Week In Politics: Mideast Cease-Fire, Obama's Agenda

Audie Cornish speaks with our regular political commentators, E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution and David Brooks of The New York Times. They discuss the latest on the Hamas-Israel cease-fire, Washington's relationship with Egypt, the Obama administration's Mideast policies and the president's second-term agenda.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

For more on this, we're going to talk now to David Brooks of the New York Times and E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution for our weekly politics chat. Gentlemen, how are you doing?

E.J. DIONNE: Good to be with you.

DAVID BROOKS: Doing well.

CORNISH: Hope you had a good Thanksgiving.

DIONNE: We did. Thank you, and you had to work last night.

CORNISH: I know, I know. Well, very serious news this week. I want to talk about the Middle East. Negotiating this week's cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, clearly a test of Washington's relationship with Egypt. The agreement announced on Wednesday, I'm going to play a clip here of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaking in Cairo alongside Egypt's foreign minister.

SECRETARY HILLARY CLINTON: Now we have to focus on reaching a durable outcome that promotes regional stability and advances the security, dignity and legitimate aspirations of Palestinians and Israelis alike.

CORNISH: Where do things stand now with Washington and Egypt and how do President Mohamed Morsi's actions yesterday further complicate things? David.

BROOKS: Well, first of all, I think the Obama administration handled this excellently. First of all, they were extremely supportive of Israel all the way through, even with the Netanyahu government, who they don't always get along with. Secondly, I thought they did an excellent job of handling the Egyptian relationship. But this is not going to be simply, as Secretary Clinton said, an Israel/Palestine problem. Israel withdrew from Gaza and they still had rockets fired upon them.

This is an Arab Spring problem. Is the Arab Spring an Islamist spring or is it an Arab Spring or is it more likely some hybrid in-between? And so the Obama administration's going to somehow have to take these Islamist regimes, like in Egypt, and try to nudge them to any extent that that's possible toward a more democratic path. And this will be the sticking point, whether we stick with the Morsi government or whether we try to nudge it and become a little alarmed about what's happened there over the last day or two.

CORNISH: E.J.?

DIONNE: Yeah, I'd say this is a week of good news and bad news. The bad news is, obviously, Morsi asserting all these powers and what he did just has to be disturbing. Call me a liberal, but I just mistrust leaders who claim absolute power, even for what is supposedly a temporary period. And this is a really tricky issue for the Obama administration because that plays into the good news.

Morsi has shown this week that he's someone who can work with us, who is willing to work with us at least on this cease-fire and he, effectively in working with us, he worked with Israel. You wonder if Morsi isn't in a peculiar way creating an Islamist version of President Mubarak, somebody who buys our cooperation by standing with us on immediate Middle East issues, but then proceeds to aggrandize his own power.

But the other thing is, you wonder - and this could be optimistic, if having acted in this situation, the Obama administration might be drawn in more to a new American effort to have broader negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

CORNISH: That was my next question. That's obviously something, foreign policy-wise, during the election the Obama administration was criticized for, that when it came to this area of foreign policy, they hadn't gotten very far. Is this a reset?

DIONNE: Well, this is an opportunity for a reset if they want to take it. I mean, these are not the optimal circumstances for it, but there are a couple of things that might be working in favor of the U.S. getting more involved. One is President Obama has been re-elected, so his hand is strengthened. And President Netanyahu knows he doesn't - he and Obama haven't gotten along, but he knows he's going to have to deal with President Obama for the next four years.

So at least on that side of things, there are some openings.

CORNISH: David?

BROOKS: I guess I'd say this is a terrible time to try to have an Israeli-Palestinian solution. As I said, Israel withdrew from Gaza. They did what the world asked them to do. They ceded international border. And instead of getting some reasonable partner, they got a Hamas government.

So we're at a moment now where we've got Hamas doing what they're doing, we've got Syria falling apart, we've got an Islamist movement spreading across the Arab world. That's the big picture. The Israeli-Palestinian thing really doesn't seem to be fertile ground for a peace movement.

Settling the Arab Spring issue and doing what we can to neutralize that or at least pacify it until it evolves into something else, that's the big picture.

DIONNE: Although getting something moving on the Palestinian-Israeli front might actually be helpful on the larger front.

CORNISH: Now with all the focus on the Middle East, it would've been easy to overlook the president's first foreign trip post-election was actually to Southeast Asia, and that was meant to highlight the second-term focus on expanding the U.S. presence in Asia. David, it seems like you were watching this this week.

BROOKS: It's odd, we didn't talk about it in the campaign, but the global peace is really in crisis all around the world. All of a sudden, the Middle East is what it is. Europe's in collapse. The Chinese economy is really suffering. Chinese reform seems to be slowing down. And so, this was a nice move by the Obama administration to reassure people in the Chinese periphery where, you know, let's face it, these are the countries that are going to be driving the economy, the global economy for the next couple years, to sort of reassert the idea that yes, we have a role in Asia. And our role is essentially to balance Chinese power, especially at a time where China may get more aggressive as its domestic economy becomes more dynamic or uncertain.

DIONNE: And I think this goes with what President Obama promised four years ago, which is some kind of tilt away from our almost total focus on Iraq and Afghanistan to larger issues that have to do with long-term American interest. And obviously, both the relationship with China and the need to balance off China is at the center of that.

CORNISH: Interestingly enough, when the president was visiting a monastery in Thailand this week, he was speaking to a monk who made a joke about needing blessings to deal with the budget talks. We just have a short time left, but any smoke signals out of that discussion this week for Washington you guys think are worth note?

DIONNE: I am guardedly optimistic that something is going to happen. You have a million different ways they are trying to find to label a tax increase that would effectively increase the tax rate on the wealthy not look like they're doing that.

The Republicans seem to be ready to move, but then I've thought they didn't have a strong hand and would eventually come to some agreement.

CORNISH: David?

BROOKS: I'm guardedly pessimistic mostly because they've slowed down the negotiations, and the forces rallying against them are growing in power. So the clock is working against the forces of compromise. But the compromise is pretty clear: a tax increase on the rich in exchange for some sort of structural change to Medicare.

I think that's sitting out there. They could agree on it, but they really got to seize the moment because the forces of opposition, as I say, building and building.

CORNISH: Guardedly pessimistic, this is the cousin to cautiously optimistic? Is that...

(LAUGHTER)

DIONNE: That's - we're cousins here because I'm cautiously optimistic.

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: David Brooks of the New York Times and E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and the Brookings Institution. Thanks to you both.

DIONNE: Thank you.

BROOKS: Thank you.

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