In a blistering attack on President Obama, a diplomat in the George W. Bush administration told a Livingston audience on April 24 that “Israel’s security has eroded during the past five years, and this erosion is related to the Obama administration’s foreign policy decisions across the Middle East.”
Mitchell Reiss, who served as director of policy planning at the State Department under Colin Powell, critiqued administration policy in Israel, Iran, and Syria in a broad-ranging address at Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston on April 24.
“There is a perception that the United States has become less engaged, less reliable, and more eager to withdraw from the Middle East at a time when the neighborhood has gone to hell,” said Reiss, now president of Washington College in Chestertown, Md. “The result is that the strategic environment in which Israel lives has become far more dangerous.”
His hour-long address, “Terrorism Tomorrow: Who, What, Where, and Why?” was part of the independent synagogue’s “Varied Voices” lecture series dedicated to the memory of its late religious leader, Rabbi Barry Friedman.
Speaking a day after the Palestine Liberation Organization and Hamas agreed to form a unity government and call for new elections, Reiss said it is sometimes advantageous to negotiate with terrorist leaders.
“We may pay a price by remaining at arm’s length. We may miss a chance to release a hostage or end a conflict…. We need to be discriminating, and we need to be smart,” he said.
But addressing the possible reconciliation between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, Reiss said some people will suggest that Israel “should sit down and talk” with the new coalition. But, he cautioned, “not with Hamas. Not now…. Hamas could end up strengthened economically, diplomatically, and militarily.”
He said the Israeli-Palestinian peace process “is going nowhere fast,” partly because Obama “tried to kickstart the peace process by initially requiring Israel to unilaterally freeze settlements on the West Bank…. He set an artificial date for Palestinian statehood, saying it should become a member of the United Nations by 2011. When he later rejected his own policy, he punctured inflated expectations throughout the Arab world and raised questions about his administration’s judgment and credibility. In short, the president misspent his first four years on this issue.”
‘Mismanaged the inheritance’
Responding to a question, Reiss said a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians “would be a good thing if it happened, but I don’t think we should expect it is going to be the key that unlocks an era of amity and cooperation….
“I don’t think the road to Tehran runs through Jerusalem,” he said.
Reiss added: “I don’t really care about the Palestinian people. I’m sorry to say that. Maybe that’s harsh. I do care a lot about Israel, and so I really worry — if there is not a two-state solution — about the future of Israel.”
Turning to other parts of the Middle East, he recalled how in 2011 Obama called on President Bashar Assad of Syria to step aside.
“Yet we have never matched our resources with our rhetoric. We have dragged our feet in aiding the Syrian opposition,” he said. “The Syrian conflict will continue to be a running sore in the region and a graduate school for terrorists.”
Reiss said he wished the U.S. delegation “success” in its negotiations with the Iranian government over its nuclear program, but remained skeptical.
“If an agreement were reached, what then?” he asked. “Does the Obama administration have any larger plan to reintegrate Iran into the region” and force the Iranian government to halt the arming of Hamas and Hizbullah?
Reiss acknowledged that, as a member of the Bush administration, he played a role in the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan and the troubled results that followed.
“A number of mistakes were made,” Reiss told NJ Jewish News following his speech. “President Obama has inherited, as has every president, the shortcomings of his predecessor. But he also inherited some of the strengths.”
Reiss also conceded that the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq undermined the Bush administration’s stated premise for the war.
“A lot of the actual basis for the war in Iraq was wrong. I cannot undo that,” he said. “But President Obama inherited a situation that was far from bad in Iraq and Afghanistan, and he has mismanaged the inheritance.”