Last week I attended the Senate hearing to discuss 2011 Foreign Policy Priorities, where Secretary of State Hillary Clinton presented the State Department budget and priorities and was questioned by each of the Senators on the committee. Nothing groundbreaking occurred. The emphasis was on the threat of Iran’s nuclear program, with sprinklings of other Middle Eastern issues thrown in.
The first priority on the agenda was Iran. The Secretary brought up the dual approach to Iran’s nuclear development in the first few minutes of her opening remarks. This approach is basically shaking hands if Iran unclenches its fist, while tightening the noose if they refuse to cooperate. Most of the senators also brought up the issue and emphasized the need to deal with the threat and the Secretary agreed with their remarks, continuing to emphasize the dual policy approach. The absence of internet freedom was also briefly brought up.
The Israeli/Palestinian issue was brought up by one of the Senators early on. The Secretary’s response was that the administration would continue to encourage negotiations between the PA and Israel, especially on final status issues. In addition, working with the PA to strengthen security forces and the judicial system was a priority. One of the Senators brought up moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, legitimizing its status as Israel’s capital, a perennial obsession of politicians eager to please Israel’s hardline supporters in the United States.
The last Middle Eastern issue that was discussed was the U.S. relationship with Syria, which has recently warmed, as indicated by the fact that the U.S. is sending an Ambassador to Syria. The Secretary replied that Syria must stop supporting Hezbollah, stop meddling in Lebanon, and move away from Iran. Another Senator suggested encouraging negotiations between Syria and Israel. The response was that this would be unlikely, but eventually necessary in order to achieve regional security.
The hearing presented nothing new. No surprises. The approach to Iran remains timid and tentative. And the resumption of diplomatic relations with Syria also remained tentative and dependent on their rejection of ties with Iran. The Israeli-Palestinian issue did not appear to be a priority and it seems that the Obama administration may have lost steam on it. They continue to encourage negotiations, but they are no longer pushing Israel to stop building settlements, they refuse to talk to HAMAS, and ignore the crisis in Gaza. It was interesting to hear the Secretary speak in person, but as expected, there were no groundbreaking changes in U.S. foreign policy and U.S. strategy in the Middle East.