Posted by: theoptimisticconservative | May 19, 2011

Obama and the Middle East: Taking sides

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Much of the speech was simply outdated boilerplate from the 1960s.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.

J.E. Dyer’s articles have appeared at Hot Air’s Green Room, Commentary’s “contentions,Patheos, and The Weekly Standard online.



  1. This is an outstanding article. One of the best pieces of analysis on this subject I have seen.

  2. —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. —-

    sez who?

    the Israeli High Court says that the occupied territories are held in belligerent occupation.

    • Who cares what the Israeli High Court says. The Israeli military ignores its decisions anyway when it comes to the protection of non-Jewish property.

      The West bank and Gaza are both occupied territories under international law, and are recognized as such by the United States and all her democratic allies. The status arises, both by formal recognition of theire status as occupied, and by definition of what constitutes occupation. In fact, Fuster uses the full and correct legal term “belligerent occupation”.

      The only people who don’t seem to recognize this reality are the same people who have conjoured up the sanitized word “disputed” to describe what the rest of us call “stealing”.
      And yes, belligerent occupation is humiliating (particularly when the occupiers treat you and as an untermenschen in your own home and land. Ask the French. Ask the Dutch. Ask the Kuwaitis.

  3. Obama hasn’t done anything more than restate US policy on the issue. The difference is that Netanyahu doesn’t trust Obama to ignore this long-stated US policy. He could depend on Bush to make noises about Palestinian national rights and do absolutely nothing when the Israelis continued the land-grab which is undermining the same rights.

    In fact nobody trusts the US any more. The Palestinians have completely given up on us. They have seen our form. We make promises, but when push comes to shove, we have neither the determination or guts to face down the land-grab lobby. Abbas has got nothing for policing the West Bank on behalf of the Israelis. The stealing still continues. He has now gone elsewhere. Elsewhere is the general Assembly of the United Nations where the US has no veto-powers (Ironically, it was the same assembly that brought Israel formally into being with the partition of the Palestinian Mandate).
    The Israelis are in a complete panic at the prospect. They have alternatively threatened the Palestinians and exhorted them (in the ‘best interests’ of the Palestinians, of course). Once Palestine attains formal recognition (and most of our allies are committed to supporting recognition of a Palestinian state) the property and other rights of the Palestinians will be under the protection of international law rather than the toothless and ineffective Israeli High Court. This presupposes the prospect of sanctions. The democratization of the region will bring into being Arab governments more responsive to theirv own popular opinion – and less susceptable to US pressure (or vetoes) than the likes of compliant and corrupt autocrats like Mubarak. If our NATO ally Turkey and other Moslem states in the region withdraw airspace transit to Israeli carriers (as has been suggested in the Turkish press this week) the effect on the Israelis will be interesting.

    It is for these reasons that the time is now more ripe for peace than it has been for a long time. Up to now the the Israelis could rely on their overwhelming military power, compliant and corrupt neighbours, and the US veto to ignore calls for peace and continue the land-grab. Of course, Netanyahu is coming here with yet more excuses to postpone and frustrate any resolution which would put an end to the land grab. He is also coming here to rally his fifth column in AIPAC and the pro Israeli press. Already we are seeing a delulge of comment from the usual Israeli lobbyists, all with the same excuses and message that now (as ever was, and ever will be) is not the time for peace.

    But it is. The lack of trust on the part of both Abbas and Netanyahu is an advantage rather than a disadvantage. Obama needs to use that advantage, and the possibility that a US brokered process will be overtaken by the autumn resolution in the UN to get the only realistic solution to this conflict. He has clearly signaled the shape of this solution. The 1967 line will be the baseline for the border. Israel will be allowed retain some of its large illegal settlements in East Jerusalem and the border will be re-drawn around them. Land swaps in other border areas where the Palestinians are in a majority will compensate for the loss of part of East Jerusalem. Ther shall be no right of return for the refugees, and US and international money will be made available to re-settle both the refugees and the illegal settlers on the West Bank. Further protocols will deal with interim peacekeeping and long-term security.

    All of this has been long time US policy. Obama has only restated it. The only change is that an American president might actually mean what he says.

  4. The Palestinians will refuse to recognize Israel as a Jewish State. They will refuse to explicitly renounce the right of return to Israel. They shall reserve the right to use terrorism as a tool anytime their demands are not wholly met. They will not commit to ending the conflict once and for all within the context of an agreement with Israel. Fatah will insist upon unity with Hamas, and Hamas will proudly retain and broadcast its founding goal of destroying Israel. The new regimes may very well be more reckless and willing to take significant risks, emboldening the Palestinians to try a three prong strategy: using international law and the UN as leverage against Israel; using Obama’s hostility to Israel to force Israel to sign an ageeement; conjoined with renewed terrorist attacks, assuming that Israel’s response will simply play into the first two strategies. War is much more likely than peace as a result. I pray that the Israelis are thinking about how to win such a war quickly and decisively, and to use it to put the Palestinian question off the agenda once and for all.

    • The nub of what you are angling at is revealed in your final sentence. The illegal settlers, their US supporters, and possibly, rogue elements within the IDF are no doubt devising strategies to destabalize any peace agreement. This probably includes the stepping up of provacations such as “the price”, the stoning of West Bank school-children on the way to school, and “rush-in” seizures of Palestinian homes. If that doesn’t evoke Palestinian retaliation, they will be thinking about pretexts for an outright military offensive against the Palestinians on the West Bank.
      Of course, there will be no final agreement without the Palestinians agreeing to recognize Israel; renouncing the general right of their refugees to return to their stolen family homes, and agreeing with the Israelis on security and policing so that rejectionist elements on either side cannot derail the peace. All the signs are that Hamas is prepared to accepts these conditions as part of a final agreement. Lets see. If they don’t (as you assume) there will be no agreement.

      What is not at all obvious is whether the illegal settlers – many of them religious fanatics – products of fundamentalist Yashevas where they are schooled in hatred against their Arab neighbours, and with a proven record of viciousness and violence – will be prepared to accept any peace which would see them having to relinquish their ill-gotten gains. Neither is it obvious whether the rejectionist elements within the Knesset and Israeli government will recognize an independent Palestinian state or live with any treaty that would end the land-grab. All the evidence is that the settlers, at least, will not see sense short of considerable coercion being applied.

      Hopefully, our respective fears will be groundless. It is in the vital strategic interests of the US that this conflict is ended. It is costing us too much in diplomatic terms, and in terms of our vital interests, to indulge the extreme elements among the two antagonists any further. There will never be a better time than now. The liklihood is that the conflict will only become more intractable and more damaging to US interests in the future if it is allowed smoulder on.

      It is not particularly our concern – Israel is a foreign state – but it would seem that Israel would be wise to grab a US-brokered peace now rather than having to deal with the consequences of Palestine becoming an internationally recognized state without any peace treaty having first been put in place.

  5. I don’t think Obama’s speech was particularly radical, I don’t think there has ever been a post-war US president (except Eisenhower and possibly Nixon) who didn’t talk about spreading democracy, even when this conflicted with state sovereignty or narrow national interest. Indeed, I see Obama’s position as analogous to that of George Bush Sr, who was initially concerned that the implosion of the USSR would undermine in regional stability and produce an anti-reform backlash in Russia. However, when events overtook HW’s hyper-cautious “realism”, he was forced to throw his rhetorical weight behind the changes.

    For all yesterday’s fancy words, the irony is that, with the exception of Libya, Obama has done very little to help the “Arab Spring”. From sticking with Mubarak until it was obvious he was finished (I even heard a rumour that he originally asked the military to stick with the Egyptian dictator) and disgracefully remaining silent on events in Syria. If he’d given this speech a month ago it might have had some effect, but at this point in time most people will (correctly) see as Obama covering himself politically.

    Of course, there is the possibility that recent events may allow Islamists to gain a foothold, and I’d be interested in what JED thought abot the probability of this, but I can’t think of anything worse that the Assad government – while the threat of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Tunisia argues in favour of more involvement in events, not less. I think there is a strong case for a substantial (and conditions-based) package of aid along the lines of the Marshall Plan.

    I also don’t think that Obama’s arguments about the economic causes of the AS are particularly unorthodox. Everyone from the US Chamber of Commerce to the World Bank, and even some left-leaning economists, agree that the Arab economies are a mess. Although a lack of diversification is a symptom, not a cause, there is general agreement that the private sector is constrained by corruption and crowded out by uncompetitive state-owned firms designed to buy support for regimes with make-work.

    The other big questions are I guess is the pace of the Afghan withdrawal and the possibility of keeping some troops in Iraq. The fact that he mentioned Iraq as an example of a sucessful democracy implies that he may end up keeping some troops in the country after all, though I still can’t believe he would make such as decision.

    • Well, Mr. Partridge, that’s put you in your place. Not only don’t you understand what you’re saying – you don’t even understand what you’re thinking! Lucky you have the OC to interpret your thoughts for you.

  6. Matthew Partridge — Obama’s words were “After decades of accepting the world as it is in the region, we have a chance to pursue the world as it should be.” That is not the way US presidents have talked about spreading democracy. What US presidents have always done is speak in narrow, explicit terms about the principles the US will endorse and try to propagate. “Pursuing the world as it should be” is vague, aspirational, and inauditable — it’s not the typical language of US presidents.

    That your ear has been inured to it, and that it SOUNDS to you like democracy-talk, is a function of the relentless drip of education and popular culture in the US. Americans have come to accept the slogans of revolution as if they are in the mainstream of our national heritage of political thought. But they are not. Distinctively American political thought has always eschewed the emotive vagueness typical of 20th century revolutionary, statist, and collectivist movements.

    As to whether the Arab Spring will allow Islamists to gain a foothold, I am certainly concerned about that possibility. Back in January I was discussing it, and one of my chief concerns is that Obama’s methods and level of engagement are too disordered — and in general insufficient — to help avert that outcome. It’s theoretically possible that the outcome will be prevented without engagement from the US, but I don’t see that as likely.

    One thing complicating the picture is that the Muslim Brotherhood has never organized itself to operate in the realm of state politics. There will not be an overt Moment, with drums, banners, and a brass crescendo, at which a fascinated world will watch as The Muslim Brotherhood Takes Over Egypt. The process will be less identifiable to our eyes. Someone like Amr Moussa, if not Amr Moussa himself, will consent to preside over a nominally Western-like civil government in which the level of official Islamist participation is likely to seem minimal. But power in the state will quickly revert to a cohort of insiders from the Islamist clerisy and the military. I don’t think Egypt is likely to suffer Iran’s current fate in every detail; rather, an Islamist oomph will be added to the kind of repression the people endured under Mubarak. There will probably have to be a power struggle to determine whether fanatical Islamists (e.g., on the “kill me now!” Ahamedinejad model) or more mainstream Islamists — the kind who want to walk around with a clipboard measuring progress against a “Shariah Index” — win out.

    None of this has to happen. The object of US engagement should be to discourage it, and one of the best ways would be indirectly, through affirming our national interests in the region, and making it clear that no amount of Islamism in Egypt will be allowed to bust out across borders and destabilize the region. But direct engagement on the level of advice, assistance, and solicitude would be useful too — if the effort weren’t being directed by Obama.

  7. —–and making it clear that no amount of Islamism in Egypt will be allowed to bust out across borders and destabilize the region.—

    and exactly how do we make it clear that what’s not happening mustn’t happen?

    how do enforce our demand that Egypt has “no amount of Islamism” for export?
    will the people of Egypt somehow rearrange their thoughts and beliefs because it suits people in the US who practice a different religion to tell them how they must behave?

    exactly what additional measures can we take that go beyond what we already have done in making the most powerful element of the Egyptian state a client of our own military?

  8. Israel-Palestine is the foreign relations equivalent of the domestic abortion conundrum, an existential problem that has no clear-cut solution and is a continuing distraction that politicians and pundits address when they have no answer to other complicated issues. The fate of the so-called “Palestinians”, who are simply Arabs, in reality means nothing to anyone in the rest of the world. They are useful to political players in the Middle East and elsewhere as pawns in the battles for power in their own tyrannies and as a source of income cajoled from the more civilized but credulous guilt-ridden “democracies” of the west. Large portions of the world’s population live in political and economic conditions that make that of the Levantine Arabs look positively plush. But they have failed to attract daily television newscasts. The hapless residents of most of sub-Saharan Africa and huge portions of Asia unfortunately are not media stars, since they are repressed by non-Jews and their real estate is stolen by thieves of similar ethnicity.

    An astute US president would tell the world that the country has bigger fish to fry and that if the Israelis and Arabs can’t settle their own dispute perhaps Britain or maybe even some enlightened nation like Iceland can broker a deal. But that won’t happen because no party, even the US, wants the distraction to end.

    • Not quite, Chuck.

      They are actually people like you and me who believe they have an entitlement to run their own affairs within their own indeppendent state. Just like you and me. And just like you and me, the Palestinians resent having their homes, land, livlihood, and resources stolen from them. And just like Americans they want the best for their kids. However, their own universities have been bombed and closed by the Israelis. When their bright kids take up scolarships abroad – including in the US – their Israeli masters cancel their resident-permits, and prevent them returning to their homes and families.

      There are two victims of belligerent occupation. It humiliates and disposesses the occupied. The other casualty is the moral sensibility of the occupier. the Israelis’ very own moral suicide bomb.

      • “And just like Americans they want the best for their kids.”
        And that’s why they celebrate suicide bombers and dress up their children in fake explosive vests.

        • Not really Chuck. That’s a very small minority. Just like the small minority of Jews who approve of the use of white phosphoros and cluster bombs against civilians (The Israelis kill ten Palestinian kids for every Israeli kid killed by the Palestinians)

          • that the Israelis kill more Palestinians than the reverse is not due to any lack of effort from that minority on the Palestinian side, Paulite.

            And that “small minority” on the Palestinian side isn’t at all as small as we would like to believe.

            But on either side, the majority who want war, small or not, is no small obstacle to peace.

  9. —the so-called “Palestinians”, who are simply Arabs—

    just like the babies born in Borough Park, Brooklyn aren’t Americans, but simply Jews. chuck?

    the same way that their parents from Russia weren’t Russian, but had Jew written on their passports, chuck?

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