Last night Tamara Cofman Wittes, a senior adviser on the Middle East to Hillary Clinton, said that a statement President Obama made about the US withdrawing from the Middle East earlier this month was “strange… bizarre, illogical… odd” and reflected “inconsistency and incoherence.”
Wittes spoke at Columbia University on a panel about Israel. She said:
Another thing that the president said to Jeffrey Goldberg that I found surprising was that American energy independence means that the Middle East is just a lot less important than it used to be. And this is a strange notion to me as a political scientist. Because energy is a local market, and we’re a global economic power, and our major trading partners are dependent on Middle Eastern energy. So the fact that we’re pumping gas and you know finding shale oil here and even starting to export does not mean that the Middle East doesn’t matter to us anymore.
It’s a bizarre, illogical conclusion– A. B, it seems odd to me that one can say that the Middle East is of diminishing importance when the United States is in the process of scaling up its military engagements in the Middle East. So I think there’s an inconsistency and an incoherence there that I don’t think the administration is going to be able to reconcile before the end of this year, and again, that a future administration is going to have to figure out.
Wittes, director of the Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings who was an assistant secretary of state under Hillary Clinton, was referring to this comment by Jeffrey Goldberg in an Atlantic piece about Obama’s foreign policy:
For Obama, Asia represents the future…. And the Middle East is a region to be avoided—one that, thanks to America’s energy revolution, will soon be of negligible relevance to the U.S. economy.
Wittes said that like it or not the U.S. is deeply involved in the Middle East in the wake of the Arab uprisings and the weakening of our traditional partners there. Noting that Obama’s Pentagon now wants to put more ground forces into Iraq to fight ISIS, she said the war against Isis was Obama’s primary legacy in the Middle East, not unlike George W. Bush’s legacy of the Iraq War.
On Israel, Wittes said based on her conversations with Israeli security officials it would be a good thing if the U.S. and Israel quickly came to terms on the bigger aid package that Israel is seeking from the U.S.
She took a shot at Donald Trump in this regard. Trump wants to “make the Israelis pay for their defense, right?” she said. “He said that.” Wittes was referring to this statement Trump made a week ago. He said of countries that were able to defend themselves, like Germany and South Korea, that they should “pay us the money” we’ve spent on foreign aid. Asked, Should that apply to Israel? Trump said, “I think Israel will do that also, yeah… There are many countries that can pay.”
Wittes also said that support for Israel was softening in America as we become a minority majority country. She cited Shibley Telhami’s polling on the Democratic base’s sympathy for the Palestinian cause.
And she got off a Trump quip. She teased moderator Jordan Hirsch and fellow panelist neoconservative Michael Doran, “You don’t want to talk about the size of our hands. Really, what’s more interesting?… Start with a show of hands.”
Update: I changed headline from “Obama’s desire to withdraw” to “Obama’s rationale for withdrawal” after complaint of inaccuracy.