The Swoop: Washington’s World: May 23rd – May 29th, 2011

The Swoop: Washington’s World: May 23rd – May 29th, 2011
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“Reaction to President Obama’s March 19th Middle East and North Africa speech has divided on familiar lines. Liberal supporters have welcomed his emphasis on democracy and economic assistance to Egypt and Tunisia, together with the more adversarial line toward the likes of Yemen and Libya. Meanwhile, conservative critics have taken him to task for what they see as a hostile tone toward Israel.

We expect this criticism (which is shared by many Democrats) to have a domestic political impact.

In his meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu some softening of Obama’s language referring to the 1967 borders as the starting point of future negotiations was already taking place. It is likely that it will soften still further when Obama addresses AIPAC on May 23rd. Immediate reaction aside, however, the main preoccupation among US officials is “what next?”  Here, expectations are modest. White House political staff confide to us that there is now top-level agreement that Obama should not squander the political capital Obama has reaped through the operation against Osama bin-Laden by taking a leadership role in the Middle East peace process.

The future US role, therefore, will fall back to the usual one of encouragement to the Israelis and Palestinians rather than an activist engagement. Further, the speech, which was a compromise among the many factions in Washington engaged in Middle East policy will not put an end to their infighting.

As to foreign policy formulation, the evidence is mounting that the pendulum has swung away from the Pentagon – where the outgoing Secretary of Defense Gates lost the debate over Libya – toward the State Department. This trend will harden once Leon Panetta has taken over and if, as rumors in Washington suggest, Senator John Kerry replaces Hillary Clinton at the State Department in the coming weeks.

Elsewhere, US efforts at steadying relations with China continue. The State Department is highlighting the mutual benefits of US-China economic relations and the Pentagon is hosting a top-level Chinese military delegation. This is a relationship that will fluctuate up and down, but is at present on a favorable trend. With the current focus on the Middle East, Pakistan has receded into the background. US officials know that this will be temporary. Obama himself will find a little respite from domestic quarrels through his trip to trip to Europe in the coming week.”