Obama’s Middle East: Rhetoric and Reality

Obama and Bibi.jpg

Charles Dharapak/AP Photo

President Barack Obama meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel in the Oval Office at the White House, Friday, May 20, 2011.

Being president of the world has sometimes seemed a job more agreeable to Barack Obama than being president of the United States. The Cairo speech of June 2009 was his first performance in that role, and he said many things surprising to hear from an American leader—among them, the statement that “it is time for [Israeli] settlements to stop.” But as is now widely understood, the aftermath of Cairo was not properly planned for. Though Obama had called on Benjamin Netanyahu to halt the expansion of settlements, he never backed his demand with a specific sanction or the threat of a loss of favor. His contact with peaceful dissidents in the Arab world remained invisible and was clearly not a major concern of his foreign policy. Soon after the Cairo speech, the Afghan war and drone attacks in the Pakistani tribal regions took center stage.

Yet Obama has always preferred the symbolic authority of the grand utterance to the actual authority of a directed policy—a policy fought for in particulars, carefully sustained, and traceable to his own intentions. The command to kill or capture Osama bin Laden and the attempt to assassinate Anwar al-Awlaki in a drone strike, which closely followed the bin Laden success, are the exceptions that prove the rule: actions of a moment, decided and triggered by the president alone. His new Middle East speech, at the State Department on May 19, was in this sense a return to [a favorite genre]( obamas-speech-on-the-middle-east-and-north-africa/2011/05/19/AFuSQK7G_story.html?wprss=rss_congress).

Before an international audience, Obama tends to speak as if he were the United States addressing the world; and he treats the United States as the most grown-up country in the world. This posture carries a risk of parental finger-wagging, which our president—still young as a parent and young as a leader—doesn’t sufficiently guard against. A misjudged tone was audible, for example, in his speech to the joint session of the Indian Parliament on November 8, 2010, where he boasted of his support for India’s nomination to the Security Council, but warned: “Let me suggest that with increased power comes increased responsibility.” So too, at the state department on Thursday, he chided Arab countries for acting immaturely and blaming the West as “the source of all ills, a half century after the end of colonialism.”

In many of his public comments on the Arab Spring, during February, March, and April, Obama wielded a peculiar grammar of imperative commandment whose precise authority was unclear. He worked himself into a corner—-and appeared to render inevitable a military intervention—-when he said several times that “Qaddafi must go.” Of course, he had said something akin to that, more gently and vaguely, when he spoke about the “transition” Hosni Mubarak was expected to lead in Egypt, which “must be peaceful” and “must begin now.” He may have believed that the simplicity of his command was a cause of Mubarak’s eventual abdication.

A similar grammatical mood was summoned in his speech of May 19, in reference to Bashar al-Assad and the imperative of beginning a transition from despotism in Syria: “President Assad now has a choice. He can lead that transition, or get out of the way.” In short: either Assad must go, or his understanding of his office must go. Anyway President Assad was named with the respectful formality common in the discourse of leader to leader—unlike the truncated “Qaddafi” and “Saddam” by which successive presidents have now indicated their contempt for former allies whom they intend to strip of dignity and power. The language Obama reserved for Ali Abdullah Saleh, the president of Yemen—an ally in the “war on terror”—was more accommodating, in a way. Here the president slipped into the “needs-to” construction favored in the unsigned editorials of metropolitan newspapers, a mood adapted to the situation of a well-informed outsider giving a sympathetic nudge. “President Saleh needs to follow through on his commitment to transfer power.”

So much for the commandments. It must be said that they emanate from a special understanding of the uniqueness of America’s example. Nonviolent protest and peaceful reform, President Obama seemed to say, are the only means he can support, and constitutional democracy is the only political end he can approve of. That is setting the standard high. Yet he illustrated his position on May 19 by three American examples: the rebellion against the British Empire, the Civil War to abolish slavery, and the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Two of these three movements to widen American democracy were violent. The point is worth making only because the contradiction—-which seems to have passed into his thinking undetected—will have been instantly obvious to his Arab listeners. As much as any American leader, Obama is held captive by a picture of America and America’s history as the touchstone of generous and fair-minded international conduct.


The rebels of Libya were not mentioned in this speech. Rather, Obama stressed the protection afforded by “the allies” (Britain, France, and the US) against “the prospect of an imminent massacre” of the inhabitants of Benghazi. No new evidence was supplied of the imminence of such a massacre. The military action in which the US is now engaged thus finds its motive in the wild words of a single speech by Qaddafi on February 22, when he vowed that his forces would go “house by house” to hunt and kill the protesters. Not Libya, in any case, but Tunisia and Egypt, in that order, were treated by Obama as the models for reform in the Arab world.

What concrete actions does Obama propose in response to the upheavals of the Arab Spring and the often violent repression they have met with from Arab governments? Mostly, the answer is money. He will move to ensure financial stability, promote reform, and integrate the emerging Arab democracies into the international economy. An early boost will come from his decision to forgive $1 billion owed by Egypt to the United States, and to finance $1 billion in borrowing by Egypt. The U.S. will also back efforts to recover Egypt’s “assets that were stolen”—a point on which Obama offered no specifics—and issue grants for entrepreneurial projects. Meanwhile the president recommends “dialogue” between the government of Bahrain and the peaceful protesters whom it has attacked: “You can’t have real dialogue when parts of the peaceful opposition are in jail.”

Many nonviolent protesters are arrested and jailed in Israel, too—though the Israeli pattern is not to keep them in prison but to release and when useful to re-arrest. Such acts of repression against nonviolent protest occur regularly at the separation wall in Bil’in. This was one of the facts that went unmentioned in Obama’s treatment of Israel and Palestine: a series of strictures compatible with the Cairo speech, but retreating on one point (his former insistence that expansion of Israeli settlements is itself an obstacle to peace) and sharpening his focus on another point (the correct basis for Palestinian independence offered by the 1967 borders of Israel).

It is widely recognized that both Fatah and Hamas would have to be included in serious negotiations for an independent state of Palestine. But Israeli politicians have pretended for a long time that Hamas could somehow be excluded. The recent formation of the unity government combining these two factions makes that pretense absurd; and Obama admitted as much when he spoke the two names together without parenthesis or exclamation. Hamas, he said, must renounce the “path of terror and rejection.” Yet even in making this uncontroversial point, Obama upheld the fiction that violence has been a constant fact of Israeli life over the past two years, and that Hamas is the source of much of the recent violence. While there have been more rocket attacks, it appears these are not orchestrated by Hamas. The truth is that Israeli settlement expansion, the ordeal of the checkpoints on the West Bank, and the continued expropriation of Palestinian farmers, shepherds, and town dwellers from the lands they live on have kindled new factions more extreme than Hamas.

Obama’s strategy seems to have been heavily influenced by the advice of Israel-connected centrists such as Thomas Friedman. The occupation is bad, such informal advisers say, but it is a problem for Israelis and Palestinians to solve. Don’t push, don’t dictate, don’t “impose terms.” Friedman likes to add that the Israelis and Palestinians have to “want peace” more than Americans do. The apparent analogy is with two boys fighting on a playground, or two clans that must grow tired of fighting in order to make up. This analogy fails, however, where the fighters are radically unequal in size, strength, and equipment. It also loses its pertinence in a case where the umpire has already suffered serious injury from side-effects of the fight. And, according to authorities as diverse as Hillary Clinton and David Petraeus, the unresolved conflict of Israel and Palestine is the largest “root cause” of terrorism directed against the United States.

In confining himself on May 19 to general advice to the opposite sides he had hoped to bring together in 2009, Obama was begging off any personal or institutional engagement—such as the two years of shuttle diplomacy that ended on May 13 with the resignation of George Mitchell—in instigating discussions and arranging the terms for a Palestinian state. He warned vaguely against the utility of the coming Palestinian appeal to become a member of the United Nations. But he left no alternative but the slow work of time and reason and meditation on the example of America.


The explicit mention of 1967 borders may matter more than at first appeared from the overall shape of Obama’s speech. For this is the single point, drawn from the long history of negotiations, that Netanyahu and his right-wing coalition have sought to press out of view. “The dream of a Jewish and democratic state cannot be fulfilled with permanent occupation”: if that sentence, spoken by Obama on Thursday, is combined with deference to the 1967 lines as a basis for land swaps “mutually agreed upon,” it signifies a denial by the U.S. of any shred of legitimacy for the settler movement. (Netanyahu responded to this detail of the speech immediately by issuing a statement in Jerusalem to pronounce the 1967 borders “indefensible.”)

On the three major issues—-(1) borders, territory, and security; (2) the status of Jerusalem; and (3) the precise understanding of a Palestinian “right of return”-—Obama recommended to “the parties” that they begin with the first alone, since it is the easiest. Only then should they proceed to the less tractable problems: how much Jewish expansion will be allowed into Arab East Jerusalem, and under what united or divided sovereignty the city will exist; and how the right of return will be portioned out to deserving Palestinians, with due respect for the unexaggerated fears of Israelis.

Apart from the conscious decision to say the word 1967—which Netanyahu, as we later learned, had asked him to omit—Obama’s Middle East speech did not venture much. It confined itself to a safe and irreproachable generality. It was careful to make promises (chiefly monetary) that Obama himself would be able to keep. His customary abstractness showed in such locutions as the “contiguous” territory necessary for Palestinian independence. On December 10, 2010, in a major speech at the Saban Forum of the Brookings Institution, Hillary Clinton said it more sharply: “The land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean is finite, and both sides must know exactly which parts belong to each. They must agree to a single line drawn on a map that divides Israel from Palestine.” Everyone knows that a single line cannot be a broken line. Does everyone equally know that a “contiguous” state (a term of art in Middle East diplomacy) cannot be a discontinuous state? Obama has a way retreating into vagueness at just the points where clarity matters most.

The May 19 speech did not attempt to hide his dissatisfaction with the conduct of the Netanyahu government. Yet at the moment, Obama can find no way of exerting leverage against Netanyahu that will not hurt him more than Netanyahu, and hurt him in America—-especially with the reliable Jewish donors whom Republicans have been seeking to detach from the Democratic party with increasing urgency for the past three presidential elections. Pilgrimages to Israel by prominent Republicans such as Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee, and the invitation to address Congress issued to Netanyahu by the majority leader Eric Cantor, suggest that this attempt has become a secret in plain view.

In the past decade, the word “occupation” had occasionally been spoken by American administrations when criticizing Israeli expansion in the West Bank. By contrast, “1967,” though understood as the basis for all negotiations, had come to be spoken less often. This perceptible shift of usage, Netanyahu and his allies in the settler movement were evidently hoping, would be consecrated by time and turn into a change of substance. Yet until the press reports after Obama’s speech revealed the attempted pre-speech intervention by Netanyahu, no one could have guessed the degree to which the Israeli prime minister had fixed his sights on excluding the mention of 1967 as a taboo. Ethan Bronner, in a New York Times story, made it clear that while none of the parties ever expected the exact lines to be followed (hence the importance of swaps), Netanyahu actually now objects to the idea that (as Bronner paraphrases his position) “any retained land would be compensated with other land.” Does this mean that he will accept only negotiations that lead to a post-1967 net gain of territory for Israel? Netanyahu reiterated his objection in his remarks on May 20 after meeting with President Obama at the White House. Israel, he said, “cannot go back to the 1967 lines,” both because those earlier borders leave it exposed to attacks, and because of “certain changes that have taken place on the ground.”

Next week, he has booked himself two opportunities to work up from other American bodies the sympathy for “certain changes” that he failed to elicit from the American president: an address to the annual AIPAC convention on May 22, and an address to Congress on May 24.

The extreme hostility of Netanyahu’s reaction on a single point may have obscured how much he got substantively from Obama. For an unmistakable message was sent by omission in Obama’s speech at the state department—namely, that the administration has no present plan to broker talks between Israel and the Palestinian unity government. There was not a word about Gaza and only a spectator’s advice about the West Bank. Practically speaking, therefore, one more American president has been turned away from active engagement with the challenge of the occupation. No further pressure for an independent Palestine is likely to be initiated by the US before the 2012 presidential election. From the evidence of a growing mass movement on both sides of Israel’s borders, Obama, for his part, seems to have calculated that Israelis in the next few years will come to treat his words of May 19 as a kindly prophecy.

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