Doubling Down in the Middle East Casino

Did you hear the one about Obama and Kerry in a Middle East casino? They start off with lots of chips. They're playing craps, making a couple of large bets which they lose. So they take their remaining chips and head to the blackjack table.

Desperate to recoup their losses, they put up all their chips on the next hand. They're dealt a 5 and a 4; the dealer is showing a king. Defying the odds, they decide to double down. Will they succeed? It's too early to tell. The next cards haven't been dealt, but the odds against them are long.

This metaphor illustrates the Obama Kerry Middle East policy. They made a huge losing bet on Morsi in Egypt, believing that he would lead that country toward a liberal democracy. Unlike the crafty Erdogan in Turkey, Morsi didn't seek to turn his country into an Islamic theocracy gradually and with finesse. He took a sledgehammer to Egyptian life causing alarmed liberal secularists to break with him and an outraged military to seize control.

We continued throwing chips onto the Egypt craps table, betting against the military, by threatening to withhold our $1.3 billion in aid. Across the table, the Saudis bet $12 billion on the generals and they took our chips.

So Obama and Kerry moved on to the Syria craps table. Here, they made a large red line bet against Assad: If he uses chemical weapons, we bomb and Assad goes. The odds appeared to be in our favor. The Saudis were betting with us this time. The Western Europeans, too. Also, the Turks.

It looked like a winner until Putin came out of the wings and picked up the dice. The short Russian former KGB agent had a hot hand. Pretty quickly, he was wiping out our potentially winning bet. We didn't bomb and Assad remained in power.

On to the blackjack table. The Obama Kerry hand consisted of a miserable five and four. Nevertheless, they doubled down with one bet that they could reach an agreement with Iran; and the other that they could resolve the intractable Israeli Palestinian conflict.

They each have a lot riding on these bets. Obama has been rocked onto his heels by the difficulties with the launch of his prized Obama Care. He's facing grumbling from Democrats about their reelection prospects because of it. Success here could rejuvenate Barack Obama's presidency and retrospectively earn him his 2009 Nobel Peace Prize. (Financial Times, Nov. 11, p. 13.) And Kerry is desperate for a legacy at the end of his long career. (Washington Post, November 11, p. A29.)

Going into the Geneva talks, Obama and Kerry had incredible leverage on their side. The Iranian economy is being crippled by existing sanctions; the U.S. Congress was planning to ratchet them up. The time was perfect to cut a final deal: We'll agree to lift the sanctions; and Iran agrees to end its nuclear weapons program.

Inexplicably, that was not the approach that Obama and Kerry pursued. Instead, they were only going for a six month interim deal which created incredibly difficult verification issues and complex questions about what was to be halted. This closely resembled the 2002 suspension of nuclear work briefly undertaken by Iran and then repudiated. Obama and Kerry persisted in this approach despite vocal opposition from our two closest allies in the Middle East--Saudi Arabia and Israel.

There is a dispute as to why the Geneva negotiations ended in failure. The Iranians blame the French whose Foreign Minister, Fabius, publicly criticized the proposed deal as a "fools game." In contrast, a senior American official said that it was the Iranian delegation that balked at creating an interim agreement. (New York Times, November 11, p. A11.)

With the negotiations scheduled to resume, this cliffhanger has left us with perplexing questions. Will Zarif harden his position after consultations in Tehran? Will Obama and Kerry compel Hollande and Fabius to back down? If the next round of negotiations yield a bad deal, Obama and Kerry will pocket their chips from this bet, but they may prove to be worthless in six months.

This brings us to the Israeli Palestinian negotiations with Kerry as the self-appointed mediator. As anyone who has negotiated knows, mediators can only succeed if both sides want to reach agreement and need a little help getting there. In this case, the only one who seems desperately to want an agreement is the mediator, Secretary of State Kerry.

Both Netanyahu and Abbas would face bitter opposition within their own constituencies if they were to reach agreement on a two state solution. Moreover, Netanyahu can fairly believe that these negotiations with Abbas would be futile. At Camp David under President Clinton, the Israelis offered almost everything Arafat wanted, and at the end of the day he rejected the terms for peace and launched an intifada. When Abbas hailed as heroes murderers released from Israeli prisons as a good will gesture, it was clear that these negotiations have no real chance of success.

We are left wondering why Kerry is pushing so hard. There used to be an axiom within State Department that if only the Israelis and Palestinians settled their dispute, then there would be peace throughout the Middle East. Events since the Arab Spring have totally undercut that view. Worried about a nuclear Shiite Iran, the Sunni monarchy in Saudi Arabia has nuclear weapons 'on order' from Pakistan. (Wall Street Journal, Nov. 11, 2013, P. A14.) A more apt axiom might be: if only the Sunnis and Shiites reach agreement, there will be peace in the Middle East.

This takes me back to the casino metaphor. Obama and Kerry want this agreement for Obama and Kerry. Unfortunately, they have doubled down on a bet with very long odds.