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Laying By Time Gives Diplomacy A Chance by Jim Wall

October 28, 2013

(note: I have lifted Jim Wall’s entire piece on Obama’s shift in Middle East Policy, ie, the opening of negotiations with Syria, Iran.  Jim Wall locates the public announcement of this shift to Obama’s United Nations speech last month. A link to Wall’s blog, which I read regularly, is on the right.)

“Laying by time” Gives Diplomacy a Chance

28 October 2013

by James M. Wall

UN-GENERAL ASSEMBLY-US-OBAMAIn the rural South of the 1930s,”laying by time” usually came, according to one writer, “when the last weed-hoeing was done, marking the start of a down-time until harvest”.

It was also a time of anxiety as “farmers looked for second jobs or, as James Agee put it in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, ’hung as if on a hook on his front porch in the terrible leisure.’”

President Obama was thrust into his own foreign policy “laying by time” September 24, when he went before the United Nations General Assembly and delivered whatNew Republic writer John B. Judis called “his most significant foreign policy statement since becoming president”.

The UN speech also began a “time of anxiety” for the president’s foreign policy team which found itself hanging on Agee’s hook on their own “front porch in the terrible leisure”.

Susan Rice, Obama’s new national security advisor, seized the “terrible leisure” time the president gave her by setting up a series of Saturday morning policy review meetings with a small number of administration officials.

Their assignment was “to plot America’s future in the Middle East”.  The New York Times’ Mark Landler describes the policy review:

At the United Nations last month, Mr. Obama laid out the priorities he has adopted as a result of the review. The United States, he declared, would focus on negotiating a nuclear deal with Iran, brokering peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians and mitigating the strife in Syria. Everything else would take a back seat.

Egypt, which had earlier been a “ central pillar of American foreign policy”. At the UN Obama, “made clear that there were limits to what the United States would do to nurture democracy, whether there, or in Bahrain, Libya, Tunisia or Yemen.

The Saturday morning meetings Rise chaired, focused on several key questions: “What are America’s core interests in the Middle East? How has the upheaval in the Arab world changed America’s position? What can Mr. Obama realistically hope to achieve? What lies outside his reach?”
The discussions led to the UN speech in which Obama outlined “a more modest approach — one that prizes diplomacy, puts limits on engagement and raises doubts about whether Mr. Obama would ever again use military force in a region convulsed by conflict”.
It was, in short, and fortunately, “laying by” time for U.S. diplomacy, a sharp reversal from what had almost been a major Obama military strike on Syria. That strike was avoided when on September 11,  Syria announced that:

It will declare its chemical weapons arsenal and will sign up to the Chemical Weapons Convention to avoid US military action. In a statement shown on Russian state television, Foreign Minister Walid al Moallem said Syria was ready to co-operate fully with a Russian proposal to put its chemical weapons under international control and would stop producing more.

He added that Syria would place the locations of the weapons in the hands of Russian representatives, “other countries” and the UN.

Obama’s three major foreign policy agenda items—Syria’s civil war and its chemical weapons cache; the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks; and nuclear talks with Iran—has the potential to make a distant bad memory of President Bush’s “shock and awe” foreign policy.

The New Republic’s John B. Judis praised Obama’s commitment to diplomacy when he wrote:

President Barack Obama’s speech Tuesday [Sept 24] to the United Nations was his most significant foreign policy statement since becoming president.

It showed he had clearly learned something from the recent “red line” fiasco in Syria. The speech also displayed what has always been the most attractive feature of Obama’s foreign policy, one that clearly sets him off from his predecessor—his willingness to court erstwhile enemies and adversaries, or to put it in negative terms, his not possessing what my former colleague Peter Scoblic called an “us versus them” view of the world.

Under the headline, “Give Diplomacy a Chance”,  New Yorker blogger John Cassidy, gives the Syrians (and their Russian allies) credit for enabling Obama to embrace diplomacy.

Whatever else it accomplishes, Syria’s agreement to disclose its chemical-weapons stockpiles and, eventually, destroy them, made President Obama’s address at this year’s United Nations General Assembly much easier.

Rather than having to explain why U.S. bombs had been dropping on targets in Damascus, he was afforded a friendly environment in which to talk up the diplomatic efforts that are under way to resolve the Syrian crisis, and to encourage a similar effort addressed to the Iranian nuclear question.

Mindful of the criticism that, under his leadership, U.S. foreign policy has sometimes appeared to zigzag from one crisis to another, with no common thread, he was also keen to provide an over-all rationale for U.S. actions. To some extent, he succeeded.

Cassidy concluded his posting:

Still, the larger point holds. Obama was reminding the world that for now, at least, the days of the United States engaging in foreign adventurism, and using the Pentagon to pursue political crusades, are over. In concert with others, America will do its bit for defending liberal values and preventing mass killings by repressive regimes, but its main focus will be on protecting its own economic and strategic interests. And if anybody wants to challenge that policy stance, they will have to talk to the U.S. public.

Thanks to the strong impression the new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani made with his visit, and speech, to the UN, Iran emerged from the world’s penalty box. The telephone call between President Obama and President Rouhani solidified that impression and gave Obama an opportunity to not-so-subtly repudiate Israel’s war-talk regarding Iran.

As expected, the diplomatic path Obama took drew U.S. congressional ire at the suggestion that Iranian sanctions could be eased through diplomacy. Nevertheless, defying Israel and the Israel Lobby, Obama’s lead negotiator in nuclear talks with Iran “called for a delay in any new sanctions on the country, in order to let negotiations take hold”.

Friday, the Guardian reported that U.S. undersecretary of state Wendy Sherman toldVoice of America, the US foreign media service, “”We think that this is a time for a pause, to see if these negotiations can gain traction”.

The U.S. Senate banking committee was debating “whether to take up legislation, passed by the House last July, which could end Iranian oil exports”.

The White House promptly hosted a meeting of Senate aides on Thursday, “to argue against the measure”. Sherman’s public statement ”was seen as a significant gesture to Tehran”.

Iranian officials liked what they heard.

“I thought it was a very positive statement,” said Reza Marashi, research director at the National Iranian American Council. “On this particular point about the sanctions, I think that’s the most forward-leaning statement that I can recall an Obama administration official using, when discussing sanctions, at any time over the past four to five years.

“It was very specific. That not only sends a message to Congress but it also sends a message I think to the Iranians as well. That shows a certain level of seriousness to make these kinds of statements publicly.”

The New York Times’ Jodi Rudoren and Michael R. Gordon reported the quiet that has settled around the Israeli-Palestiniian peace talks.  Under strict instructions from U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, neither side has leaked stories on the talks to the media.

Nearly three months into the latest round of Washington-brokered peace talks in what has been the Middle East’s most intractable conflict, Mr. Kerry met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel in Rome on Wednesday, having said the process had “intensified” over 13 negotiating sessions, including three in the past week. Another is scheduled for Monday.

After years of stalemate, the very fact that the talks are continuing — and, perhaps even more important, that the participants have adhered to Mr. Kerry’s admonition not to disclose their content — is something of an achievement, especially in light of the turmoil raging in the region.

During the “laying by time” of these talks, mum has been the word. Not even the location of meetings have been revealed.

In contrast to previous rounds of Israeli-Palestinian talks, little has leaked from the negotiating room. Even the timing, location or duration of meetings has rarely been revealed. Several people close to the process said the sessions so far have alternated between Jerusalem and Jericho — they said they were not allowed to disclose the specific locations — and have each generally focused on a single subject, like sharing water resources, or whether Israeli or international forces should patrol the Jordan Valley.

Four people regularly attend all the meetings, Tzipi Livni, Israel’s justice minister, and Saeb Erekat, the Palestinian chief negotiator, as well as Isaac Molho, a lawyer close to Mr. Netanyahu, and Mohammed Shtayyeh, a senior adviser to President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority.

Other participants join the discussions  ”on an ad hoc basis depending on the agenda”. After the Palestinian side complained that “Mr. Kerry’s special envoy, Martin S. Indyk, was not sitting in on the sessions, he has attended recent ones”.

All is quiet on the negotiations front, which is what President Obama wanted.  The Obama team, captained by national security advisor Rice, has been making good use of its “laying by time”.

The harvest ahead will not be easy. There are extremist forces in Israel, Iran, Syria, and the U.S. Congress, that have their own reasons for wanting to upset diplomatic efforts.

Obama knows the American public is weary of war. The Bush days of shoot first and talk later, should be behind us.  At least it looks that way as we hang on Agee’s hook on our “front porch in the terrible leisure”.

Laying by time has never been easy; It has always been a pause for rest and reflection before taking up the hard work of the harvest.

The picture of President Obama speaking to the UNGA, is by Stan Honda/AFP/Getty.

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