Neocons To Obama: Hello, Mr. Softy

(AP / CBS)
In the last few days, a couple of high-profile neocons from the Bush administration have dunned the administration for viewing the Middle East through rose-colored glasses.

One is Elliott Abrams, who was deputy national security adviser overseeing Near East and North African affairs from 2005 to January 2009. A sharp critic of Oslo peace negotiations between Israel and Yasir Arafat, Abrams was identified as a strong supporter of Israel with ties to Vice President Dick Cheney. During the 2006 Lebanon war, Abrams opposed the State Department view that the U.S. ought to act as a more neutral broker between Israel and the Arabs. In a Saturday op-ed, Abrams laid out his critique, arguing that the U.S. is following a "highly ideological policy path," one that will get in the way of any sober appreciation of the facts on the ground.

"The administration view begins with a critique of Bush foreign policy—as much too reliant on military pressure and isolated in the world. The antidote is a policy of outreach and engagement, especially with places like Syria, Venezuela, North Korea and Iran. Engagement with the Muslim world is a special goal, which leads not only to the president's speech in Cairo on June 4 but also to a distancing from Israel so as to appear more "even-handed" to Arab states. Seen from Jerusalem, all this looks like a flashing red light: trouble ahead."

Abrams instead urges a policy "based in realism," one that he says can open the way for the Palestinians to move in the direction of statehood. This would clear the way to deal with what Abrams says is the real challenge: "What is to be done about Iran as it faces its first internal crisis since the regime came to power in 1979."

But is this realism or wishful thinking? In criticizing the U.S. demand for a total freeze on settlement growth, Abrams approvingly cites a recent International Monetary Fund report which found that "macroeconomic conditions in the West Bank have improved" in no small part because "Israeli restrictions on internal trade and the passage of people have been relaxed significantly." He's quite right that Palestinians receive most of the construction jobs to carry out the additional settlement expansion and that the West Bank economy is improving. It's also true that Israel is removing security roadblocks. But the Palestinians reject the implicit trade of economic growth as a long-term substitute for political independence. The settlement question remains an irritant, no matter what gains the local economy registers. If the Palestinian Authority didn't buy that argument from George Bush, it's not clear why Barack Obama would have any more luck making that same pitch.

Meanwhile, former United Nations Ambassador John Bolton also hit the anti-Obama circuit, this time to talk up the prospect of an Israeli military strike to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. (Amid all the verbal back and forth, the Sunday Times is quoting unidentified Western intelligence agents, who say that Iran has figured out how to build and explode a nuclear warhead. "The sources said that Iran completed a research programme to create weaponised uranium in the summer of 2003 and that it could feasibly make a bomb within a year of an order from its Supreme Leader.")

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According to Bolton, President Obama has failed to think strategically about Iran. "(Obama) vaguely promises to offer the country the carrot of diplomacy—followed by an empty threat of sanctions down the road if Iran does not comply with the U.S.'s requests. This is precisely the European Union's approach, which has failed for over six years. There's no reason Iran would suddenly now bow to Mr. Obama's diplomatic efforts, especially after its embarrassing election in June. So with diplomacy out the door, how will Iran be tamed?"

Bolton answers his own question: Unless the U.S. gives Israel the green light to launch a preemptive attack, we should steel ourselves for the prospect of a nuclear Iran. For the Iran hawks in Jerusalem, this is an oldie but goodie, a policy prescription that they were used to hearing between 2000 and 2008. But with the neoconservatives out of office, those press clippings aren't worth very much.

in fact, when he hosted Israel's Bibi Netanyahu at the White House earlier this summer, President Obama was reported to have asked for more time to sort out the Iran. "Obama doesn't want his time in office saddled with the same kind of burden that saddled Bush," said Robert Malley, Program Director for Middle East and North Africa at at the International Crisis Group in Washington, D.C., and a former Special Assistant to President Bill Clinton for Arab-Israeli Affairs. When it comes to certain subjects, the Israelis are famously tone deaf so to drive home the point, Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Adm. Mike Mullen, separately gave an interview in which he warned that any military strike on Iran "could be very destabilizing."

Here's where it gets interesting. With rising friction between the United States and Israel - the Israeli government is also getting an earful from the administration when it comes to Israeli settlement activity in Jerusalem and the West Bank - is there a point at which the Netanyahu government decides to go its own way, regardless of what its biggest ally says? Policy analysts say that time isn't now but the clock is ticking.

"If they feel their back is up against the wall, they will do something. Maybe they don't feel that just yet," said Joshua Teitelbaum, senior research fellow Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Tel Aviv University, and a visiting professor at Standard's FSI Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.


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    Charles Cooper is an executive editor at CNET News. He has covered technology and business for more than 25 years, working at CBSNews.com, the Associated Press, Computer & Software News, Computer Shopper, PC Week, and ZDNet. E-mail Charlie.

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