Obama’s Two Mideast Agendas

Former administration officials discuss president’s upcoming trip to Israel

Netanyahu, Obama / AP
March 19, 2013

Former Middle East ambassadors and regional experts gathered at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy on Monday to discuss President Barack Obama’s agenda for his first visit to Israel as commander in chief.

The president is scheduled to depart for Israel, the West Bank, and Jordan this evening.

Obama faces the simultaneous challenges of war, regime instability, the proliferation of al Qaeda, and nuclear threats from Iran, the panelists said.

The difference between Obama’s first visit to the Middle East in 2009 and today are vast, said Ambassador Dennis Ross.

Four years ago, there was "a perception that was believed to be held in Middle Eastern countries" that the Bush administration waged a war on Islam, and that "somehow U.S. and the preceding Bush administration had been preaching to the Middle East," he said.

But that perception has changed, he said, because many in the Middle East are looking for the U.S. to lead on pressing security issues.

All sides are "looking for clear ideas on U.S. policy," former senior director for Middle East affairs on the National Security Council Michael Singh said.

Obama needs to "show that we are getting back into the area, back into the weeds," and worry "less about public opinion and [worry more] about the interest of our allies," Singh said.

"Frankly, when he talks about Iran," he should say it "not only because he’s in Israel," Singh said.

Ross, who served on the Obama administration's National Security Council staff, said the president was likely to have differing public and private agendas.

In public, Obama will attempt to establish emotional connections and build credibility with the Israeli public, Ross said.

In private, he continued, while the U.S. and Israel share a similar strategic objective with Israel on Iran, Syria, and the Arab Spring, there are tactical differences both sides will attempt to address in private discussion.

Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will "probably spar and ask pointed questions" in the cordial atmosphere, said Ziegler Institute fellow David Makovsky.

On Iran, both sides will discuss "how much time is going to be spent on diplomacy if it fails," Ross said. "What’s the point at which prevention loses its meaning?"

While Israel and other Middle Eastern countries want more clarity on U.S. policy, Obama has said his position on Iran is well defined.

"I have been crystal clear about my position on Iran possessing a nuclear weapon," Obama said last week. "That is a red line for us."

However, Israel has used different terminology and has had a much stronger "red line" policy than the U.S., the panelists said.

A major talking point will be agreeing where that red line is, Singh said.

Preventing Iran from having a nuclear weapon has been a major goal for the U.S. Israel, meanwhile, opposes Iran having the capability of developing a nuclear weapon.

The panelists claimed the administration has "done a great job in lowering expectations" and has "turned this into a listening tour," before he leaves for Israel.