Opposing Palestine's bid to join the UN puts America on the wrong side of history, but a lack of domestic support forced the president's hand.
Yesterday, the Next American Economy breakfast series heard former Ambassador Frank Wisner on the topic of the "Arab Spring" -- where it is going, and what it means for the U.S. Wisner focused on the broad developments occurring across the Middle East, but it was hard not to think about President Obama's speech regarding Palestine's entry into the United Nations.
Opposing Palestinian membership in the UN, as President Obama found himself forced to do this week, is a disaster for American foreign policy that was probably inevitable.
It is often hard to explain how apparently abstract developments such as America's relative loss of position and power, the rise of other major players, the loss of the "glue" the Cold War provided for the West, and the sudden emergence of the Arab Spring affect American interests. Well, we've just seen a concrete example, and it will haunt us for a long, long time.
This is not a bash-President-Obama statement. The choice he made reflected the rawest kind of U.S. domestic politics. Given the president's current circumstances, it is impossible to imagine his going in the other direction. He lacks the political capital, and there are no major figures among Republicans or in the (nonexistent) American center who could be counted on to support him if he had chosen to back Palestinian membership. From where I sit, it seems blindingly obvious that Palestinian membership in the UN is not only completely consistent with a U.S. guarantee of Israel's security, but is arguably preferable. But I don't sit in the White House anymore, and Rufus Miles's famous principle -- where you stand depends on where you sit -- applies.
But neither the inevitability of this decision nor the high probability that many would disagree with my sense of Israeli security issues make this decision's consequences any less dire. If you put lipstick on this pig, it's still just a pig with lipstick. We have firmly placed ourselves on the wrong side of history with this decision. We have for a while -- I fear a long while -- removed ourselves as broadly accepted players in Middle East issues. We have also accelerated our loss of position and power.
Three closing observations:
First, I wonder what plan "B" was for the White House and the State Department. Normally one would have a rough risk assessment, and one would have known -- weeks if not months ago -- that the odds of winning on this issue were very, very low. That does not mean you should not go ahead and try, but it does mean you should be able to answer the "and then what" question. I see no evidence of the answer to that, but you can't just sit there with the president having endured a significant personal rebuff and maintain that was the plan all along.
Second, the only way our current position can be rescued is with clear movement toward a peace plan. But we would have to throw ourselves into that issue, which would also be politically fraught, and we would have to receive some real help from Israel, for whom the President just took a huge hit. Are we going to try, or are we going to sit idle for 14 months while our election plays out?
Third, the world over the next generation will be a different and difficult place. It will be a kaleidoscope of different players: new semi-global powers; local, regional, and global issues and interests; and state and non-state players. Other nations will be the source of most of the world's growth. Our own economy -- unless things change -- will be weak, and our politics mean. America will continue to be the most influential single nation, but we will not be the acknowledged and accepted leader. We can function fine in this world, unless -- as this decision may portend -- our foreign policy becomes simply a bad reflection of our domestic politics.
Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Bo Cutter is formerly a managing partner of Warburg Pincus, a major global private equity firm. Recently, he served as the leader of President Obama’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) transition team. He has also served in senior roles in the White Houses of two Democratic presidents.