The breaking news that al Qaeda has captured Fallujah and Ramadi raises the question whether America’s sacrifices in Iraq were made in vain. It also highlights the utter inadequacy of President Obama’s Middle East policy, especially his disregard for critical regional threats.
Instead, Obama has focused on Israeli-Palestinian issues, essentially to no avail. Despite Secretary of State John Kerry’s repeated visits, including one just ended, the “peace process” has seen no significant movement.
Proponents of “peace processing” ignore this reality, asserting that the process itself has an inherent value, and that real movement comes only when deadlines loom and decision-makers realize “it’s now or never” to “take risks for peace” and achieve “a peace for the brave.” And when all else fails, peace processers say, “What have we got to lose?”
Such rhetoric might be appealing initially, but it is in fact utterly hollow. The entirely predictable unraveling of Obama’s current effort is neither novel nor surprising. What is surprising is the near-religious faith peace processers still profess, despite the overwhelming contrary evidence. It’s therefore critical to note the negative consequences of their approach — because there is indeed much to lose by continuing to follow their strategy.
Diplomacy, like all human activity, has costs as well as benefits. The obsessive focus on Israeli-Palestinian issues incurs what economists call “opportunity costs” — namely, the lost opportunity to concentrate on other issues of greater importance or where there are better chances for progress. This is a decidedly serious problem.
The most immediate costs fall on the parties themselves, especially Palestinians, used and abused for decades not by Israel, but by Middle Eastern radicals who’ve made “Palestine” the point of their attack against Israel’s very existence.
With attention diverted from repeated failures to create legitimate, representative institutions of governance, Palestinians have been left with a corrupt, ineffective Palestinian Authority, no functioning economy, few useful economic skills, precious little foreign investment and a dependency existence fostered by UN and other relief programs.
The vaunted “international community” should feel only shame for emphasizing the mirage of “Palestine” instead of the basic economic aspirations of individual Palestinians.
As a result of all this, there is simply no Palestinian entity that can make and implement the kinds of commitments necessary to sustain a true peace agreement. This is the basic reason why the current Obama-Kerry effort must inevitably fail.
Individual Palestinian leaders may perform responsibly, not simply grasping for wealth and power, but they alone can’t provide adequate assurances of sustaining any agreement over time.
Israel, in turn, faces even graver problems, notably Iran’s nuclear-weapons program, resurgent terrorism and the failure of the Arab Spring. Every hour spent talking to Secretary Kerry about West Bank apartment construction is an hour not spent addressing these more serious issues.
US time and resources are also being diverted from other, more-pressing international problems, not least of which are elsewhere in the Middle East. Iran’s nuclear-weapons program is not merely or even primarily Israel’s problem, it is America’s. Unfortunately, Obama’s administration is making the same mistake as its predecessors by trying (and failing) to negotiate Iran out of its nuclear ambitions.
But even beyond that, Obama’s misjudgments and inattention are imperiling the entire region. Libya is dissolving partly because Obama lost interest once Khadafy was overthrown, leading to the Sept. 11, 2012, murders in Benghazi, which remain unavenged and unresolved 16 months later. Syria is not only in chaos, but so too is Obama’s Syria policy, incoherent to the point of embarrassment for almost three years.
There is turmoil across North Africa as Islamic extremists and militants threaten existing governments. South Sudan is collapsing in civil war and others seem destined to follow. And, again, there is al Qaeda’s resurgence in Iraq.
More globally, of course, are the serious problems of Chinese territorial aggrandizement in Asia; Russian efforts to re-establish hegemony in Ukraine, the Caucasus and other former Soviet states, as well as North Korea’s threatening nuclear-weapons program.
The list is long. For Obama to focus on Israel-Palestinian issues to the effective exclusion of others more pressing in the short run and more consequential in the long run therefore imposes high costs on the United States and future administrations.
Finally, there is always the danger that, as the “peace process” deadline approaches, the White House will try to impose a solution on Israel. If so, some will undoubtedly hail it as representing success for Obama’s efforts, but that would be pure propaganda.
The parties must themselves not only want peace, as former Secretary of State Jim Baker repeatedly emphasized, but they must also both be capable of it. Until those conditions are met, peace processing is not just wasteful but potentially dangerous.
John Bolton is a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. This article was originally published by the New York Post.