Obama and Netanyahu Left in the Dust, Overtaken by the Arab Spring and Bid for Palestinian Statehood

Tony Blair got one thing absolutely right.

The special envoy to the Middle East Quartet (the UN, the U.S., the EU, and Russia) did not get much sleep at the UN meeting in New York last week. In an environment made frenetic because of the Palestinian bid for full recognition as a UN state, Blair seems to be alone in a deep understanding that the most auspicious time for diplomatic negotiations is when everyone who matters is bumping into everyone else who matters in the same space. His insistence on using the chaos to the fullest allows him to be especially resilient in the face of Palestinian anger at the suggestion that negotiations replace the Palestinian application. No problem. Blair is now affirming Prime Minister Abbas’s strategy to make a bid for full UN membership. In this period after the vote, negotiations are certain to be even more frenetic. It was never an either/or situation: either negotiations for a two-state solution, or application for statehood at the U.N.

If scientists and mathematicians were on the scene they would no doubt have a theoretical interest in the diplomatic scurrying for some kind of behind-the-scenes results. “Aha!” they might say. “Here we have a collection of ‘agents” interacting with one another in pursuit of a seemingly simple result, and what might emerge is something much more complicated that cannot be predicted on the basis of the collective action.” This ambiguity, the hallmark of what theorists call nonlinear systems (what goes in is not necessarily what comes out), is what makes everyone crazy and often unable to find solutions to a complex problem. Like Tony Blair, scientists find the chaos challenging and seductive, knowing that this is a terrific opportunity for changing the game.

Unlike President Obama, stuck in the legend of present-day Israel read to him by the American Jewish right, Blair seems able to scan a larger library, maneuvering deftly through the stacks for an answer at the edge of chaos. He is comfortable in not knowing which book off the shelf might suggest the happy ending he is searching for. Where Blair is diplomatically nimble and adaptive, Obama is disappointedly rigid and adamant.

Complex systems science is often called “the science of surprise,” or the “science of emergence.” In order to assist difficult negotiations in today’s world, the mediator must give up the need to control the outcome of a very nonlinear, very chaotic, quite unpredictable process. Otherwise, there are no surprises and no breakthroughs, just the same old tired outcomes. Because Netanyahu and Obama are wedged in the old and increasingly discredited paradigm of command and control, they are failing as leaders facing a much more complex world. This failure of leadership disrupts, and ultimately disables, what little respect is left for U.S. diplomacy in the Middle East.

In his speech at the opening of the UN General Assembly, Obama spoke in generalities with little sense of urgency. Reading from a text that could have been written for him by the pro-Israel lobby, he held his position that the U.S. would veto the Palestinian call for statehood, even after delivering speech after speech previously affirming the right of the Palestinians to a state of their own. “Peace is hard” he said and must be won in negotiations.

Obama knows what’s at stake politically–conservative Jewish and evangelical Christian money and votes–and is allowing his election agenda to overtake his international responsibilities. Those include respecting the “Arab Spring”, a fight for democracy in a sea of autocratic rule. Obama is once again choosing not to do the right thing on one of the issues that matters most to the freedom fighters: ending the Israeli occupation of Palestine and welcoming a Palestinian state into the family of nations. Our unconditional support for Israel sadly leaves the U.S. at the bottom of the arc of the surprising, emerging new Middle East. Because of the absence of the U.S. as the champion of democratic reform, we can be almost certain that this sea change will be more chaotic. Let’s hope we don’t tumble over the edge into the swirling waters.

Merle Lefkoff, Ph.D. is President of Ars Publica, applying the science of Complexity to the art of diplomacy.