By William Shields
Best Defense pundits bureau chief
The Center for Strategic and International Studies hosted a panel on Tuesday moderated by Bob Schieffer and featuring heavy hitters Steve Coll, Tom Friedman, and David Ignatius. It was supposed to review the first year of the Obama administration's foreign policy, but given the nature of journalists, even very good ones, they went all ADD over the last 96 hours of news, specifically the spat between the U.S. government and Israel over the announcement of new settlements in East Jerusalem.
Friedman was first to bat, beginning by applauding the administration's rebuke of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government and arguing that the U.S. response reflected a cathartic release of decades of institutional resentment of Israel's pursuit of a policy counter to U.S. interests. The question, said Friedman, who led the league in slugging for several years but lately has shown signs of aging, is how can the United States channel that frustration into a constructive strategy? According to Friedman, only two of the five major players in the region -- PNA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad's government and the Palestinian resistance -- have a long-term strategy. The United States, Israel, and moderate Arab states on the other hand have approaches that can be characterized as aimless, short-sighted, and feckless, respectively. Claiming that the Obama administration has the worst Middle East policy of any recent presidency, Friedman said, "I don't even know who directs [the administration's] Middle East policy."
Iggie, as his fans call him, batted second. "Well, the President does," he countered as he stepped into the batter's box, citing Obama's June 2009 Cairo speech and his first public interview as president with Arab television station Al-Arabiya as indicative of a strategy of re-engaging the Muslim world. The speedy Ignatius, eyeing second base, added that Netanyahu gave the Obama administration a gift by doing something so "flagrant that it forced the administration to find its voice."
Ignatius then broke for second. En route, he said he thinks that the administration has a problem with optics. He recounted writing a column arguing that the United States should support Salam Fayyad's two-year transitional plan towards statehood. When a U.S. official called to tell Ignatius that this indeed was the United States' policy, Ignatius responded, "Well, it's news to me." (Anyone wanna contribute to hire him a researcher?) Ignatius, one of the most consistent hitters in the majors, argued that the United States needs to more clearly articulate its policy to give Fayyad the political support he'll need to convince a Palestinian public that is skeptical of a phased transition.
But what if Israel decided to strike Iran, asked umpire Schieffer: "What does the U.S. do?" The panelists said they were not convinced that an Israeli raid against Iran would be either easy or effective. The Anglophile Coll, batting third, explained that there exists in Iran a breadth of nuclear intellectual capacity and infrastructure such that strikes against Iran would not be debilitating. Ignatius, standing on second base, lent him support, questioning the ability of Israel to conduct an operation without U.S. support.
And so the game goes on.
Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.