Lawmakers welcome Obama's 'new emphasis' on Middle East in second term

Lawmakers are applauding what they see as President Obama's “new emphasis” on the Middle East in his second term after Secretary of State John Kerry confirmed this week that he would be headed there ahead of the president's trip in March.

The twin visits are a tacit acknowledgment that the troubled region's problems — the civil war in Syria, Iran's nuclear ambitions and the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process — continue to dominate U.S. foreign policy. Lawmakers say the timing, coming after elections in both the United States and Israel, is ripe for Obama and his top diplomat to visit both Israel and her neighbors and set the tone for the next four years.

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“If this signifies a new emphasis on the region. I think it's a good thing for the country,” said Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. 

“We have to be careful in our haste to finally wash our hands of all these wars [in Iraq and Afghanistan] that we continue to be focused on [in] the region," he said. "So I think the emphasis on the Middle East will have to be there. It's the core of where Islamic terrorism comes from. We obviously have a stake in that. Israel is our staunch ally. We have a stake in her well-being, and we also want to make sure that Iran is not a nuclear power.”

The trips represent somewhat of a break from the first term's much-vaunted “pivot to Asia.”

Hillary Clinton went on a weeklong tour of Asia for her first trip abroad as secretary of State “to convey that America’s relationships across the Pacific are indispensable to addressing the challenges and seizing the opportunities of the 21st century,” she said at the time. 

But Kerry will travel to Turkey, Egypt and several more Middle Eastern and European nations later this month but will bypass Israel for now. Obama, for his part, is making his first trip as president to Israel and also visiting the West Bank and Jordan in March.

“Whatever we do in [Asia] should not come, and I hope will not come, at the expense of relationships in Europe or the Mideast or elsewhere,” Kerry said during his confirmation hearing. “It can't.”

Kerry made his goals clear from the get-go, calling Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas the weekend before he started his new job.

“The secretary underscored his personal commitment and that of President Obama to support Israel's security and to pursue a lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said about the calls.

And at a press conference with Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh this past week, Kerry said working with U.S. allies to find a way to get President Bashar Assad to step down in Syria would be a main goal of his trip.

“When we finalize the components of my trip and you’re aware of what I’m doing,” Kerry told reporters, “I think one of my purposes will be to try to see what can be done with respect to [Assad's] calculation [that he can stay in power] and how we might be able to affect it.”

Rep. Gerry Connelly (D-Va.), the No. 2 Democrat on the Foreign Affairs Middle East subcommittee, said the trip comes at a “very logical point in time.”

“The president is freshly reelected, convincingly. The Israelis have had their elections. And I think it's a useful time to sit down together and reassess where we are in the Middle East peace process and where we are on the Iranian nuclear challenge,” he said.

He added that for those who had doubts about the president's commitment to Middle East issues, this “clears it up.”

“Especially when it comes to a presidential trip, you invest time where there's opportunity and where there are challenges that have to be addressed,” Connelly said. “I think there's a recognition that both of those are in play.”

However, the White House has sought to temper any expectations of a breakthrough in peace talks.

“We have here obviously a second term for the president, a new administration and a new government in Israel, and that's an opportune time for a visit like this that is not focused on specific Middle East peace process proposals,” spokesman Jay Carney said last week. 

“I'm sure that any time the president and prime minister have a discussion — and certainly any time the president has a discussion with leaders of the Palestinian Authority — that those issues are raised. But that is not the purpose of this visit.” 

Engel said that was the right approach.

“We should be prodding the Palestinians to sit down and talk without preconditions, and if that happens then we can try to facilitate talks,” Engel said. “But I'm not for pressuring either side into what they should negotiate.”

He said Obama is unlikely to want to spend too much political capital up front “because so many people have done that before and they've gotten burned.”

The White House is simultaneously refocusing its attention on trans-Atlantic ties with the start of negotiations on a Trade and Investment Partnership with the European Union (EU). Obama announced the start of the talks during his State of the Union address, after the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) that he touted in his first term took longer than expected.

“The rebalancing [towards Asia] that President Obama is engaged in does not and will not come at the expense of any relationship in Europe whatsoever,” Kerry told reporters before meeting Thursday with European Union High Representative Catherine Ashton. “In fact, we want more engagement with Europe, and we think Europe can be more of a partner in those efforts, which is one of the reasons that President Obama is so firmly committed, as he said in the State of the Union message, to a trade and investment partnership initiative with Europe.”

Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.), the top Democrat on the Ways and Means Trade subcommittee in the last Congress, said the push for an EU trade pact represents an acknowledgment by Obama that the shift toward Asia hasn't been as smooth as he'd hoped.

“There are a lot of us who think it won't be easy to solve the Asia problems, and not as quickly as [Obama had] thought; he thought he was going to have [the TPP] done by the election," McDermott said. "I think it's reassessing how much you can get done. So let's move forward on a couple of things, not put all our eggs in one basket.”

Update: Secretary of State John Kerry will skip Israel and the West Bank during his first foreign trip, the State Department announced Tuesday.