An impressive ability to mess up

It seems the Obama administration has finally found itself the sort of mishandled foreign policy problem without which no agonizing political tailspin is complete, a dispute with Israel over housing in East Jerusalem that comforts their enemies, alarms their friends and annoys voters. Now it only remains to be seen how cluelessly they will thrash their way through it. You can't get into a crisis like the one that erupted during Vice-President Joe Biden's visit last Tuesday without some preparatory blunders, particularly intellectual. And President Obama and his advisers started with a howler that, being tiresomely familiar, offered no hope of a creative exit when it failed again.

They assumed everyone in the Middle East wants peace except, perhaps, their own beleaguered democratic ally, and everyone but their ally is behaving suitably. So they pressured Israel for concessions that could only be read on the other side as feeble-minded weakness, an approach the Israelis have sensibly long since discarded.

The White House also set its sights too high in this troubled region. American presidents habitually crave a Middle Eastern peace breakthrough as their crowning foreign policy triumph. And maybe Mr. Obama wants another Nobel Peace Prize. But there is no Middle East peace process so he can't move it along by being so transparently great.

He seems not to have read the relevant history, another key ingredient in a diplomatic disaster. Ever since the 1920s, Jews/Israelis and western powers have been offering compromise settlements, every one of which the brilliant Arab leadership has contemptuously rejected. After a period of developments unfavourable to the Arab position, sometimes gradual and sometimes militarily spectacular, they have been offered another compromise which they have again waved off with belligerent disgust.

The Arab political class may uneasily sense, after 90 years or so, that each compromise offer is less attractive than the one before. But they can't seem to grasp that their position keeps deteriorating because they are neither willing to settle for what is now available nor able to improve their situation between bouts of negotiation, and this pattern is likely to continue. But it is; whatever Israel builds on is probably off the negotiating table next time, and as long as no real talks take place the building will continue.

So what does Barack Obama bring to all this? Perhaps the objection that the construction is on disputed territory. But as George Jonas wrote in Wednesday's National Post: "Every inch of Israel is disputed. That's what the Middle East conflict is about." Does the Obama administration grasp this point? And do they, in any case, really think they can take over Israeli housing policy? If they don't know that Washington has been objecting to such housing construction since 1967 in vain, they must be bigger fools even than they seem.

Of course as soon as the White House started yelling at Israel, the Palestinians went into stone-throwing mode. But that causes Israelis to become more intransigent and makes persistent American pressure on Israel seem either naive or malicious. If the Americans did not see this coming, they must be bigger fools even than they seem. But if they did, what's their plan for managing the short-term spat with Israel? As a leading Republican commented of Woodrow Wilson's feckless blundering into the First World War, in diplomacy you must not "shake your fist at a man and then shake your finger at him."

At first Israel's ambassador to Washington appeared to have blundered in calling the dispute "a crisis of historic proportions." He now denies the remarks, but it may have been a clever trap. For the Americans to endorse his words meant admitting they had somehow blown up their relationship with Israel over nothing. But to deny it was to back down, which they did. "I don't buy that," said Hillary Clinton. "We have an absolute commitment to Israel's security." Then the administration shook its finger, cancelling a visit by a Mideast envoy the Israelis probably didn't want to hear demand unilateral concessions from them anyway.

This combination of ill-preparedness and fatuous illusion is about as efficient a way of blundering into foreign policy disaster as the copious inventiveness of man has discovered at any point in history. And it works great domestically too.

Back in January I expressed surprise at "how badly Barack Obama is doing, in polls and by proxy in elections ... without yet having a major foreign policy disaster." Now he seems to have found one, tailor-made to alienate a vast slice of Middle America by appearing disloyal to friends, spineless in the face of aggression, and laughably confused.

How dumb can they get? Stay tuned; these guys are good.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson