The Gathering Danger Of Obama’s Lame Duck Foreign Policy

Robert G. Kaufman Professor of Public Policy, Pepperdine University
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President Obama’s foreign policy has entered a more perilous phase since Republicans thrashed the Democrats in the midterm elections this November. Freed from the constraints of electoral politics, the lame duck Obama administration appears poised to intensify pressure on Israel to make unprecedented and improvident concessions.

Haaretz — one of Israel’s most reliable news sources — reported earlier in the month that the administration is seriously contemplating imposing sanctions on Israel in response to the Netanyahu government’s decision to build 1060 housing units in the vicinity of Jerusalem, the legality of which no previous administration has disputed.

On December 4, State Department spokesman Marie Harf gave credence to the plausibility of the report by declining to deny it in her daily briefing. Nor would Ms. Harf rule out categorically the United States eventually emulating France, Belgium, Sweden, and various other EU states in recognizing a Palestinian state unilaterally even prior to an agreement between Israel and a Palestinian entity. Israeli statesmen across the political spectrum assail such measures as a boon for Palestinian intransigence, encouraging the most radical elements of the Palestinian leadership to take maximalist positions, reject compromise, and refuse to negotiate directly with Israel.

The trajectory Obama administration’s policies toward  Israel also raises the ominous possibility that it will eventually refrain from exercising the U.S. veto in the UN Security Council the next time Israel’s legion of enemies attempt to secure full-fledged recognition of a Palestinian state. Palestinians existentially hostile to Israel have long envisaged such recognition as a strategy for delegitimizing Israel as an apartheid regime analogous to pre-Mandela South Africa. The imposition of U.S. sanctions on Israel and/or U.S. abstention on a UN vote to recognize a Palestinian state would have devastating consequences, putting Israel on a path to isolation that is difficult to reverse, while emboldening  Israel’s most implacable enemies.

President Obama’s evident determination to provoke a showdown with Netanyahu over settlements culminates a precipitous deterioration in American-Israeli relations during 2014. Senator Kerry’s ill-fated endeavor to broker a final Israeli-Palestinian peace and his intimation that Israel risked becoming an apartheid state enraged and alarmed Israel and its supporters in the United States. The war in Gaza this summer was fed by the animosity between the president and the Israeli prime minister. Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry’s push for an early cease fire undercut Israel’s legitimate interests in achieving a decisive victory over Hamas — the Palestinian equivalent of ISIS.  Their ill-advised efforts to rescue Hamas from the consequences of their own execrable actions also dismayed the Saudi and Egyptian governments, which also hoped Israel would crush Hamas.

Relations between President Obama and Netanyahu plummeted further days before the Midterm election when Jeffrey Goldberg — a commentator in whom the Obama administration has confided frequently — quoted one leading American official calling Netanyahu a “chickenshit” prime minister only concerned with his political survival and another calling Netanyahu a “coward.” The administration’s incendiary remarks about the Israeli Prime Minister became public amids raging disagreements between the two leaders over a possibly impending nuclear deal with Iran.

Not just Israelis, but many Americans too find the president’s propensity for treating the virulently anti-American Iran with more solicitude than decent, democratic Israel disturbing. As the president contemplates imposing sanctions on Israel, he has agreed to ease them on an Iranian regime duplicitously using negotiations to achieve a nuclear breakout capability. The administration agreed in November 2014 to extend nuclear talks with Iran for seven months despite little tangible evidence that more time will induce the Iranian regime to make genuine rather than phantom concessions.

This announcement came shortly after the Wall Street Journal disclosed that the president secretly wrote to Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei describing their shared interest in combatting ISIS and assuring that American military operations in Syria would not target Iran’s surrogate — the murderous, anti-American regime of Bashar al-Assad.

The president has thus staked final two years of his increasingly embattled presidency on the preposterous idea that the United States should consider a decent, democratic Netanyahu government more dangerous than Iran under the ayatollahs. While unjustly demonizing Netanyahu, the president assumes that diplomacy can tame Iran’s nuclear ambitions and transform that regime into a regional partner. Inevitably, the president’s courtship of Iran will antagonize less anti-American Sunni regimes such as Saudi Arabia, facilitate rather than impede Iran going nuclear, and enable radicalism throughout the Middle East.

Throwing Israel under the bus while fawning over Iran distills the essence of  the President’s foreign policy legacy — a world made safer for America’s enemies and more perilous for democratic friends. Instead of heeding the lessons of his midterm defeat, the president had doubled down on his worst foreign policy instincts. Not just Israel, but American allies everywhere should beware. Meanwhile, Republicans must summon the fortitude and the foresight to limit the damage while articulating a compelling alternative agenda that will restore moral and geopolitical sanity in the presidential election of 2016.