President Obama’s decision to abstain on the UN Security Council resolution declaring Israeli settlements on the West Bank illegal and an obstacle to peace, was a fitting end to his presidency. On both domestic and foreign policy, it has never been clear what Obama believes in passionately. A signpost has been his obvious concern for his legacy, something that can be assessed only many years later when historical perspective permits. During a presidency, the incumbent’s focus should be solely on what he believes is the right thing to do. Behaving otherwise leads to a legacy lost.
This author does not think that the settlements are either illegal or the main obstacle to peace. But if Obama does, then why not vote in favor of the resolution? Why make this a parting shot, rather than having acted forcefully to freeze settlement activity throughout his two terms? In 2009, after Netanyahu agreed to a 10-month freeze that did not induce the Palestinians to the negotiating table, why didn’t Obama insist on a continuation of the freeze? Obama is credited with financial support of Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system and provision of significant military aid. Why not use this as leverage on the settlement issue? One can disagree with the policies of a president, and still think the latter is a successful president. But zigzagging and not demonstrating the courage of one’s convictions cannot be the hallmark of a great presidency.
The usual response is that the president’s hands were tied by Israel supporters in his own party in Congress, and by recognition of the impossible position Netanyahu faced inside his own coalition. These factors cannot be ignored, but neither can the failure of a president to use his powers of persuasion and the bully pulpit.
Obama’s perception and defense of his leadership is characterized by an aloof, condescending attitude that goes something like this: “The decisions faced by a president are always choices among bad options. After threatening Syria’s Bashar Assad with a red line, there were no good military options, but remember, his chemical weapons were shipped out to the Russians. Yes, the Iran nuclear deal would enable Teheran to continue its expansionism and support of terrorism, but it would constrain its nuclear weapons program without resort to military intervention, and, in any case, the sanctions regime was unsustainable. At the same time, the best response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea is economic sanctions aimed at the Russian leadership, and those sanctions are sustainable. If the Russians have decided to bomb indiscriminately in the vacuum left by the US in Syria, then what can I do, send in one hundred thousand troops? In a world of no good options, behave prudently. In the long run, these “realistic” decisions will prove correct and I will have my legacy.”
There are examples on the domestic front as well. During his first campaign, Obama impulsively revealed his hand by telling Joe the plumber, “I’m here to redistribute the wealth.” But he backed away from that with alacrity. During the debate on the Affordable Care Act, he mumbled once in his speech to Congress that, “you know, government sometimes does have a role to play.” But he squeezed Obamacare through the Congress on a strictly partisan basis, and failed to keep his finger on the pulse of the reform and to use his considerable oratorical skills to explain why the reform could be good even if “you can’t keep your doctor or your insurance policy.” He bailed out the banks, and the economy recovered, but income inequalities grew, and his failure to attend to the travails of suffering class of manufacturing employees came back to haunt Hillary Clinton. Where were the explanations to the employees of the fossil fuel industry, that they would be retrained and employed again in a green energy economy? Even for black America, except for singing Amazing Grace in Charleston, he was absent as a leadership figure. The great orator and campaigner could not explain or defend his policies, and could not prevent his party from being thrashed in mid-term elections. These outcomes derive from a basic lack of policy convictions that leads to a retreat into a posture of aloofness and an internal defense mechanism that echoes, “one day I will be proven right, even though I’m not sure about what.”
Abstention is a poor substitute for policy making. Explaining away policy failures by saying there were no good options, and blaming them on the obstructionism of Republicans, is the sign not only of a failed Presidency, but of a failure of conviction. Discussing your legacy while you are President is just about the clearest case of putting the cart before the horse that one can think of. Whatever history decides, the present consists of a President who doesn’t have a set of clear policies on anything, who believed in himself more than in a well articulated set of values, and who is more concerned with being “the one,” than with what “the one” is here to accomplish. This president’s legacy will have a big abstain on it.