Simply put, President Obama genuinely believes that Israeli settlements in the West Bank are the principal cause of the perpetuation of the Israel/Palestine conflict. Remove the settlements, he undoubtedly believes, and peace and harmony will reign supreme.
Animated by this conviction, he has stressed this repeatedly since the beginning of his presidency, nagged Israel into a futile 10-month settlement freeze, publicly picked a fight with Netanyahu over the construction of a Jerusalem housing project in March 2010, and then subsequently re-emphasized his displeasure on the matter by receiving the Israeli Prime Minister to the White House later that month with all the warmth and civility accorded to a Prohibition-era saloon keeper dragged to a gangster’s lair. These actions seem to me strong evidence of a definite conviction on his part. Were he able to support the anti-settlements resolution tabled before the UN Security Council back in February 2011 without paying an unacceptable domestic political price, he surely would have. Anyone who witnessed American UN representative Susan Rice’s disgraceful speech on the occasion could see that she was literally straining at the leash to scream “We’d love to vote with the majority, but the Israel Lobby just won’t let us. Walt and Mearsheimer can explain.”
The President’s foreign policy views in general have always had a strong whiff of the university faculty lounge about them; he is, like Susan Rice and the now-departed PJ Crowley, a child of the left-liberal foreign policy establishment. There is no question in my mind, from his actions and statements, that he, like most on the liberal left, considers the settlements to be the principal obstacle to peace, and, in the main, blames the Israelis for the impasse. To Obama the equation is simple: Remove settlements = Peace. (Apparently to Obama, the conflict only began in 1967).
Such Israel-friendly statements as the President has made recently before AIPAC and elsewhere, are principally aimed at his Jewish donor base and the wider Jewish vote, which, despite some slippage, he still seems to hold securely. His remarks are an acknowledgment by him that he has trouble there, and he is tending to it. The statements themselves are so lifelessly mouthed, so perfunctory, and in such contrast to his spirited denunciations (both public and private) of the Jewish state (and its Prime Minister) as to lack any semblance of genuine conviction. He resembles nothing so much as a bad actor reading lines in a screen test.
As Jackson Diehl of the Washington Post has commented, the President is more interested in disposing of the Israel/Palestine conflict than actually solving it. He just wants it out of his hair. He blames the conflict for all his troubles in the Middle East that distract his attention from “nation building at home,” and he blames Israel for the conflict. He also blames Israel for high gas prices at home, which he attributes to “loose talk” of a military strike on Iran.
Any genuine interest in foreign policy on his part is now limited to what there is available to burnish his Commander in Chief credentials and distract voters from his incompetent stewardship of the economy—hence his repeated reminders to the public of his authorship of the Bin Laden hit in a ludicrously extravagant campaign ad stressing his courage and his decisiveness in ordering the raid, without deigning to mention the courage of the Navy Seals who, by the way, just happened to have risked their lives performing the mission. The President and his minions have assiduously sniffed about the region for possibilities, and they surely know there are no victories to be won on the Israel/Palestine front or in the conflict inSyria to enhance his reelection prospects. In the future, he will most likely avoid such matters as much as he can, and his alibis for doing so will be plentiful.
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Candidate Obama came into the presidency with some starry-eyed assumptions about his ability to tame the furies of the Middle East. Confident of his powers of persuasion, he was sure he had the long awaited answer to the Israel/Palestine conflict. Eager to “restart” the peace process, he willfully ignored the intransigence of the Palestinians and the compromises and concessions made by Israelis in the past decade and, consulting his friends in the pro-Palestinian left-liberal foreign policy establishment, decided to make the freezing of settlements in the West Bank a precondition for further talks. This shocked and bewildered many. Even the Palestinians had never made this a precondition for further talks, as it was always understood since the 1993 Oslo Accords that they would be dealt with in final status negotiations. The Palestinians, who were as bewildered as anyone by Obama’s demand, nonetheless adopted it as their own, for, as Abbas told Newsweek last year, he could hardly afford to do anything less, lest he be seen as less pro-Palestinian than the President of theUnited States.
After much hectoring, the President duly obtained from the Israelis a 10 month freeze on settlement construction in theWest Bank. Predictably, it did not a whit of good; the Palestinians still refused direct negotiations despite the freeze, demanded an extension of the freeze when it elapsed, and are still refusing direct talks in any event. So, that’s where we are today. Obama, in the end, achieved a minor miracle of diplomatic incompetence: he elevated what was previously an issue to be negotiated between the parties in a final settlement to a precondition for further discussions, given the Palestinians a new alibi for intransigence, and increased Israel’s diplomatic isolation as well as becoming the least trusted American President among both Israel and the Palestinians. Quite an achievement, that.
In what can only be seen as a fantastic misreading of the situation, he seems to have genuinely thought that by putting distance between the US and Israel, and criticizing the settlements, he would incur goodwill and concessions from the Palestinians. It did not. It merely raised their expectations about what he would deliver for them, increased their disappointment with him when he did not deliver, and intensified their intransigence. Obama’s whole approach was revealed to them for what it was: weakness to be exploited.
However much they may have welcomed the criticism of both Israel and Bush in his 2009 Cairo speech, the tribal-minded among them could not have failed to see the faithlessness of his treatment of his ally, or the self-serving cynicism in his disparagement of one of his own countrymen in a foreign land. There is an old Arab saying: it is my brother and I against our neighbor, and all of us against the stranger. The President was revealed as a feckless, faithless, ingratiating equivocator who could be played for the duration. He just did not understand: the Arabs respect strength and resolution, and they despise weakness like a cockroach to be stomped on a kitchen floor. The President, alas, had been seen as a weak horse.
His courtship of the gangster-mullahs of Iran has followed a similar trajectory. The problems with Iran, he was sure, stemmed from America’s hawkish and aggressive posturing, from which Iran’s rulers, seeking only comity and peaceful co-existence, had naturally and understandably recoiled. Our beastliness and our warmongering had driven them to pursue nuclear weapons, to lavishly fund terrorism inIsrael,Iraq, and Afghanistan, and to take harsh measures against its own people. Our hostility and duplicity (“lying” about WMD, you know?) have made it impossible for Iran’s rulers to negotiate with us in good faith; we are simply too untrustworthy. All that was needed here was an open hand offering friendship and a soft word, and the mullahs, being rational, reasonable folks just like us, would overcome their distrust and hostility, see the errors of their ways, and get with the program. Engagement was the key.
Also, our presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, along with our blind and unscrupulous support for Israel, is the real obstacle to Middle Eastpeace and has understandably put into doubt our integrity, our impartiality, and our good faith.
The President’s worldview is thus a perfect snapshot of fashionable, left-leaning Western academic opinion: In sum, that the furies wreaking havoc both in and from the region come not from culturally and politically dysfunctional societies long wedded to a centuries-old pathology of violence, oppression, corruption, and cultural stagnation, but, rather from the bad behavior of the United States, and, of course, Israel, who behaves badly with our blessing.
Obama’s handling of the Israel/Palestine peace process has gone to pot, and in return for the open hand of friendship he extended to the mullahs he got a clenched fist and a thumb in his eye. The mullahs spat contempt on his friendly gestures, brutally suppressed a pro-democracy protest to a rigged election, and continued ahead unabashedly with their nuclear program.
The President ignored the mullahs’ rebuffs, snored through the brutal crackdown of the pro-democracy Green Movement, and continued dreaming his no-more-nuclear-weapons dreams all the way to his fall-2009 UN speech even after an Iranian nuclear enrichment facility had been discovered at Qom, which he deemed too impolitic to mention, lest it derail his “engagement” fantasies with the mullahs.
This then has been the Obama policy. In light of this policy, whether the President (rather than Israel) would actually resort to force to deny Iran a nuclear weapon at any stage is doubtful; Obama’s reaction to Iranian terror, provocation, and pursuit of a weapon has been almost wholly rhetorical, stressed by diplomacy and sanctions, and is unlikely to change. The Mullahs have taken his measure and know they have nothing to fear from him. That, however, is the real danger.
In Iran we have a militant, inwardly decaying, totalitarian theocracy whose main export, other than petroleum and a few other delectables, is terror and support for terror. The Mullahs, luckily, lack Saddam Hussein’s unstable and dysfunctional gangsterism. They are less provocative, operate more in the shadows, and usually leave it to others to wield the knife or the bomb; they wage wars not by invasion, but by stealth and proxy. Saddam was reckless and brazen; the Mullahs are more like hotel burglars: if they find a room uninhabited, they’ll pick it clean, if not, they’ll withdraw. Yet like all totalitarian regimes past, they tolerate no opinion but their own, rule by force and fraud, feed on hatred, and must keep seeking new targets, new victims, new scapegoats, and new objects of hatred to divert from the misery and failure of their tyranny. The regime is thus a tangle of both dangerous strengths and vulnerable weaknesses, and the Supreme Leader views America and Israel with a combination of fear, contempt, and burning hatred.
Every Administration since President Carter has sought to diplomatically engage this regime, to no avail. The Clinton Administration literally prostrated themselves before the mullahs for our alleged past misdeeds, in hopes of restoring relations. (Indeed, the Administration, through its third party contacts, even arranged for an “accidental” meeting between Clinton and then-president Khatami in 1998 outside the men’s room at the UN; Clinton apparently wandered the area for over a half hour before learning that Khatami had left the building and he had been stood up by his “date”—a perfect metaphor, if ever there was one, for the history of Iranian-American “engagement”). President George W. Bush, both directly and through third parties, made extensive efforts to engage the regime, again to no success.
The truth of the matter is that the Mullahs’ hostility toward us is beyond cure or diplomatic remedy. Hatred and hostility toward America and Israelis encoded into the regime’s DNA. That the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei would ever, in the most fantastic of circumstances, clasp the unclean, infidel hand of Americain friendship, is a lurid fantasy. The mullahs could only embrace us by not being the revolutionary Shi’ite fundamentalist theocrats that they are.
You cannot avoid war with such a regime simply by signaling to the regime that you are eager to avoid war; it just doesn’t work. You avoid it by deterring it, by vigilant containment, and by making clear that there consequences for bad behavior, like supporting terrorism and pursuing nuclear weapons, to name a few. Iran, from 1979 onwards has been kidnapping and murdering Americans with impunity. And they have drawn the correct and proper lesson from the violence they have wreaked on us: that we will scold, splutter, and protest, but no more. This will not mellow either their nuclear ambitions or their future behavior, and anyone who thinks that even the admittedly tough sanctions that have been imposed on them will ever dissuade them from pursuing their nuclear weapon, is delusional.
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Barak Obama, in short, has been a defaulting trustee of American world leadership. He has deftly maneuvered aside from the pressing questions and decisions with mealy-mouthed rhetoric that is almost always coupled with inaction, almost always chosen the path of least resistance, and has mishandled one diplomatic-strategic initiative after another, alternately alienating, confusing and dispiriting our allies, emboldening our enemies and adversaries, and negating our interests. His approach to leadership is perfectly encapsulated in one White House aide’s description of his manner of intervening militarily, after weeks of dithering, in the civil war in Libya: “leading from behind.”
Leading from behind. Nothing better expresses the rudderlessness of our present foreign policy in this dangerous world where strong American leadership is more needed than ever. The utterly predictable failure of the Iran nuclear talks, where credulous Western diplomats pursue a vain courtship with their wily Iranian counterparts, along with the evidence that the Iranians have been enriching uranium beyond the minimum weapons grade—these are a just a few examples of the growing peril that weak American leadership provokes and makes possible. For whatever may be said of the men in Terhan, they are one thing in their pursuit of a nuclear weapon that the President, in attempting to stop them, is not: they are serious. In such instances, we are getting fleeting and disturbing glimpses of the post-American world order, and what it portends.
And its not pretty.