The Lessons Obama Should Learn from Kennedy Before Talking to Iran

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Mr. Oren is senior fellow at the Shalem Center and the author of Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present, (W.W. Norton, 2007).

Barack Obama has often been compared to John F. Kennedy in his hopeful message, his charisma, and his youth. In terms of Middle East policy, however, there is an even more substantive similarity between the Illinois senator and the thirty-fifth president. Obama has promised to pursue a dialogue with America's adversaries in the region, above all Iran. "[O]ur first line of offense must be a sustained, aggressive, coordinated diplomatic effort to make clear to Iran the costs of its current path," he declared. "I would engage Iran in direct, bilateral discussions - much as we negotiated with the Soviet Union throughout the Cold War."

Kennedy, too, vowed to renew communication with Middle Eastern leaders who had resisted American policies. Kennedy's initiatives, mounted nearly a half-century ago, provide a precedent for understanding the dynamics of such discussions and to assess Obama's chances for formulating a new paradigm in America-Middle East relations.

Kennedy's inauguration in January 1961 coincided with a nadir in America's Middle East standing. Under the Republican administration of Dwight D. Eisenhower, the United States had orchestrated the overthrow of the popular Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh and replaced him with an oppressive Shah. Bitter rifts had opened between Washington and the radical regimes in Baghdad and Damascus, while moderate Arabs resented America's continuing support of Israel. Most rancorous, though, was the relationship between the United States and Egypt's pan-Arab champion, Gamal Abdul Nasser. In spite of Eisenhower's success in saving him from almost certain overthrow in the 1956 Suez Crisis, Nasser emerged as a powerful anti-American force in the Middle East, threatening pro-Western governments and strengthening ties with the Soviet Union. In response, Eisenhower issued a doctrine pledging to defend any Middle Eastern country from "International Communism"--a euphemism for Egypt. Accordingly, when Nasserist forces threatened the governments of Lebanon and Jordan in the summer of 1958, Eisenhower dispatched troops to Beirut and military supplies to Amman. "The USA is [trying] to impose her influence over the Middle East," proclaimed Nasser's spokesman, Anwar Sadat, indicating the gulf now yawning between them.

Kennedy resolved to bridge that gap. Prior to assuming the presidency, he asserted his intention to depart from the previous administration's policies toward the developing world, the Middle East included. "The single most important test of the American foreign policy today is how we meet the challenge of imperialism," Kennedy averred. "On this test more than any other, this nation shall be critically judged by the uncommitted millions in Asia and Africa." Rising to this challenge, Kennedy entered the White House with a public endorsement of Algeria's quest for independence, and, one month later, began a warm correspondence with Nasser. Reminding him that the United States once resembled the Middle East, a collection of recently-liberated colonies yearning for unity, Kennedy affirmed America's affection for Egypt and the Arab World and its commitment to their independence. Nasser, in reply, expressed "immense satisfaction and appreciation" for Kennedy's gesture and "love and admiration for the American people." To fortify these bonds, Kennedy approved massive wheat shipments to Egypt. By 1963, some 60% of all Egyptians received their daily bread from the United States.

The Kennedy-Nasser correspondence nevertheless ended in acrimony. The reason was Yemen. Nasser sent tens of thousands of troops to aid the revolutionaries who overthrew the pro-Western imam in the 1962 coup, triggering a proxy war with Saudi Arabia. Eager to preserve both his friendship with a revered Arab nationalist and the US-Saudi alliance, Kennedy mediated a cease-fire. Nasser accepted the terms and then violated them with poison gas attacks on loyalist bases. One of Kennedy's last acts in office was to fortify Saudi defenses with American warplanes.

Kennedy's experiences may provide some useful precedents for Barack Obama as he seeks to open new channels to Iran, which has replaced Egypt as the predominant Middle Eastern Muslim power. In contrast to Nasser who espoused a secular nationalist ideology which afforded him a degree of latitude in diplomacy and domestic politics, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and other Iranian leaders are bound to a jihadist theology that severely constricts their ability to compromise. Unlike Egypt, which had been humbled by the Israelis in 1948 and again in 1956, Iran has overcome all of its opponents, repulsing the Iraqis in the 1980s and later extending its influence through Syria, Lebanon, and the Palestinian territories.

Kennedy's failure to establish a rapport with Nasser's Egypt based on mutual respect and flexibility augurs poorly for Obama's prospects to create an amicable relationship Ahmadinejad's Iran. In addition to dialoguing with America's nemeses in the Middle East, Obama also resembles Kennedy in his determination to secure an Arab-Israeli accord. "We must strive to secure a lasting settlement of the conflict with two states living side by side in peace and security," Obama has asserted, "a task that the Bush administration neglected for years." In assuming this responsibility, though, Obama would do well to recall Kennedy's experience. Efforts to broker a treaty between Israel and its Arab neighbors stalled under the Eisenhower administration and, to regain momentum, Kennedy embarked on a secret initiative to resettle thousands of Palestinian refugees in the Jordan Valley. The plan, which was to have been the first step toward a comprehensive agreement, called on the Israelis to cede control over part of their territory and the Arabs to implicitly recognize Israel. Neither side consented, however, and Kennedy's initiative proved stillborn.

Though much progress has been made over the past fifty years, the core issues of Israeli reluctance to sacrifice land and Arab refusal to recognize Israel's legitimacy continue to plague peacemakers. Surmounting these obstacles requires not only the kind of activist diplomacy prescribed by Obama, but, above all, committed Israeli and Arab leaders capable of breaking from previous positions and forging new models of co-existence.

In his optimism, charm, and vitality, Barack Obama may indeed evoke John F. Kennedy. Yet, in dealing with the Middle East, Obama should heed Kennedy's lessons. Dialogue is indeed preferable to conflict, but there are limits to which communication can moderate the policies of a regime lacking diplomatic leeway and bent on regional domination. America must strive to facilitate Arab-Israeli peace, but peace can only be made by Arabs and Israelis. Kennedy approached the Middle East with a message of hope only to be disappointed. Obama offers the region a similar vision but, if tempered with realism, he may yet succeed where Kennedy failed.

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Arnold Shcherban - 7/13/2008

This country, i.e. the US, being an agressor itself has/had no moral
or legal right to be a sole conductor
of a peaceful resolution between Israel and Arabs, or between any other countries in the world, including resolutions of conflicts between itself and another country. Such matters have to be relegated to the UN bodies and commissions, entirely.
Only by discarding Pax Americana strategies the US will eliminate the overwhelming number of its small and big problems.

John L. Godwin - 6/25/2008

This is a good article. I enjoyed hearing Mr. Oren's views--so clearly steeped in the history of this region.
But don't we have a clear example of success in the Mideast negotiation process in the Jimmy Carter era accords? Negotiated through painstaking efforts on the part of a U.S. president clearly devoted to peace?
The Kennedy example is also so compelling--especially because it offered tangible benefits to Palestianian people historically victimized by this country's adoption of Israel as a Mideast client state.
My primary question: what would happen if we told the Israelis that they must come to terms with the Palestinians or face a reduction in U.S. military and economic support? And the same to our Arab allies?