For months, the news for Democrats on the domestic front has been mostly bad. The merits of the sweeping reforms that Democrats engaged in are not resonating with the public. As the midterm elections edge closer, the polls indicate a historic repudiation of Democratic politicians at the polls. The allure of success abroad is tempting for the Obama Administration, starved for an unarguable policy triumph. The coming diplomatic push may stop the bleeding at home. At least, that’s what the West Wing is hoping for.
Iraq’s highly publicized combat troop drawdown, completed nearly on schedule, occurred last week. The Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) concluded in November 2008, ensured that Iraqi towns and cities would be evacuated by U.S. combat personnel by June, 2010 and a full withdrawal of all forces would be complete by January, 2011. The Obama Administration revised the deadline to August, 2010 and, albeit amid conflicting reports that combat brigades continue to flow in or have simply been renamed, the Administration will and should tout withdrawal as a success. Obama plans an Oval Office address on the Iraq troop drawdown on Tuesday night. It would, however, counter the midterm narrative that nothing good came of the “time of troubles” between 2001 and 2009, so it is unlikely that there will be any mention of the SOFA. For a time, the success in Iraq will drive Afghanistan from the headlines. It will be a welcome reprieve.
President Carter returns on Friday to Boston with captured journalist Aijalon Gomes from North Korea. Since the DPRK’s default negotiating behavior is quid pro quo or nothing, there is a high likelihood that some exchange, or at least promises of exchange, took place. Carter was not met by Kim Jong-Il, however, who took his son and likely successor with him to China. North Korea’s engagement in its own diplomatic push is a sign that the nation is in need of some aid, or at least Chinese support for the succession process. China is carefully measuring their commitment to North Korea, by simultaneously sending envoys to meet with South Korean security officials. The message is clear; China has interests on both sides of the 38th Parallel and will not jeopardize one for the other.
The Obama Administration has been playing a clever game with North Korea by ignoring their regular escalations, like the sinking of a South Korean naval vessel on March, 26th of this year. The Obama Administration has been tempering their reflexive desire to hold diplomatic talks, wisely understanding that 6-way discussions were simply a platform for North Korea to demand concessions. Obama called Kim’s escalation of hostilities on the Korean Peninsula what it was, a bluff, and Pyongyang blinked. Now, however, as the succession looms and if Kim’s trip to Beijing is an earnest attempt to restart talks, the temptation to achieve diplomatic success in Northeast Asia may be too hard to resist.
Israel / Palestine:
Then there is the administration’s push for Mideast peace. The Bush Administration famously leaked the “Road Map To Peace,” a series of steps that both the Palestinian Authority and Israel would take which would lead to the declaration of a Palestinian state in 2005, in April, 2002. Many commentators at the time saw the effort alone as being worth the minimal risk. If Clinton and Albright could not pull it off, there was not much pressure on the Bush Administration to succeed where they had failed. And as history recounts, the Bush Administration did indeed fail, amid serious headwinds, to achieve peace in the Middle East.
The Obama Administration faces a more uphill battle than Bush did in 2002. The Palestinian Authority is split with Hamas in control of the Gaza Strip and Mahmoud Abbas’ Authority in the West Bank. The two Palestine’s are distinct nations in all but name. The Israeli government is back in the hands of Likud. Ariel Sharon’s Kadima Party, created out of the necessity to create a faction willing to withdraw from Gaza, is defunct. For Israelis, Sharonism has been fully discredited, and peace talks are not a priority for either the Palestinian Authority or Israel. Indeed, with Hamas rejecting any negotiations, the talks omit the status of Gaza, most problematic part of the region. Furthermore, Israel is suggesting that West Bank settlement construction will restart soon, which could scuttle any talks with the PA.
The planned talks are schedule to being in early September. The sticky issues of Jerusalem, right of return, and security guarantees will be stumbling blocks, but those contentious issues will be avoided at first. The initial goal will be to achieve a joint declaration that officially puts an end to hostilities. That goal may be more easily achieved; violent episodes emanating from the West Bank have been reduced dramatically over the last seven years. Declaring a fact to exist may be achievable, but nothing is ever that easy in the Middle East. That Rose Garden moment, however, would constitute the foreign policy success that the Administration desperately needs.
It is unclear if the Obama Administration believes that the push for a foreign policy success will result in an improved public outlook on the Democratic Party in time to positively affect the midterm elections. It is entirely possible that the Administration does not have a political goal in mind as it engages in the coming diplomatic push – the efforts could be a genuine attempt to resolve these frozen conflicts. In either case, embattled Democrats in Washington will welcome the opportunity to tout an unambiguous success out of the White House. Perhaps it can stall the impression that the Administration habitually gambles on long odds and often loses.
Noah Rothman is the online editor at C&E. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org