Shaky Start on Mideast Peace Talks Is Latest Complication for Obama's Foreign Policy Agenda

Three weeks after President Obama heralded the re-launch of Middle East peace talks, the administration is scrambling to keep negotiations from falling apart.

The roadblock — in this case Israel’s decision to resume settlement construction in the West Bank — stands as the latest complication in the president’s drive to make his mark on the world stage.

Though he won election on a wave of hope that international good will toward his candidacy would translate into foreign policy gains, the president has few diplomatic accomplishments to call his own. Aside from an arms control treaty with Russia that has not yet been ratified and a fourth round of United Nations sanctions on Iran, the president’s accomplishments have fallen mostly in the domestic column since he won a Nobel Peace Prize based on his diplomatic vision a year ago.

“It’s almost a truism or a cliché … that the expectations were too high and they have not been met,” said David Pollock, a State Department adviser during the Clinton administration.

With so little in the outbox of his foreign policy portfolio, a lot is riding on the peace talks. His announcement in early September that direct negotiations would resume marked arguably the biggest diplomatic endeavor of his presidency.

Pollock, now a senior fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the administration is “making up for lost time” on the Middle East. He said Obama waited too long for Israel to make a move and now has to hustle just to get back to “square one.”

The talks were thrown into doubt after Israel’s 10-month settlement freeze expired and sporadic construction resumed in the West Bank. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said he would give it at least a week before deciding whether to leave the negotiating table entirely, and the State Department announced envoy George Mitchell would fly to the region once again to try to reset the conditions for direct talks. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said no further peace talks are scheduled at this time.

But several analysts and former officials say Obama has lost time on more than just the Israeli-Palestinian impasse.

“The high point was the recommitment to Afghanistan. … That’s about it,” said Elliott Abrams, who served as deputy national security adviser for Middle East affairs in the George W. Bush administration.

Abrams, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the Iran sanctions and renewed Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia could also count as achievements but questioned how effective they will be. He argued one would be hard pressed to find a single country, save for perhaps Egypt, where relations have improved since Obama took office.

Though Obama restored diplomatic ties with Venezuela, President Hugo Chavez repeatedly has rejected Obama’s latest choice for ambassador, Larry Palmer. Though Obama ended a diplomatic hiatus with Syria, his nominee for ambassador has been stuck in the Senate since February. Though he has tried to engage Iran, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad used his United Nations address last week in New York City to suggest before the General Assembly that the U.S. government was behind the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.

“Barack Obama has not exactly set the world on fire,” said Nile Gardiner, a foreign policy analyst with The Heritage Foundation.

The president has spent the bulk of his political capital on passing a sweeping health care package, a new set of financial industry regulations and sporadic doses of economic stimulus, all while trying to keep spirits high over the idling U.S. economy. His most influential foreign policy decision was to expand the Afghanistan war, but it is too soon to gauge that decision a success or failure.

Christopher Preble, director of foreign policy of studies at the Cato Institute, opposed the Afghanistan surge strategy but gave Obama’s some credit for roughly sticking with the Bush administration’s drawdown plan for Iraq.

“We didn’t start any new wars. … I count that as a plus,” Preble said in all seriousness.

But even with Obama’s foray into Middle East peace, critics say Obama made a serious misstep over the past year by lending too much importance to the issue of the settlements. By pressing Israel to halt construction, they say, he gave Abbas a ready excuse to avoid or walk away from peace talks whenever he hears the roar of a bulldozer’s engine.

“It’s only this administration that has made settlement construction an obsession and cornered Abbas. He can’t allow Obama and Mitchell to be more Palestinian than he is,” Abrams said.

Analysts say the president needs to de-emphasize the settlement issue if he wants to keep peace talks functional. They also say he needs to put more public pressure on terror groups like Hamas, something he did not do in his U.N. General Assembly speech.

So far, Congress is behind him. Eighty-seven senators wrote a letter to the president Monday supporting his effort and urging him to stay the course.

Gardiner, who called the administration’s projection that it could achieve a peace agreement within a year “pie in the sky,” said the administration has once again set high expectations; with them, another benchmark.

“He has raised expectations on what he can achieve on this and will be judged accordingly,” he said.