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Obama: His Words and His Deeds

Franco Pagetti/VII
A damaged poster of Muammar Qaddafi, Benghazi, Libya, March 2011

Obama in his Nobel Prize speech—which was in large part a defense of American conduct after 1945 and in smaller part a plea for the legitimation of humanitarian wars such as he has now committed the US to support in Libya—went on to say of the duties of a great power: “Inaction tears at our conscience and can lead to more costly intervention later.” The idioms of duty and utility are strangely mixed in that sentence. How can we be sure that an act that the President would like the world to see as benevolent will be seen as benevolent? It is surely easier to have that feeling if one knows oneself as the preeminent power, and believes oneself to be carried forward by the momentum of the world. Anyway, Obama appears to entertain as few doubts about this feeling as any of his predecessors. He implied to his audience in Oslo, and again in Washington on May 19, that the world wants commercial democracy. The current metaphor for that condition is “social networks.”

Only a fraction of Obama’s May 19 speech was allotted to Israel and the creation of a Palestinian state. Yet the concrete language of that part—which contained names and dates, if not numbers—drew immediate and heated comment. The most controversial sentence was doubtless this: “The dream of a Jewish and democratic state cannot be fulfilled with permanent occupation.” It was a plain statement of an obvious truth. Obama, in addition, said that the shape of a Palestinian state would be based on the 1967 borders of Israel, only altered in accordance with “mutually agreed [land] swaps.”

This had been the common understanding and phraseology of American-Israeli-Palestinian discussions over two decades; but in the past several years, the word “1967” was used less than before; and this became the detail Benjamin Netanyahu seized upon. Immediately after the speech, he issued a statement in Jerusalem that the 1967 borders of Israel were “indefensible.” He repeated the same objection after he met with Obama in the White House. The differences between the two leaders were played out once more in their speeches to the annual AIPAC convention.

Without backing down, Obama explained the meaning of his reference to 1967: the borders of course would not stay the same, but land swaps would offset the differences. This candor, on the occasions when Obama shows it, is an impressive quality, and it seemed to be appreciated even by the AIPAC audience. Besides, on May 19 he conceded most of what Netanyahu could have asked. He alluded to Gaza only once. He offered no criticism of new Israeli settlements, as he had done in Cairo two years ago, and made no mention of the dispossession of Palestinians on the West Bank.

From his silence on these points, it was clear that after the failure of the most recent shuttle diplomacy and the resignation of George Mitchell on May 13, Obama personally planned to initiate no further negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. He trusted that under the visible pressure of an Arab Spring of their own, now gathering on both sides of Israel’s borders, most Israelis would eventually see his words as a kindly prophecy.

Netanyahu struck back as if Obama had mounted a deliberate assault with a threat of lasting enmity. Yet Netanyahu’s speech to AIPAC was emollient compared to his speech to Congress on May 24. There he made a conquest that can have few precedents. He began with brash familiarity, in a backslapping salute to Joe Biden; spoke with boyish humor about his early years as a diplomat within the Beltway, and his knowledge of an America beyond it; reestablished, with passion and simplicity, the close ties between America and Israel that Obama had sought to view with an impartial loyalty; in short, pulled out all the stops to undercut President Obama on his native ground. The speech itself was a tissue of clichés, anecdotes, and half-truths, but delivered with dramatic buoyancy and urgency as if his life depended on it.

Congress gave Netanyahu twenty-nine standing ovations. How did he do it? By presenting himself to his audience as an all-but-American politician—one less lucky than they, and more brave, a leader with a fight on his hands; a real fight, in his own backyard and not six thousand miles away. He spoke with gusto of his part in an earlier episode of that never-ending war:

I was nearly killed in a firefight inside the Suez Canal—I mean that literally: inside the Suez Canal. I was going down to the bottom, with a forty-pound pack, ammunition pack on my back, and somebody reached out to grab me and they’re still looking for the guy who did such a stupid thing.

Netanyahu did not speak of the subsidized increase of Israeli settlements that accounts for the “certain facts on the ground” he had mentioned at the White House. He invoked the biblical names of Judea and Samaria as if they were as natural to modern Israel as St. Louis is to the state of Missouri. And Congress loved him, or seemed to think it should, from the very moment when he said in a flattering exordium: “Congratulations America. Congratulations, Mr. President. You got bin Laden. Good riddance!” The performance combined the maximum of demagogy with the maximum of smarm, and it mixed aggression, paternalism, and a preening collective self-love, in proportions that Netanyahu assumed Americans would be comforted by. Israel, this speech said, has everything in common with America. We are the home of freedom and wisdom among the ancients, just as you Americans are among the moderns.

Netanyahu’s speech to Congress was also part of a larger strategy of his right-wing coalition. He got his invitation to address Congress from Eric Cantor, the House majority leader, and the Republican Party is now working to detach Jewish donors from the Democrats and to convert Republicans at large to the Likud and neoconservative politics that support a greater Israel. In the pitch offered to Americans, taking sections of the West Bank from Palestinians is as warranted as the taking of lands from American Indians. Mike Huckabee has indicated his sympathy with this point of view. Sarah Palin wore a Star of David on her necklace in her recent liberty tour. Glenn Beck has planned a mass event, “Restoring Courage,” on August 24 at the Southern Wall excavations in the city of Jerusalem. Americans of the chauvinist and evangelical right are being invited to think of Israel as a second homeland.

Considered as a response to this predicament, Obama’s speech at the State Department, with its broad-gauge pronouncements and its candor regarding Palestine, was utterly overmatched by Netanyahu’s speech to Congress. It is an unhappy fact of politics that victory goes to the pressure that will not let up. Netanyahu’s belief in his immoderate purpose is stronger than Obama’s belief in his moderate purpose.

Walter Bagehot in The English Constitution divided government into two components, the dignified part and the efficient part. The dignified part is concerned with matters of ceremony, the arrangement and conduct of state occasions for celebration or mourning, the issuance of joint communiqués with foreign leaders and commands delivered from a majestic height. The efficient part is the part of government that governs—by making laws above all, but also by striking bargains between factions, and filling the positions of upper, middle, and lower functionaries, and threshing out party platforms on the way to becoming laws.

Barack Obama from the start of his presidency has exhibited an almost exclusive taste for the dignified part of government. During the BP oil spill, his remoteness from the plod and toil of problem-solving showed day after day. That was a “teachable moment,” if ever there was one: a public catastrophe that implicated the environment and energy resources close to home for all Americans. The moment escaped this president, as the nuclear disaster in Japan has also escaped him. He never broke a sweat as he could have—literally and figuratively—by descending into the muck on the spoiled Louisiana beaches. Few presidents have ever seemed farther than Obama from being “in the thick of things.” The impression came back as he left Washington with Netanyahu triumphant, and took a plane for Ireland to speak of hope and peace.

Obama’s management of the killing of bin Laden is the one action of his presidency in which his leadership has seemed beyond challenge. “Revenge,” wrote Francis Bacon, “is a kind of wild justice,” and that sentiment fitted the reactions of most Americans on hearing the news. Obama guided the popular feeling when he said “Justice has been done.” Yet revenge and justice are, to the citizens of a constitutional democracy, different ideas, and a leader more scrupulous or less confused would take pains to keep them separate. A string of questions in any case soon became a drag on the event. How could bin Laden’s residence in a prominent house in a garrison town have been concealed for so long? Did elements of the Pakistani intelligence service know of this hideout? What now prevents American commanders in the field from concluding that our allies are acting in complicity with our enemies? The aftermath of the bin Laden killing has left the US as deeply entangled as ever in a hostile region, with no prospect of amelioration from any extension of the present policy.

On May 26, at the urging of the President, the Senate and House voted to renew the Patriot Act. Obama signed it with a teleportable pen, from France. He has said that he would look to the future, not the past—a slogan that nullifies the large part of justice that consists of accountability—but here was an element of the Bush-Cheney past that he chose to project into the future with as little discussion as possible. Obama’s real trouble has come, however, in his attempts to inhabit the present. He is slower to react than most people, far slower than most politicians. He gave away six months of the health care debate without pressing his initial advantage while the resistance sprang up all around, the Tea Party was created, and congressional enemies gained on him. He let the controversy over his birth certificate blow up to absurd proportions over two and a half years before dispelling all doubts at a stroke in a press briefing that was hastily called and testily managed. At present, he is waiting for Afghanistan to calm down and let him withdraw troops on a deliberate schedule. But things can flare up while you are waiting, or flare up elsewhere and set back every cautious preparation.

The position of a moderate who aspires to shake the world into a new shape presents a continuous contradiction. For the moderate feels constrained not to say anything startling, and not to do anything very fast. But just as there is trouble with doing things on the old lines, there is trouble, too, with letting people understand things on the old lines. At least, there is if you have your sights set on changing the nature of the game. Obama is caught in this contradiction, and keeps getting deeper in it, like a man who sinks in quicksand both the more he struggles and the more he stays still. This is one lesson of his passage from inaction in Egypt to action in Libya, and from his summons of reform in Cairo in June 2009 to the guarded speech from the sidelines in May 2011.

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