Obama and the Middle East: Taking sides
posted at 6:44 pm on May 19, 2011 by J.E. Dyer
In a speech that was 99% filler, President Obama lobbed a few grenades.
One was this statement, under the heading of how US power is to be used in the Middle East:
“After decades of accepting the world as it is in the region, we have a chance to pursue the world as it should be.”
This is radical ideological terminology at its most basic. It is unaccountable, aspirational talk, the kind you can’t get away from in the college classroom – and the kind statesmen avoid for a reason. There is no way to audit outcomes with this kind of formulation. It’s an ecstatic expression, not a statement of actionable policy.
But it does imply that “pursuing the world as it should be” is a basis for national policy. There is a reason why that has never been the basis for US policy: because of what it implies about mechanisms and processes. The American tradition does not involve posting a guard over the world, with an attendant bureaucracy, to “pursue what the world should be.” We are a friend to genuinely liberalizing popular movements, but the focus of our efforts is liberal, quiescent conditions, not prescribed outcomes.
It is up to other peoples to pursue the world as they think it should be, if they have some corporate idea of that. We may or may not be there to stand with their idea – it depends on what it is, and what the situation is. As long as we continue to respect borders and national sovereignty, there will be important limits on what the US can or will do to intervene between the local authorities and the local street vendors.
So Obama has set himself a conundrum: how much to breach the sovereignty of others, versus how much to ignore and abandon his own rhetoric. We can only hope he tends more toward the latter. That course will damage the reputation and influence of the United States, but at least it won’t make us a direct instigator of instability and chaos.
Much of the speech was simply outdated boilerplate from the 1960s. This line, for example – “In a global economy based on knowledge and innovation, no development strategy can be based solely upon what comes out of the ground” – ignores the decades of economic diversification pursued by most of the oil producers of the Middle East. Muammar Qaddafi is an outlier and a nut; Algeria, Egypt, Iran, and the Arab nations of the Persian Gulf have all made strides in diversifying their economies. The presidential way to bring up diversification would have been to praise the efforts made already, and pledge US support to continuing or expanding them.
Instead, Obama chose to lecture his audience on the need for diversification – sounding very much like someone who hasn’t gotten any updated information on this topic since he was awarded his baccalaureate degree in the early 1980s (a time, incidentally, when the first reviews of the oil producers’ diversification efforts were already coming in. Obama’s point here is just weirdly outdated). The governments of the Middle East don’t need this rebuke; it is gratuitous, and evokes nothing so much as the chronically monotonous themes of the 1960s-era radical.
Much of the speech was off-key, like the impassioned – if repetitive – passage about the US supporting free speech even if it’s speech we disagree with (a whole army of strawmen seemed to be lurking in the background on this one), and the somewhat garbled point about Iran being hypocritical when it comes to freedom of expression for other peoples but not for its own. This point actually made no sense in the sequence it was made, coming right after Obama quite correctly observed that Iran was helping Assad repress the Syrian demonstrators.
But the most unmistakable grenades lobbed in the speech related to Israel. This next statement, containing the first appearance in the speech of the word “Israel,” is of questionable value in a statesman’s policy address:
In the face of these challenges, too many leaders in the region tried to direct their people’s grievances elsewhere. The West was blamed as the source of all ills, a half century after the end of colonialism. Antagonism toward Israel became the only acceptable outlet for political expression.
What is the purpose of saying that? A policy speech is not an op-ed, it’s a statement of policy and the purposes behind it. It’s not even clear what the point about Israel is here – which is an excellent reason why this dubious forensic judgment should simply have been left out. The rest of the passage is unmemorable; the words that stick in the mind are “antagonism toward Israel.” Mere speechwriting competence should have ensured this reference was excised.
Obama also referred twice to the Palestinians suffering “occupation” by Israel (once adding the fillip of “suffering humiliation”). This is a statement of a political position, not an assertion of legal fact. The status of this territory in the modern era is undetermined, because the Arab nations have wanted it that way. There could have been a Palestinian state in 1948, if the Arab nations had accepted the partition proposal made at that time on the principles of UN Resolution 181. But they didn’t; Jordan invaded to avert partition, and the status of the West Bank has been unresolved ever since.
Past US presidents have been careful not to introduce the partisan political freight of calling the Israeli presence in the West Bank an “occupation.” Obama doubled down, in breaking with this tradition, by referring to the Palestinians’ “suffering” under the occupation.
Yet the Palestinians in the West Bank are actually some of the most prosperous – and politically freest – Arabs in the Middle East, a fact Thomas Friedman culled from a UN report on Arab development in 2009. Palestinian growth improved in 2010; and as Carl in Jerusalem argued at Israel Matzav, following the Friedman editorial, it is the Israeli guarantee of the West Bank’s autonomous status – preventing its absorption into Jordan or Syria – that enables the Palestinians to pursue economic reform.
Obama need not have referred to that argument in particular. But consider the positive points he did not make: that the Palestinian economy is improving, that this is a key enabling factor for statehood, and that the US, Israel, and some of the Arab nations have been important partners in the transformation. There were constructive things to say about the path and potential of Palestinian prospects, but Obama chose to speak only in negative terms.
It is statesmanlike to urge that there be a political resolution for the Palestinians, and it is American to the core to endorse and facilitate a solution that will endow them with a nation of their own. But it is not just gratuitous partisanship, it is a failure of leadership, to adopt the negative themes used by advocates who routinely misrepresent the facts and events surrounding the Palestinians’ situation.
The partisanship is what Obama’s audience will hear. His reference to using the pre-1967 armistice line as a border is a partisan position, not a mediator’s principle. Israel and the Palestinians are at liberty to adopt that position, but if the US imposes it, we are not acting as a neutral broker. The Israelis have made their agreement to the pre-1967 line (basically, the 1949 armistice line) contingent on other agreements by the Palestinians; Obama’s insistence on it – as the starting point for negotiations, rather than the end-state – eliminates leverage for Israel.
Drudge, Fox, Limbaugh, Beck – all have interpreted Obama’s speech as an announcement that the US is siding with the Palestinians. This isn’t because they are ignorant of the arcana of the Peace Process; it’s because that’s the impression given by Obama’s speech.
From the standpoint of analysis, the most important words he spoke today are in the passage I started with: “After decades of accepting the world as it is in the region, we have a chance to pursue the world as it should be.” From the standpoint of what is memorable and defining from his speech, the most important words were “antagonism toward Israel” and “Palestinians suffering humiliation.” These sentiments are interlocking themes in the theories of the modern Western left. As regards Obama’s statement on the pre-1967 line, his various audiences, from the left and right in America to the major regional actors in the Middle East, will not fail to detect them.
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