“Laying by time” Gives Diplomacy a Chance

by James M. Wall

UN-GENERAL ASSEMBLY-US-OBAMAIn the rural South of the 1930s, “laying by time” usually came, according to one writer, “when the last weed-hoeing was done, marking the start of a down-time until harvest”.

It was also a time of anxiety as “farmers looked for second jobs or, as James Agee put it in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, ‘hung as if on a hook on his front porch in the terrible leisure.'”

President Obama was thrust into his own foreign policy “laying by time” September 24, when he went before the United Nations General Assembly and delivered what New Republic writer John B. Judis called “his most significant foreign policy statement since becoming president”.

The UN speech also began a “time of anxiety” for the president’s foreign policy team which found itself hanging on Agee’s hook on their own “front porch in the terrible leisure”.

Susan Rice, Obama’s new national security advisor, seized the “terrible leisure” time the president gave her by setting up a series of Saturday morning policy review meetings with a small number of administration officials.

Their assignment was “to plot America’s future in the Middle East”.  The New York Times’ Mark Landler describes the policy review:

At the United Nations last month, Mr. Obama laid out the priorities he has adopted as a result of the review. The United States, he declared, would focus on negotiating a nuclear deal with Iran, brokering peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians and mitigating the strife in Syria. Everything else would take a back seat.

That includes Egypt, which was once a central pillar of American foreign policy. Mr. Obama, who hailed the crowds on the streets of Cairo in 2011 and pledged to heed the cries for change across the region, made clear that there were limits to what the United States would do to nurture democracy, whether there, or in Bahrain, Libya, Tunisia or Yemen.

The Saturday morning meetings Rice chaired focused on several key questions: “What are America’s core interests in the Middle East? How has the upheaval in the Arab world changed America’s position? What can Mr. Obama realistically hope to achieve? What lies outside his reach?”
The discussions led to the UN speech in which Obama outlined “a more modest approach — one that prizes diplomacy, puts limits on engagement and raises doubts about whether Mr. Obama would ever again use military force in a region convulsed by conflict”.
It was, in short, and fortunately, “laying by” time for U.S. diplomacy, a sharp reversal from what had almost been a major Obama military strike on Syria. That strike was avoided when, on September 11,  Syria announced that:

It will declare its chemical weapons arsenal and will sign up to the Chemical Weapons Convention to avoid US military action. In a statement shown on Russian state television, Foreign Minister Walid al Moallem said Syria was ready to co-operate fully with a Russian proposal to put its chemical weapons under international control and would stop producing more.

He added that Syria would place the locations of the weapons in the hands of Russian representatives, “other countries” and the UN.

Obama’s three major foreign policy agenda items—Syria’s civil war and its chemical weapons cache; the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks; and nuclear talks with Iran—has the potential to make a distant bad memory of President Bush’s “shock and awe” foreign policy.

The New Republic’s John B. Judis praised Obama’s commitment to diplomacy when he wrote:

President Barack Obama’s speech Tuesday [Sept 24] to the United Nations was his most significant foreign policy statement since becoming president.

It showed he had clearly learned something from the recent “red line” fiasco in Syria. The speech also displayed what has always been the most attractive feature of Obama’s foreign policy, one that clearly sets him off from his predecessor—his willingness to court erstwhile enemies and adversaries, or to put it in negative terms, his not possessing what my former colleague Peter Scoblic called an “us versus them” view of the world.

Under the headline, “Give Diplomacy a Chance”,  New Yorker blogger John Cassidy, gives the Syrians (and their Russian allies) credit for enabling Obama to embrace diplomacy.

Whatever else it accomplishes, Syria’s agreement to disclose its chemical-weapons stockpiles and, eventually, destroy them, made President Obama’s address at this year’s United Nations General Assembly much easier.

Rather than having to explain why U.S. bombs had been dropping on targets in Damascus, he was afforded a friendly environment in which to talk up the diplomatic efforts that are under way to resolve the Syrian crisis, and to encourage a similar effort addressed to the Iranian nuclear question.

Mindful of the criticism that, under his leadership, U.S. foreign policy has sometimes appeared to zigzag from one crisis to another, with no common thread, he was also keen to provide an over-all rationale for U.S. actions. To some extent, he succeeded. 

Cassidy concluded his posting:

Still, the larger point holds. Obama was reminding the world that for now, at least, the days of the United States engaging in foreign adventurism, and using the Pentagon to pursue political crusades, are over. In concert with others, America will do its bit for defending liberal values and preventing mass killings by repressive regimes, but its main focus will be on protecting its own economic and strategic interests. And if anybody wants to challenge that policy stance, they will have to talk to the U.S. public.

Thanks to the strong impression the new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani made with his visit, and speech, to the UN, Iran emerged from the world’s penalty box. The telephone call between President Obama and President Rouhani solidified that impression and gave Obama an opportunity to not-so-subtly repudiate Israel’s war-talk regarding Iran.

As expected, the diplomatic path Obama took drew U.S. congressional ire at the suggestion that Iranian sanctions could be eased through diplomacy. Nevertheless, defying Israel and the Israel Lobby, Obama’s lead negotiator in nuclear talks with Iran “called for a delay in any new sanctions on the country, in order to let negotiations take hold”.

Friday, the Guardian reported that U.S. undersecretary of state Wendy Sherman told Voice of America, the U.S. foreign media service, “”We think that this is a time for a pause, to see if these negotiations can gain traction”.

The U.S. Senate banking committee was debating “whether to take up legislation, passed by the House last July, which could end Iranian oil exports”.

The White House promptly hosted a meeting of Senate aides on Thursday, “to argue against the measure”. Sherman’s public statement “was seen as a significant gesture to Tehran”.

Iranian officials liked what they heard.

“I thought it was a very positive statement,” said Reza Marashi, research director at the National Iranian American Council. “On this particular point about the sanctions, I think that’s the most forward-leaning statement that I can recall an Obama administration official using, when discussing sanctions, at any time over the past four to five years.

“It was very specific. That not only sends a message to Congress but it also sends a message I think to the Iranians as well. That shows a certain level of seriousness to make these kinds of statements publicly.”

The New York Times’ Jodi Rudoren and Michael R. Gordon reported the quiet that has settled around the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.  Under strict instructions from U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, neither side has leaked stories on the talks to the media.

Nearly three months into the latest round of Washington-brokered peace talks in what has been the Middle East’s most intractable conflict, Mr. Kerry met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel in Rome on Wednesday, having said the process had “intensified” over 13 negotiating sessions, including three in the past week. Another is scheduled for Monday.

After years of stalemate, the very fact that the talks are continuing — and, perhaps even more important, that the participants have adhered to Mr. Kerry’s admonition not to disclose their content — is something of an achievement, especially in light of the turmoil raging in the region.

During the “laying by time” of these talks, mum has been the word. Not even the location of meetings have been revealed.

In contrast to previous rounds of Israeli-Palestinian talks, little has leaked from the negotiating room. Even the timing, location or duration of meetings has rarely been revealed. Several people close to the process said the sessions so far have alternated between Jerusalem and Jericho — they said they were not allowed to disclose the specific locations — and have each generally focused on a single subject, like sharing water resources, or whether Israeli or international forces should patrol the Jordan Valley.

Four people regularly attend all the meetings, Tzipi Livni, Israel’s justice minister, and Saeb Erekat, the Palestinian chief negotiator, as well as Isaac Molho, a lawyer close to Mr. Netanyahu, and Mohammed Shtayyeh, a senior adviser to President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority.

Other participants join the discussions  “on an ad hoc basis depending on the agenda”. After the Palestinian side complained that “Mr. Kerry’s special envoy, Martin S. Indyk, was not sitting in on the sessions, he has attended recent ones”.

All is quiet on the negotiations front, which is what President Obama wanted.  The Obama team, captained by national security advisor Rice, has been making good use of its “laying by time”.

The harvest ahead will not be easy. There are extremist forces in Israel, Iran, Syria, and the U.S. Congress, that have their own reasons for wanting to upset diplomatic efforts.

Obama knows the American public is weary of war. The Bush days of shoot first and talk later, should be behind us.  At least it looks that way as we hang on Agee’s hook on our “front porch in the terrible leisure”.

Laying by time has never been easy; It has always been a pause for rest and reflection before taking up the hard work of the harvest.

The picture of President Obama speaking to the UNGA, is by Stan Honda/AFP/Getty.

About wallwritings

From 1972 through 1999, James M. Wall was editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine, based in Chicago, lllinois. He was a Contributing Editor of the Century from 1999 until July, 2017. He has written this blog, wall writings.me, since it was launched April 27, 2008. If you would like to receive Wall Writings alerts when new postings are added to this site, send a note, saying, Please Add Me, to jameswall8@gmail.com Biography: Journalism was Jim's undergraduate college major at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia. He has earned two MA degrees, one from Emory, and one from the University of Chicago, both in religion. He is an ordained United Methodist clergy person. He served for two years in the US Air Force, and three additional years in the USAF reserve. While serving on active duty with the Alaskan Command, he reached the rank of first lieutenant. He has worked as a sports writer for both the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, was editor of the United Methodist magazine, Christian Advocate for ten years, and editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine for 27 years. James M Wall died March 22, 2021 at age 92. His family appreciates all of his readers, even those who may have disagreed with his well-informed writings.
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11 Responses to “Laying by time” Gives Diplomacy a Chance

  1. Jack Graham says:

    If Obama terminates his policy of unconstitutional executive warmaking, if he stops trying to export democracy where the time is not ripe, if he changes changes course to a policy of friendly neutrality in the Middle East, and if his successor follows through, the United States will probably survive the year 2025. But if such good things happen, it will be due mainly to good Russian diplomacy during the past few months.

  2. Fred says:

    The US has been a merchant of death for the last 12 years– starting two disastrous wars, which have killed hundreds of thousands of people and destroyed a nation–Iraq. We have run a torture chamber in Guantanamo, where people deemed innocent by our own government remain incarcerated for over 12 years. We use drone assassinations to kill hundreds of people, who are targeted on kill lists, killing people surrounding them, including many women and children. We support an apartheid state. We spy on everyone, even our closest allies.

    How can we change these horrific policies of our nation?

  3. Chris Iosso says:

    Jim, very good to lift up the Iran possibility of progress, and encourage your readers to encourage the Administration in that direction. WIth the I/P peace talks, Kerry had added some kind of potential economic development funding (with McKinsey & Co advising) and a general to test Israeli security claims, which would wrap around back to allegations about Iran. It would be great if they could give some real policy attention to the Tenth Parallel tensions across Africa around the Sahara, but we may not have the diplomatic interest or capacity. Still, progress with Iran would certainly help with Syria. Chris

  4. Rob Prince says:

    Excellent piece (once again!)… When I first studied Obama’s speech, I was rather cynical about its content and his commitment to changing course (I wonder why?)..but he seems to be moving in the direction outlined here. This shift needs a lot of public support, as it is pretty obvious that there are some influential forces (neo-cons, AIPAC, Christian Zionists) who are howling, and not without influence and would like to go back to the path of war-making…it remains to be seen if this is just yet another cosmetic shift or something more serious…

  5. Rob Prince says:

    It is, of course, difficult to believe – after Iraq, Afghanistan, drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and who knows where else, uncritical support for Israel’s inhumane policies against Palestinians in the Occupied Territories – that the Obama Administration has changed course and in some ways it is too early to tell.
    But it appears that the administration HAS changed course – not because its goals or supposed `values’ have changed – but because of the international realities a continually weakened U.S. foreign policy has to adjust to. The United States – although formally committed to it – cannot fight wars on two fronts as is the policy. Frankly it can’t even fight – or win – wars on ONE FRONT. As it shifts its strategic paranoia to East Asia, the U.S. hoped that its regional allies could keep the ship of U.S. Middle Eastern domination afloat with a minimum of `Iraq-like’ major US military intervention.
    This policy can virtually unglued in Syria where US `allies’ – ie, the rebels – are losing the military confrontation and it appears of late, losing it badly. Obama had two choices (maybe more) – send in the troops – or re-adjust policy and FINALLY consider seriously negotiating with both Assad of Syria and the Iranians.
    I understand how people would be cynical about this, but the policy shift appears genuine (despite strong opposition from the usual suspects). and it will need popular support for these processes of negotiation to deepen. While no great fan of Obama’s Middle Eastern policies, the indications are that there is a certain measure (finally) of realism in U.S. policy and with it that for the U.S. to remain a key player in the region it will have to make compromises with its regional opponents. Cool. Finally.

  6. It is truly hard for me not to be terminally depressed at the Palestinians’ chances for truth, justice, freedom and dignity when I read reports such as this: http://mondoweiss.net/2013/10/christian-zionists-palestinian.html (“Christian Zionists help settler-farmers take over Palestinian lands,” 10/27/2013).

    And then, also today, is Netanyahu’s lecturing of Obama to the tune of “Iran is weeks away from becoming an existential nuclear-weapons threat and imperiling the Jewish state’s existence. As I wrote in a comment to the relevant online/my homepage article: this criminally psychotic Zionist has been crying the same Chicken Little warning to his Western subjects since 1992: TWENTY-PLUS YEARS….

    But you’re a saving grace, Jim. Great commentary, as always!

  7. Peace for All Mankind says:

    Let Peace prevail in this turmoil part of the world, the Middle East.
    President Obama clearly realized his role as leader of the free world, that
    Freedom for others is a Prize for evenhandedness . Nothing should shake his
    conscience when he calls “a Spade is a Spade”. He should denounce
    Apartheid in Palestine, and announce with courage : Tear down the Wall,
    As Late President John F. Kennedy did when he stood on the ex-Berlin Wall.
    A prime victory for a Two State solution is when equality in security, real borders for the Palestinian State as was prior to l967 war, the right of return for the Palestinians, (as the right of immigration is allowed for any person of the Jewish faith who is not even sematic ).
    President Obama speech at the UN last September should have the embryo
    for not only for peaceful negotiations with Iran, but for evenhandedness on
    the possession of Nuclear power. And let the furnaces at DEMONA nuclear sites be searched by the world powers, without double standard.
    Then Turmoil in the Middle East as well as in the world, will be a thing of the
    past. People of this world need PEACE NOW not LATER.

  8. Urbane Peachey says:

    The U. S. and Iran have shared interests that should be the focus for diplomacy going forward not the number of spinning centrifuges. Shared interests are hidden by the obsession over sanctions against Iran’s growth of nuclear energy. Shared interests include stability in the Persian Gulf, security and stability in Iraq and Afghanistan, non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, open economic trade and educational exchange just to name a few examples. Israel would be strengthened in the process rather than weakened.

    There is just no reason why the offending threats between the U. S and Iran and the offending threats of the past between Iran and Israel cannot be addressed in negotiations rather than by missiles and aircraft carriers.

    Every reader should be in touch with as many legislators as possible and AIPAC. AIPAC I am told is writing the legislation for congress.

  9. AWAD PAUL SIFRI says:

    Thank you, Jim, for the excellent new expression I just learned from you, today.
    .As we are “laying by time” to find out if there will ever be a “harvest time”, Israel is certainly “buying more time”. Israel is building more facts on the West Bank ground, and under the Sea across the coasts of Palestine (Gaza), Israel, Syria.
    Israel is most likely keeping the Palestinians engaged in a “Hoax” in order to prevent the PA from going after it at The Hague.
    Israel is almost certainly working stealthily at devious methods to subvert the Palestinian case at The Hague, before the PA has a chance to catch its breath.
    Indyk is part and parcel of the Israeli team and, indeed, does not need to attend every meeting. He is probably the one who wrote the script and is Producer-Director of the entire hoax.

  10. Ken Schroeder says:

    Useful and perceptive post. But I do wonder if it will ever be possible for a fundamentalist Democrat to describe an adverse situation without referring to Bush, as you did twice in the post. That language is not helpful.

  11. William Gepford says:

    What you have said, Jim, is most helpful. It leaves a door open to all the participants. The problem is time. People won’t wait forever. And in the mean time, Israel keeps building more settlements, out of fear it will have to give Palestinians real justice, which it deserves. The population on both sides is almost balanced. When that point is reached, or even more in favor of the PA, Then what? It could all come apart. If that happens, where do we go from here?

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