After four years in the White House and two inquisitorial presidential election campaigns, what Barack Obama really thinks about foreign policy is still an open question.
Is he a realist, trimming the United States’ limited resources to protect its vital interests as other powers — Russia, China and India amongst them — jostle for influence? Or is he an idealist, focussing on values that will change the world and inspiring others to follow? Perhaps he is neither, wisely focusing on domestic — for which, read economic — issues. For observers of the Middle East, the answer matters a great deal.
Realist-Obama is serious about his “pivot to Asia”, lessening other commitments in order to shore up US interests through improved relations with China. Energy independence will help, loosening the ties to Gulf petro-powers. Little time there for the hand-holding needed to shepherd unwilling Israelis and Palestinians towards the promised land of a peace deal.
Idealist-Obama, though, might find it harder to cut the bonds of values that play such a strong role in the US-Israeli relationship. Freed of electoral worries and with economic woes at home, foreign policy could provide an elusive legacy to an as-yet undistinguished presidency. On the face of it, the message he brought to Israel last month was more idealist than realist.
Mr Obama’s visit was memorable for its shirt-sleeved bonhomie with Benjamin Netanyahu and for his much-delayed reaching out to Israelis. His speech to Israeli students mirrored the first-term speech at Cairo University, but with more warmth. It was, according to former US Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk, “a message of love”. Mr Obama’s hearts-and-minds campaign — successful, for the most part — certainly boosted his popularity among Israelis, and set the commentariat into what-if mode. Secretary of State John Kerry’s shuttle diplomacy, already into his third round of talks, promises ongoing high-level attention.
However, at least on Middle East matters, Mr Obama’s policy is probably more grounded in realpolitik than in idealism. With an eye on the chaos in Syria and the urgency of confronting Iran, Mr Obama’s principal objective was to patch up the important Israeli-Turkish relationship. His newly-acquired popularity with the Israeli public was instrumental in this regard. It gave Mr Netanyahu the cover he required for complying with the president’s request, even though they included steps he had hesitated over previously and may have personally found difficult to swallow. On the other hand, Mr Obama had little time or warmth for the Palestinians, sending an oblique message of disapproval.
Leaving Mr Kerry to continue the search for peace in the region sounds sensible. After all, Henry Kissinger invented shuttle diplomacy in the region in the 1970s, producing the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty. His successors, Cyrus Vance, James Baker and Warren Christopher, all made progress through intensive, high-level efforts. Lowlier presidential envoys, however well-intentioned, have had only limited success.
The critical, unanswered, question is how determined Mr Obama is to disentangle the US from the Middle East.
Unless all parties know that Mr Kerry has the full backing of the president, his may yet prove a fool’s errand.