The U.S. presidential campaign is intensifying with just over three months to go before the November election. As President Obama seeks another term, and likely Republican nominee Mitt Romney attempts to unseat him, U.S. officials have visited the Middle East as the world grapples with issues such as Syria and Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
Most of Syria is now in a state of civil war–the assessment of the International Committee of the Red Cross and before that United Nations officials–though the Obama administration has not formally described it as such.
…diplomatic wheels have been turning in the background.
There are concerns about the impact of further deterioration in Syria on the wider Middle East and worries about Iran are mounting again, after disappointing results from P5+1 talks with Tehran.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stopped in Israel at the end of an intensive two week around-the-world trip. The visit, after Clinton’s stop in Egypt to meet new President Mohamed Morsi, focused not only on Israeli concerns about developments in Egypt, but Iran’s nuclear program and the situation in Syria.
After rounds of inconclusive talks between the P5+1 and Iran in various capitals, the international standoff with Iran and worries about the possibility of an Israeli unilateral strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities have been eclipsed to a degree by Syria.
But diplomatic wheels have been turning in the background. This week the White House announced that National Security Adviser Tom Donilon also traveled in the region.
Separate statements by National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor announced that Donilon held talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and his counterpart General Amidror.
In these meetings, Donilon “reaffirmed the United States’ unwavering commitment to Israel’s security,” and the statement described the talks as the latest in a series of ongoing consultations on a range of regional security issues.
In response to a VOA inquiry, the NSC spokesman said no additional readout was forthcoming about the Donilon talks, which also included a stop in London.
Vietor’s statement about Donilon’s talks in Saudi Arabia, which is worried about the situation in Syria and Iran, was slightly more detailed, though with the usual diplomatic language.
The visit was “positive and productive” adding that Donilon met with King Abdullah bin Abd al-Aziz Al Saud to “discuss and coordinate on approaches to a broad range of regional and bilateral issues.” Donilon also conveyed President Obama’s “appreciation of and commitment to the strength of the bilateral relationship” and reaffirmed “the enduring strategic interests on which the U.S. – Saudi partnership is built.”
What the White House has said publicly in recent months about President Obama’s personal contacts with Mideast leaders includes a phone conversation in June with new Egyptian President Morsi and one with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.
On the surface, Israel-Palestinian peace efforts appear to have been going nowhere. In March, the White House noted a conversation between President Obama and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas reaffirming the U.S. commitment to Mideast peace efforts and “overall objectives outlined by the Quartet group of nations.”
They agreed on the necessity of a two-state solution and discussed “the ongoing need to build trust between the parties and for all sides to refrain from provocative actions”. But that was that, until Secretary Clinton’s recent stop in Israel which included discussion of where things stand.
President Obama commented on Israel-Palestinian peace efforts last week in an interview with a local Washington, D.C. television station (WJLA-TV). He listed his inability to move the peace process forward as one disappointment of his first term, saying the parties have “got to want it as well.”
Meanwhile, another U.S. official, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, is reported to be planning a visit to Israel later this month. Panetta first visited Israel last October at a time of heightened global concerns about a potential Israeli military strike on Iran.
White House officials emphasize that President Obama will continue to conduct foreign policy even as he ramps up campaigning across the country against Mitt Romney. As one Obama campaign official put it, Mr. Obama “can walk and chew gum at the same time.”
Mitt Romney hopes to burnish his foreign policy credentials with a trip that reports say is being planned to Europe and a stop in Israel.
Romney has assailed the Obama foreign policy record, asserting that the president has not been strong enough in his support for Israel or on taking steps to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, and continuing to criticize the Obama strategy in Afghanistan.
Even as President Obama focuses on his main campaign themes of boosting the U.S. middle class, the White House has made sure that his campaign speeches across the country mention major foreign policy successes, such as ending the war in Iraq and drawing down troops in Afghanistan.
Dan Robinson has been Voice of America's Senior White House Correspondent since 2010, arriving from Capitol Hill where he covered the House of Representatives from 2002 to 2009. He is also a former bureau chief for VOA in Southeast Asia, and East Africa, and headed VOA's Burma broadcast service between 1997 and 2001.