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September 25, 2013 11:35 AM Obama’s New Direction

By Ed Kilgore

From a variety of mostly-negative perspectives on how the president handled the Syria situation, a CW is beginning to develop that Obama has now found his footing in something approaching a “doctrine” whereby he is counting on high-stakes internationally-backed negotiations on inter-related Middle Eastern hot spots. Here’s how the New York Times’ David Sanger explains the sudden clarity of administration purpose:

[A]fter a remarkable month that began with his planning and then aborting a Tomahawk missile strike against the military facilities of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, Mr. Obama has recommitted himself, he told world leaders on Tuesday, to devoting the rest of his presidency to two high-risk diplomatic initiatives: finding a negotiated end to the Iran confrontation, and creating a separate state for the Palestinians that Israel can live with, without fear.

TNR’s John Judis calls Obama’s speech at the UN yesterday his “most significant foreign policy statement since becoming president.” Like Sanger, Judis thinks Obama has spent a good part of his presidency pursuing the characteristic Democratic reassurance that he’s willing to use force. Now it’s time for diplomacy:

Obama declared his willingness to pursue a diplomatic solution with Iran over its nuclear program. Of course, he had done that before, but it was usually punctuated by a threat of military action if Iran did develop a nuclear weapon. That threat lingered in the background in his speech; in the foreground, he acknowledged Iranian fears of the United States, dating from our helping to overthrow Iran’s government in 1953; he welcomed Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s overtures to the United States; and he said he was instructing Secretary of State John Kerry to meet with Iran’s foreign minister—the first such meeting between the country’s leading diplomats since 2007. The White House has also said it is “keeping the door open” to a meeting between Obama and Rouhani.
If Obama does achieve a rapprochement between the United States and Iran, it could have repercussions throughout the Middle East. It could make a political settlement in Syria possible. It could ease negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians. Israel’s hardliners would no longer have an excuse for ignoring the West Bank occupation, and Hamas would no longer have international support in refusing to back a two-state solution. And, finally, of course, a rapprochement could give the United States a strong ally in reducing the threat of terrorist movements in the Middle East and South Asia.

So however he got to this point, and historians will certainly argue about that, it now appears Obama has set his course on the kind of Middle Eastern policies many progressives have urged on him from the beginning. And whether or not his diplomatic initiatives bear fruit, he almost certainly will not leave office having launched two horrendous and increasingly pointless wars.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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