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Former US diplomat rants on Obama's Mideast "kibitzing"

Commentary: The Middle East has changed, but US diplomacy remains sclerotic. Isn't it time President Obama showed some guts?
susan rice meet gop critics november 27 2012Enlarge
US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice speaks during a Security Council meeting in September. (EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images)

OWL’S Head, Maine --- Ceasefire in Gaza!!! Hallelujah!

What a wonderful moment it was: for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who had a stunning cameo role in this successful play; for Egyptian President Morsi, the only player who was actually talking to all the parties; for Khaled Meshaal, Hamas's leader, who greatly increased the popularity and legitimacy of Hamas among Palestinians; and for Israel's Prime Minister Netanyahu, who had picked off Hamas's top military leader, killed a number of Hamas militants, and managed to avoid sending his army into Gaza's quicksand.

But a moment was all it was.

Within days, Morsi had overplayed his key role in Gaza and was grabbing the same dictatorial powers for which the Egyptians had overthrown his predecessor. Having shown his value, as an interlocutor with Hamas and an upholder of the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, he figured he could upend Egypt's desire for democracy and still get billions of dollars in US aid.

But the Egyptians were quick to show their displeasure with the hero of the Gaza cease-fire and, at least it appears now, Morsi has been forced to roll back his ambitions. The US, meanwhile, that stalwart of democracy in the Middle East, was reluctant to make a big deal out of his undemocratic power grab.

And rightly so. Or wrongly so. It really doesn't matter how the US reacts, though some of our actions, or inactions, are more expensive than others. We have taken on a new role in the Middle East, that of the irrelevant kibitzer, the aging Uncle Sam who keeps repeating the same platitudes long after anyone stopped listening.

Here is Hillary Clinton vowing to pursue "a comprehensive peace" as she announced the ceasefire: "The people of this region deserve the chance to live free from fear and violence, and today's agreement is a step in the right direction.”…blah, blah, blah… "Now we have to focus on reaching a durable outcome that promotes regional stability and advances the security, dignity, and legitimate aspirations of Palestinians and Israelis alike.”…blah, blah, blah, blah.

Old habits die hard. One wonders why we bother to have embassies in the Arab World any more. Trade missions would serve our primary interests just as well, since our diplomacy consists primarily of doing what we did last year, and the year before, and the year before that -- blindly supporting whatever Israel wants at whatever cost to our strategic interests in the Arab world.

Naturally, we still don't talk to Hamas, even though they run Gaza and were elected in free elections that we promoted, our diplomats at the time either unaware that Hamas would win or, more likely, in a state of denial that the White House would continue to refuse to talk to one of the principal partners in that never-ending search for the two-state solution.

But then, the two-state solution is as dead as our diplomacy. And now, Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority has been granted non-member observer state from the UN General Assembly. The US, true to form, voted against it, lining up with Israel and against most of the rest of the world.

Meshaal, Hamas's leader and a long-time rival to Abbas and the Palestinian Authority, had announced his support for Abbas on this. He was indicating, if you're optimistic, that after Hamas held its own against Israel, it might be more willing to compromise. What it also showed is that Hamas no longer feels quite the outcast in the Arab World it did when Mubarak held sway in Cairo and took his cues from the US.

Not only is Egypt closer, and exerting some influence over Hamas, but Turkey — since it moved decisively away from its decades-long friendship with Israel — also has more influence with Hamas. And for its part, Hamas has moved away from its tight alliance with Syria and Iran.

Things are changing in the Palestinian world, just as they are in the rest of the neighborhood.

But there remains one constant, rut-stuck participant, the busted clock whose accuracy is limited to a brief moment every 12 hours: the US.

It would perhaps be expecting too much to hope we could be adept enough to see changes coming, react in advance, and then maybe have a shot at influencing the changes. As it is, we don't react, or modify our outdated thinking, even after the fact.

Isn't it time President Obama, making his mark in his second term, showed some guts? Why, once again, did he find it neccessary to vote against the legitimate aspirations (obviously not those legitimate aspirations Hillary Clinton was touting above) of the Palestinians, claiming it threatened the non-existent possibility of the two-state solution?

Yossi Beilin, a former Israeli deputy foreign minister and one of the architects of the Oslo Peace Accords, penned a lengthy op-ed piece in the NYTimes earlier this week, outlining the reasons why he supported the Palestinian's search for recognition at the UN, noting that "blocking [Abbas's] bid for statehood will only empower extremists." Did Obama not realized that knocking down Abbas again in the UN would further weaken the Palestinian Authority, and further strengthen Hamas? Is that US policy?

If Obama feels hemmed in by a threatening mixture of Congressional support for Israel and his own need for Republican support if he is to avoid the fiscal cliff — or am I just providing his political justification? — is there not then someone in the Obama administration who can display a little courage?

Our ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, continues to get a decidedly bum rap for her public explanation of the Benghazi tragedy from Republican Senators Graham and McCain. Even for politicians, their hypocrisy is unique: what she said was not her fault. She was doing the bidding of both the White House and our intelligence agencies. And rightly so: they had the overall intelligence, the big picture. She was the chosen messenger.

But now, Palestine? Rice knows as much as anyone about the underlying facts of the Palestinian case and how much of a diplomatic disaster a US vote against their symbolic statehood request would be. She should have informed the White House she wouldn't vote against the Palestinian proposal; and if forced to, she would resign.

What? Resign over principles? I know — that's an outdated notion these days in our pragmatic, ambitious society. When indeed did a high-ranking government official last resign over a disagreement about a policy matter?

But if it's the honorable thing to resign (as Petraeus did) for picking an overly jealous lover to shack up with, shouldn't there be others at least as honorable -- even if, or perhaps especially if, they're in the running for secretary of state? Who would resign to protest a totally misguided policy of strategic importance to the US?

Mac Deford is retired after a career as a foreign service officer, an international banker, and a museum director. He lives at Owls Head, Maine and still travels frequently to the Middle East

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatches/news/regions/americas/united-states/susan-rice-vote-palestinian-statehood