Reading Obama’s Mind (Optimistically): Middle East Game Plans

Whoever first said that “no good deed goes unpunished” must have been thinking of the Middle East.

I’m doing exactly what I promised during the campaign. I’m pressing for peace between Israel and the Palestinians, and Israel and the Arab states. I’m trying to convince the Iranians to scrap their nuclear programs in exchange for some economic goodies.

But, jeez, I’m not half as naïve as my critics think. I’m just trying to force everyone to put their cards on the table. Everyone wanted me to set a new tone for our foreign policy, to be involved, to listen as well as talk. That’s what I’m doing.

Yes, I’m pushing Israel to stop building settlements. That’s because everyone in the region thought George Bush was in Israel’s hip pocket. I have to show that I’m not or I won’t be able to push the other side.

Now, where is the other side? Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas watches me and says he sees no reason to soften his tone. The Saudis say they won’t do anything to forge an Arab-Israeli peace, either. Everyone thinks that, if they dig in, I’ll push Israel harder. They don’t see this as give-and-take.

Fine, but I’m not (pardon the expression) “stupid.” I don’t have time to waste. My agenda outside the Middle East is big enough – from rescuing the economy to reforming health care to cutting the deficit so that China doesn’t get spooked by all the red ink and flee the dollar, which would kill our economy.

America’s Jewish leaders don’t get it, either. When I met with them in July, I assured them that I’m pushing the other side. I later heard complaints that I hadn’t invited Israel’s strongest backers to the meeting. Guess what? My staff set it up. I’m a bit too busy to check the guest lists for my meetings beforehand.

I’m not naïve about Iran, either.

Bush said he wasn’t going to let the Iranians get nuclear weapons. I wish he hadn’t. Were they to get them on my watch, everyone would blame me. I don’t want that to be my legacy. Who would?

But, after we invaded Iraq in 2003, the world thought we were trigger-happy, always ready to bomb rather than talk. I have to change that perception or we’ll continue to have problems around the world.

So I can’t immediately tighten the screws economically on Iran or publicly endorse an Israeli attack on its nuclear sites. I have to show the world that I’m trying everything to convince Iran to forget nukes.

That’s why I offered to talk to Iran “without preconditions,” and why I didn’t close the door to talks even after Iran’s brutal crackdown on its protestors.

But I don’t expect the talks to work. I know Iran’s leaders are pushing hard to develop nuclear weapons and developing longer-range missiles and testing the technology to combine the two. (I get briefed, you know.)

I’ve also seen how desperate they are to retain their power, from that tough Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, to that whack job of a President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Good grief – after stealing the election for Ahmadinejad, they’re now turning their guns and their goons on their own people!

I’ve said Iran has only until September to talk to us about nukes, and I directed Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Bob Gates to raise public doubts about whether the talks will bear fruit.

I’m sure Iran’s leaders get the point. Oh, they’re huffing and puffing in public about their nuclear progress, but that’s probably because they know how vulnerable they are from the inside and the outside.

They know their economy is in shambles, with soaring inflation and joblessness and frequent energy blackouts. They know we could make it worse, and further weaken their grip on power, by preventing Iran from getting the refined petroleum from abroad that it desperately needs. They know Congress is pushing for restrictions on such imports and that we’re talking up the idea with the Europeans.

They also know that Israel won’t wait forever before attacking Iran’s nuclear sites, and that the Saudis and other Arab states – who worry more about Iran than Israel – will help behind the scenes.

We’ll help, too, if we need to. That will both prevent Iran from getting nukes and also repair our relations with Israel.

No, I’m not naïve.