This article originally appeared on TomDispatch.
Damn the Iranians and full speed ahead. That was the US policy in the Middle East. But the waters have proved treacherous, with torpedoes everywhere. Despite an initial hopeful sit-down with Iranian negotiators, this won’t be the October the White House wanted on the foreign policy front. By now, Barack Obama was supposed to have announced–with ruffles and flourishes–the beginning of Middle East peace talks, leading to a final status agreement by 2012. But something didn’t happen.
Israel didn’t heed Obama’s demand to stop all settlement expansion in the West Bank. So Obama didn’t stick to that demand, settling instead for a temporary freeze after a spate of new building. The Palestinians, buoyed by Obama’s initial strong stance on the settlements, refused to negotiate until Israel stopped all construction. Other Arab nations didn’t offer Israel nearly as many concessions as the US administration was demanding. Undermined by all that didn’t happen, the president had nothing of substance to announce.
What went wrong? The heart of the problem was not Israel’s supposed power over US policy. The US still has plenty of leverage over the Israelis and everyone else in the region. Israeli columnist Nahum Barnea is right: “Everyone depends on America, its money, its military aid, and its moves vis-a-vis Iran.”
But it is precisely those US moves, meant to contain the power of Iran, that are the main stumbling block on the path to a US-brokered two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Middle East is a textbook example of the perils of containment.
The Ghost Of cold war Past
If Obama’s troubles keep him awake late at night, he may hear the ghostly voices of past presidents echoing down the White House hallways–Bill Clinton saying, “I tried to get the Israelis and Palestinians together, too. It’s a bitch,” or Dwight D. Eisenhower recalling (as he once wrote to a friend) that he felt “forced to give constant attention…to problems that defy solution.”
The loudest voice of all, though, may come from the ghost of the cold war, whose spirit of containment still haunts the White House and shapes foreign policy decisions every day.
The drive for containment of “the commies” created problems that defied solution. After all, containment meant maintaining total control over the global chessboard, always making exactly the right move at exactly the right time. The task was, quite literally, a mission impossible. Eisenhower revealed why when, resorting to the imagery of his era, he described the American “wall of containment” to his National Security Council as a “free world dike” holding back the rising “red tide.” When that dike got “leaky,” he said, the United States had to “put a finger in” rather than “let the whole structure be washed away.”