“America abstains” is a rather elegant synopsis of the Obama administration’s foreign policy.
Historians have their categorical buzzwords for different phases of American foreign policy. Prior to World War I, America was interventionist. During the 1930’s, America was isolationist. And during the Obama administration, I would respectfully submit, America was abstentionist.
Abstention, to be clear, is not inaction. The Oxford dictionary defines abstaining as “declining to vote for or against a proposal or motion.” Merely not voting is not abstaining. Abstention is showing up and affirmative declaring—with full knowledge of one’s ability to shape an outcome—that one will do nothing. To those of us who believe that America should be in the business of shaping destiny, abstention is the ultimate abdication of the responsibility that characterizes the American creed. And, regretfully, America’s decision to abstain in the Security Council and passively allow the passage of an anti-Israel resolution is only the latest in the string of American abstentions that have defined Obama’s presidency.
America abstained when the Arab spring swept across the Middle East and dictators cracked down on peacefully protesting civilians. It abstained in Tunisia, abstained in Egypt, largely abstained in Libya (or, as it put it, “led from behind”) and flagrantly abstained in Syria. Even after Bashar Assad deployed chemical weapons against his own citizens in Ghouta and as many as 1,000 innocent men, women and children were gassed to death, America abstained from putting an end to the brutality. Indeed, America’s abstention continued even as Russian, Syrian and Iranian forces pulverized the ancient city of Aleppo and murdered civilians, whose heartbreaking pictures and pleading tweets streamed across the internet for the world to see. Less than two weeks ago, at the very same Security Council, American United Nations Ambassador Samantha Power condemned the very same Security Council members America would subsequently partner with against Israel, with words that Syrians must surely find ironic: “When one day there is a full accounting of the horrors committed in this assault of Aleppo — and that day will come, sooner or later — you will not be able to say you did not know what was happening.”
Indeed, Ms. Power — and neither will you.
When North Korean President Kim Jong Un ratcheted up hostilities on the Korean Peninsula — repeatedly testing nuclear weapons and dramatically enhancing North Korea’s weapons delivery capabilities — the world’s greatest superpower responded through the military equivalent of an abstention: military exercises. When North Korean hackers flagrantly violated American security and sovereignty by launching a cyber-attack against an American studio that produced a satirical film critical of the Kim Regime with the express purpose of causing harm to that studio, the Obama administration did little more than express dismay.
In the face of China’s seizure of territory in the South China Sea (yes, the very same China that condemns Israeli settlement in the West Bank), the United States expressed “concern” and sent Defense Secretary Ashton Carter for a daytrip to an American carrier stationed in region. Not surprisingly, China’s land grab has only intensified—the Chinese have even begun militarizing the artificial islands that they have constructed — to say nothing of Chinese currency manipulation, cyber espionage and intellectual property theft, all left unchecked by Obama’s abstentionist administration.
When Russia seized Crimea and its forces shot down a civilian aircraft carrying 298 passengers over Ukraine, the Obama administration’s response was to impose on Russia what it claimed were “crippling” sanctions. So crippling, in fact, that two and a half years later Russia still occupies Crimea and Putin, who enjoys enormous domestic popularity, still relishes undermining the Obama administration at every turn. In Syria, when Obama imposed a “red line” on the use of chemical weapons and demanded that Assad step down as Syria’s president, Putin saw to it that Obama failed at both — the red line was crossed and Assad remains in power — and the Syrian conflict ultimately became a tale of how Obama talked and balked, and Putin acted.
In Iran, Obama’s engagement was initially predicated on the dismantlement of Iran’s nuclear program, and the administration touted the use of sanctions as a kind of silver bullet that would bring the recalcitrant Islamic Republic to its knees. It didn’t. If anyone was brought to its knees, it was the United States. Yes, somehow, the world’s superpower managed to get bulldozed by a smaller, weaker, diplomatically-isolated and economically-crippled rival, cutting a “deal” where Iran reaped a huge economic windfall while keeping its nuclear infrastructure intact. Indeed, less than a year after that deal, Iran’s warmongering Mullahs remain brazen and militant, Iran’s weapons development and terror sponsorship — including against coalition soldiers in Iraq — continues unabated and the purportedly “ironclad” deal that was “built on verification rather than trust” has accumulated a litany of potential Iranian violations.
And the list goes of American abstensions goes on–the American Prison at Guantanamo Bay remains open, ISIS remains on the march, and Iraq and Afghanistan remain in chaos.
Yet nowhere has American abstentionism been more dramatically felt than in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, where no American administration in recent memory has done less to achieve peace than the Obama administration. Even the Bush administration — certainly no Nobel Prize winner for peacemaking — managed to oversee four formal rounds of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, the cessation of a bloody intifada and Israel’s withdrawal of almost 8,000 Israeli civilians from the Gaza Strip, its most significant territorial withdrawal in almost thirty years. In the same amount of time, Obama achieved an eight year spat with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, littered with mutual slights and insults, and oversaw exactly one direct meeting between Abbas and Netanyahu, in 2010, which went nowhere. For all intents and purposes, on January 20th, Donald Trump will inherit an Israeli-Palestinian conflict that is virtually identical to the one that Obama inherited eight years earlier, in 2009.
America’s abstention before the Security Council is a fitting end to that legacy. Yet again, America stood by and let world events unfold without its involvement. Yet again, America said much and delivered little. And yet again, with respect to Israel, America’s actions represent pettiness rather than substance.
In the end, the Security Council’s resolution — sustained by a lame duck President whose successor has make clear that he will absolutely not abide by it — is practically insignificant for Israel. Israel remains a thriving and vibrant democracy that will surely survive being proverbially flipped off by an outgoing American President.
On the contrary, this resolution underscores that history is made by those who act rather than those who vent. Two thousand years ago, Jews who sought religious freedom achieved that freedom by acting. And in this season where Jews celebrate those actions, it is high time that we commit to end the era of American abstentionism that has brought much harm and little good and pursue a future of the American exceptionalism that our world sorely needs.