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WINEP Panelists get Carried Away with Criticism of Obama Policy

There was disturbing unanimity on the opening panel of the annual conference of Washington's leading Mideast think tank Friday. The Obama administration's policy in the region is failing, all three panelists concurred.

The Washington Institute for Near East Policy tried and failed to have an administration official sit in for Admiral Michael Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who was slated to kickoff the conference. Mullen had to cancel and the Obama administration didn't send anyone instead. And that is regrettable.

So the conference was launched with a panel of pundits who slammed the administration's performance in the region.

Publisher and real estate magnate Mortimer Zuckerman stated: "His (Obama's) administration - and he himself - doesn't know how to play the game." The other two on the panel, Professor Michael Mandelbaum of Johns Hopkins University, Jackson Diehl of the Washington Post, concurred. On Israel-Palestine, Iran, Afghanistan, settlements, Arab World support for the peace process and more - this administration is failing, was the verdict.

One argument was that the Obama administration is relying more on charm than on muscle in the region. Mandelbaum referred to a truism from western movies: You can get more with a smile and a gun than with just a smile. Muscle, all three implied, should have been used toward the Arabs (in the Arab world, there is a big difference between being loved and being respected, Zuckerman commented), while Israelis should have received more smiles. Obama's dismal approval rating in Israel - between four and seven percent in recent polls - was pointed to as proof.

The administration was faulted even for issues that have nothing to do with its performance. Zuckerman argued that the administration made a terrible mistake by publically negotiating with Israel on a settlement freeze. That, of course, is wrong. All the leaks from the negotiations came from Israel rather than from Special Envoy George Mitchell's small and disciplined team. And, let's be fair: The leaks from Jerusalem were clearly aimed at derailing the negotiations. Which raises a question: How successful can you be as a broker when the party that holds almost all the cards is not willing to play?   

I couldn't find one aspect of the administration's regional policy that won approval from the panelists. The Post's Diehl summed up the categorical tone of the panel by stating that the administration tried everything but did it all wrong.  

I didn't expect a member of the Nobel Peace Prize committee to sit on the panel, but in corridor conversations following the panel, many said they thought it was lopsided.

As I see it, on both Israel-Palestine and Iran, the guilty verdict is premature. Sure, this administration made some mistakes. Sure, the magical moments of Obama's first days in office have faded. But this is a work in progress, and, as the Yiddish (and Hebrew) expression goes, "don't show a fool work half done."

Stay tuned for highlights of Day Two,