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Scholars Expound on Where Obama's Policies Will Take Him

January 8, 2009 By:
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Harvey Sicherman

With Israeli ground forces battling Hamas fighters in Gaza -- and as casualties there mount and rockets continue to fall on cities in southern Israel -- speculation has grown about just what course President-elect Barack Obama will take when he assumes power.

Will he reaffirm Israel's right to self-defense or call for a cease-fire? Will he fully immerse himself in the quagmire, or leave the bulk of the diplomacy to the Department of State while he lays his sights on reviving the global economy and pushing a broad domestic agenda?

"He would be a fool to insert himself full-time into this matter. The last thing the American people want is for their president to get sucked into the Gaza morass," said Harvey Sicherman, president of the Philadelphia-based Foreign Policy Research Institute.

Sicherman -- an Orthodox Jew who served as a special assistant to the secretary of state in both the Reagan and elder Bush administrations -- cautioned in a recent interview that the situation on the ground can change a lot in the weeks before Obama takes office and gets the key players of his foreign-policy team confirmed by the Senate.

Obama appointees include U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) as secretary of state, Robert Gates as secretary of defense, Susan Rice as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and Gen. James Jones Jr. as national security adviser.

Dust Off the Report
Still, it's fair to say that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has moved up a few notches on his crowded list of priorities.

Last month, well before the latest round of violence erupted, Sicherman delivered a wide-ranging talk on U.S. policy in the Middle East at the Union League of Philadelphia.

While he hesitated to predict what course the president-elect would take, he did say that to better understand the worldview shared by Obama's foreign-policy team, it might not be a bad idea to dust off the 2006 Iraq Study Group Report.

That bipartisan commission -- which was all over the headlines two years ago, but hasn't been discussed much in a year in which gas prices and the economy overshadowed the Iraq war -- was mandated by Congress in 2006.

Considered a backlash against the neoconservative ideology of President George W. Bush and some of his key advisers -- many of whom stressed a doctrine of pre-emption and using American power to spread democracy -- the 2006 report widely reflected the "realist" approach of Realpolitik and limited goals.

The report's chief recommendation -- a phased troop reduction from Iraq -- was all but ignored. Instead, the Bush administration pursued the strategy known as the "surge," which many have credited with greatly reducing the violence there, if not bringing about a true political settlement.

Yet throughout the campaign, Obama expressed his desire to bring the Iraq war to a close and redeploy some troops to Afghanistan.

The report received a mostly chilly reception from Jewish groups upon its release. It called for restarting Israeli-Palestinian talks (something which the Bush administration did a year later in Annapolis, Md.), and advocated direct negotiations with Iran. It also encouraged work to end the Iranian-Syrian alliance by facilitating talks between Damascus and Jerusalem.

Sicherman said that, like the members of the commission chaired by James A. Baker and Lee Hamilton, Obama's foreign-policy team ascribes to the pragmatist or realist school in terms of policy. (Baker, especially, is considered not overly sympathetic to Israel.)

"These are people who know how to get you from A to B," said Sicherman of the realists. "But don't ask them to define point B. Because their record on point B is God-awful. If it was up the pragmatics, Saddam [Hussein] would still be in Kuwait, Germany would still be divided, and ... the surge would never have happened."

Reached last month at his office, Ian Lustick, the Bess W. Heyman Chair of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania, agreed with Sicherman's assessment that the study group's recommendations will influence policy, though he's far more supportive of the report's policy proposals than Sicherman.

Lustick, an advocate for U.S. involvement in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and for applying pressure on Israel to curtail settlement activities, said that he hopes the Obama team will pursue such a course, even if he's not optimistic that there's any possibility of real peace.

This is the general view espoused by dovish groups, such as the lobbying organization J Street, which has called on the United States to help broker a cease-fire.

"Pragmatic engagement with the world is exactly the worldview that the Obama team will bring on foreign policy," said Lustick, who -- like the controversial scholars Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, authors of The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy -- cited the strength of said lobby as one of a number of obstacles to an Israeli-Palestinian settlement.

Jonathan Schanzer, deputy director of the Washington, D.C.-based Jewish Policy Center, a Philadelphia native and the author of Hamas vs. Fatah: The Struggle for Palestine, said that, in light of recent developments, he sees two possible routes for the new president.

"He can do as the Bush administration has done and reaffirm Israel's right to defend itself, or he can say publicly that both sides should come to the negotiating table," said Schanzer. "There is one problem with the second option -- Hamas will not negotiate with Israel."  

 

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