Middle Eastern hope?

Two pieces of hopeful Middle Eastern news. Firstly, the Guardian is reporting that the Obama camp is prepared to talk to Hamas. This is absolutely essential because Hamas is the democratic representative of the Gazan Palestinians. Nicholas Kristof is wrong to argue that America should try to "strengthen the Palestinian Authority". No, no, no. The PA is utterly discredited. Why try to bring back to political life a corrupt and unpopular organization that has been on American life-support for years? So the news in the Guardian is really encouraging, particularly if Obama can use this opportunity to explain to the America people that Hamas has more in common with the IRA than with Al Qaeda.

The second piece of good news concerns Iran. Yesterday, I argued that to do any viable business in the Middle East, Obama needed to play the Tehran card. Today, Mark Lander reports in the Times that Hillary is considering handing Dennis Ross the Iran portfolio which Lander describes as "significant" because it would "underline Mr. Obama’s resolve tobegin engaging diplomatically with Tehran."

I knew Ross back in the mid Eighties when I was a graduate student at Berkeley and he was running the Berkeley-Stanford program on American relations with the Soviet Union. Ross became mentor to two of my closest American friends, Jim Goldgeier, the author of the much acclaimed America Between the Wars and Andrew Carpendale, who became a senior adviser to James Baker at State in the first Bush administration. Since then, Ross has led peace Middle Eastern negotiations for both the Clinton and Bush senior administration. Given the failure of all these negotiations and the lingering suspicion in the Moslem world of his pro Israeli sympathies, Ross might not be quite the ideal person to now manage the thaw with Tehran. But I hope he's learnt something from all these failures. As Woodrow Wilson Center's Aaron David Miller told the Times:

“Iran sits at the nexus of everything we care about; it is the single biggest foreign policy issue this administration will confront. This relationship is not going to come around quickly.”

I would go further than Miller. The challenge of normalizing relations with Iran (and thus with Syria, Hamas, Hezbollah) is the single biggest foreign policy challenge since the collapse of the Berlin Wall in November 1989. It's the only way of achieving a viable peace both in Israel/Palestine and Iraq, it gives America many more options in Afghanistan and Pakistan, plus it might represent the beginning of the painful acknowledgment in Washington that its pro Egyptian and Saudi policy over the last quarter century have been a massive strategic failure.

Hillary was right to insist on State. While Obama is confronted with a massive and probably intractable economic and domestic infrastructure problems, there is now an opportunity to fundamentally realign American foreign policy interests. With Ross and Richard Holbrooke and the other diplomatic dream team she is piecing together, it might be Hillary, rather than Barry O, who has the last laugh in the '08 election.