Obama Emboldened, But Old Middle East Obstacles Remain

Obama Emboldened, But Old Middle East Obstacles Remain

Foreign policy victory in bin Laden killing may not lead to new peace initiatives.

The death of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden at the hands of elite U.S. forces was a boost for a president with few foreign policy achievements to his credit. But it will do little to ease the foreign policy and political conundrums his administration faces in a changing Middle East, and in some cases may add new complications.

While the Palestinian Authority supported the U.S. action, Hamas quickly condemned the killing of a “holy warrior.”

Analysts say that could add yet another obstacle as the Obama administration seeks new routes to an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord in the wake of last week’s Fatah-Hamas unity agreement.

Hamas’ “bloodcurdling statement condemning the attack and shooting of bin Laden is a useful reminder about where Hamas’ heart really lies,” said Robert Lieber, a professor of government at Georgetown University. “The apologists for Hamas are out there, telling us that it really is moderate and that we have to deal with them, but their statement on bin Laden tells us their center of gravity remains an extremist one.”

The successful attack and the reassertion of U.S. power could “strengthen President [Barack] Obama’s hand” in dealing with Iran, Lieber said and bolster the U.S. position across a Middle East in turmoil.

But most analysts say it’s unlikely the gains from the bin Laden raid will embolden the president to propose bold new initiatives on the Israeli-Palestinian front.

Politically, the successful raid could help stop any erosion of Jewish voters in the face of Republican attacks on Obama as soft on terrorism and cool toward Israel. But most experts caution that the 2012 election will still be mostly about close-to-home issues like the faltering economy.

Jewish groups here were quick to praise the bold U.S. move after a frustrating 10-year manhunt. Even the Republican Jewish Coalition, a fierce administration critic, offered congratulations untainted by partisan politics.

“This is a great victory for the United States and a terrific accomplishment by our intelligence community and our military forces,” said RJC Executive Director Matt Brooks. “We congratulate the Obama administration, the intelligence community and the military on a job well done.”

Anti-Defamation League National Director Abraham Foxman called the killing a “critical blow against the al Qaeda network and … a significant turning point in the war against global terrorism,” but also warned about the possibility of retaliation “against the U.S. and its allies in the West, or against Israeli or Jewish targets.”

Even the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, a group not given to comments on current events, weighed in, saying the news “was given even more resonance for Jews around the world as we marked Yom HaShoah. We well know the heartrending grief and pain that a man of impure evil spewing rabid hate can cause.”

There was little question that bin Laden’s bloody demise struck an important symbolic blow against the international terrorist network he helped create, and sparked a surge of national pride.

Less clear is the real-world impact on a terrorist threat that has grown more diffuse in recent years — and on U.S. policy in other areas, starting with an Israel-Palestinian conflict that bin Laden sometimes used as justification for the violence he encouraged.

“Security-wise, it may be a little more dangerous for a while because inevitably there will be some who want revenge,” said Shoshana Bryen, senior director for security policy at the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA). “But ultimately, it is a positive development because it shows we’ve gotten pretty good at understanding the threats out there and responding to them.”

And she said the successful raid demonstrates “continuity in policy” that is essential if the war on terrorism is to be won.

Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-Queens/L.I.), in a characteristically colorful statement, reflected a common concern among Jewish leaders. “The head of the al Qaeda worm has been cut off,” he said. “But we must remember, worms grow new heads.”

Bin Laden’s influence was on the wane long before his death, diluting the broader impact of the U.S. commando raid. “Everything that has developed this spring across the Arab world has developed with almost no support from bin Laden,” said Robert Freedman, an international relations scholar at Johns Hopkins University.

The surge of protest that brought down leaders in Egypt and Tunisia and is threatening the Assad regime in Syria and Muammar Kaddafy in Libya had almost nothing to do with the man who wanted to transform and lead the Muslim world, he said, and “that, more than anything else has weakened al Qaeda.”

Some analysts argue that an emboldened Obama will gamble some of his newfound credibility as a world leader to revive what was once his top foreign policy priority — the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Writing in Haaretz, commentator Akiva Eldar said “the assassination of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden has transformed U.S. President Barack Obama from a loser to an American hero overnight. In the zero-sum game between him and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that’s being played on the Israeli-Palestinian-American arena, this is bad news for Bibi.”

Netanyahu had hoped to use his upcoming speech before a joint meeting of Congress to thwart a “president who was consistently losing ground in public opinion polls, in the media and even within the Democratic Party,” Eldar wrote.

A strengthened Obama might be emboldened to put the squeeze on Netanyahu during his upcoming Washington visit, others argue.

But Daniel Levy, director of the Prospects for Peace Initiative of the Century Foundation and a vocal advocate for a more aggressive U.S. peace effort, said he sees “no connection” between the end of the bin Laden manhunt and Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy.

“This is obviously great for the president and great for America,” he said. “But the same set of considerations that applied last week to the pluses and minuses of an assertive push to move the Israelis and Palestinians forward still apply.”

Those considerations include weak leaders with little interest in advancing the stalled peace process and the political division between Gaza and the West Bank — a factor complicated still further by the impending unity government that will give Hamas, with its rejectionist view of peace negotiations with Israel (and sympathy with al Qaeda), a place in an interim government.

Johns Hopkins’ Freedman said other events in the region have relegated al Qaeda and its late leader to sideshow status.

“Al Qaeda was already weakened by the events that developed this spring,” he said, “including the Arab revolutions that occurred with almost no support from bin Laden and Islamic radicalism. More than anything else, that has weakened al Qaeda. For that reason, the death of bin Laden, while very good for the United States and for the president, is almost irrelevant to the Arab-Israeli conflict.”

While the conditions that have made a renewed U.S. peace initiative on the Israeli-Palestinian front are unchanged, the bin Laden drama may have complicated things for U.S. policymakers because of the reaction to it.

In addition to the Hamas-Fatah split on bin Laden’s death, according to a Pew Center survey conducted in the months before bin Laden’s death, the al Qaeda leader “received his highest level of support among Muslims in the Palestinian territories — although only 34 percent said they had confidence in the terrorist leader to do the right thing in world affairs.”

Hamas’ continued anti-Americanism and its support for terrorists like bin Laden will make things harder for the Obama administration as it gropes for a strategy for dealing with a unity government that includes Hamas.

The impact could be greater in the confrontation with Iran.

“There’s no doubt the killing of bin Laden will add momentum to the fight against terrorism on a broad front — and that includes Iran, the primary backer of Hezbollah and Hamas,” said Dan Mariaschin, executive vice president of B’nai B’rith International. “It will put an even more of a spotlight on what’s happening in that area.”

He said the “persistent and dogged pursuit of bin Laden is a message to all those who engage in terrorism, and I would hope the message is being heard in Tehran as well as other capitals.”

The stunning commando attack could also send a message to Iran that this administration, known more for diplomatic outreach than military threats, is both willing and able to stage bold military moves.

Politically, most analysts predict a quick boost for Obama as he gears up his 2012 re-election campaign, although few believe foreign policy will be a decisive factor.

Kean University political scientist Gilbert Kahn said the bin Laden raid could stem the limited erosion of Obama’s Jewish support that some analysts were predicting.

If the raid had failed, “it would have been Carter II,” Kahn said. “But it succeeded perfectly, as far as we can tell, and it weakens one of the arguments that Republicans will use with Jewish voters. It won’t affect the core anti-Obama vote or the Jewish Republican vote. But for most of the Jewish community, any drift away from Obama based on Israel policy is likely to be dramatically reduced.”

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