, while strengthening its ties to Iran still further.
As for direct talks with Iran itself, the question immediately arises, what could Obama offer Teheran in exchange for an end to its nuclear program that Bush hasn't already offered?
What it can offer is Israel.
Over the past few years, Obama's top nuclear nonproliferation adviser, Joe Cirincione, has repeatedly advocated placing Israel's nuclear arsenal on the negotiating table and offering it up in exchange for an Iranian pledge to end its nuclear program. Defense Secretary Robert Gates – whom Obama is considering retaining – insinuated in his 2006 confirmation hearings that Iran is only building nuclear weapons to defend itself against Israel. Gates, it should be recalled, has been instrumental in convincing Bush not only not to attack Iran's nuclear installations, but not to support an Israeli attack against Iran's nuclear installations.
What is profoundly distressing about statements by men like Cirincione and Gates is what they tell us about the strategic reasoning informing the incoming Obama administration. Their views echo those voiced by advocates of American abandonment of Israel such as Professors Steve Walt and John Mearshimer. Walt and Mearshimer argue that Iran is not a threat to US interests or to global security because in the event that the mullahs acquire nuclear weapons, they are likely to view them merely as a deterrent against Iran's enemies. And as a result, Iran will respond as the Soviet Union did to a deterrent model based on mutually assured destruction.
This view is contradicted by Iran's open advocacy of Israel's destruction, and its declared willingness to absorb a nuclear attack in return for destroying Israel. But assuming that this is how the Obama team views Iran, they should be the last ones advocating Israeli disarmament. Because if this is their view, then by their own reasoning, Israel's presumed nuclear arsenal is necessary to deter Teheran from attacking. And if as Cirincione advocates, Obama intends to place Israel's nuclear arsenal on the negotiating table, he will effectively be giving Iran a green light to attack Israel with nuclear weapons.
All of the Obama team's post-election/pre-inaugural foreign policy signals place Israel's next government – which will only be elected on February 10 – in an extraordinarily difficult position.
It is not just that their positions make clear that the Obama administration will do nothing to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. The Obama team's pre-inaugural signals indicate strongly that Israel's next government will need to strike Iran's nuclear installations before two rapidly approaching deadlines.
The strike will have to occur before the mullahs enrich sufficient quantities of highly enriched uranium to produce nuclear bombs. And Israel will need to neutralize Iran's nuclear program before the Obama administration begins implementing America's new foreign policy.
Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.