Obama’s ‘must’ talk

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary -

With his Cairo speech, Pres­i­dent Obama hoped to re­lieve ten­sions be­tween Is­lam and the West, but what light did he cast on those ten­sions? He fo­cused on ter­ror­ism com­mit­ted in the name of Is­lam, on the Arab-Is­raeli con­flict and on Iran’s nu­clear pro­gram, but did he sig­nal that he grasped the rea­son th­ese prob­lems ex­ist and per­sist?

The speech was un­sat­is­fy­ing in a stan­dard way. It was a “musty” talk in which the pres­i­dent, in­stead of ad­dress­ing prob­lems an­a­lyt­i­cally, merely as­serted time and again what other peo­ple “must” do. Pales­tini­ans “must aban­don vi­o­lence.” Is­raelis “must take con­crete steps” to im­prove life for the Pales­tini­ans. The Arab states “must rec­og­nize” their re­spon­si­bil­i­ties. Mus­lims “must” close the fault lines be­tween Sunni and Shia. Mr. Obama used the word more than 30 times. The prob­lem with “must” is that it kills anal­y­sis.

When Mr. Obama as­serts, for ex­am­ple, that “Ha­mas must put an end to vi­o­lence, rec­og­nize past agree­ments, and rec­og­nize Is­rael’s right to ex­ist,” what is he ac­tu­ally say­ing? Is he pre­dict­ing that Ha­mas will do that? Is he say­ing he thinks Ha­mas it­self sees its in­ter­ests that way? Is he or­der­ing Ha­mas to per­form, or else? Or else, what?

In pro­claim­ing what the Pales­tini­ans, Ira­ni­ans, Is­raelis and Mus­lims gen­er­ally “must” do, Mr. Obama is not elu­ci­dat­ing any­thing about them. He is telling us about him­self — his own at­ti­tudes, pref­er­ences and sense of right and wrong. That’s in­ter­est­ing, to be sure, for he is the pres­i­dent of the United States, but it doesn’t show un­der­stand­ing of what’s driv­ing for­eign leaders to act as they do or what the United States can do to in­flu­ence them. Of course, it may be that there’s more se­ri­ous thought in the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s poli­cies than the pres­i­dent chose to re­veal in Cairo. It was only a speech, af­ter all.

But if the pres­i­dent ac­tu­ally does un­der­stand the prob­lems of Is­lam and the West, he would not have said some of the things in his speech. He would not have sug­gested that the Arab-Is­raeli con­flict is fun­da­men­tally about Is­raeli West Bank set­tle­ments or about Is­rael’s de­nial of the Pales­tini­ans’ “le­git­i­mate as­pi­ra­tions” for a state of their own in the West Bank and Gaza. The no­tion that Arab ob­jec­tions to the Jewish state are fo­cused nar­rowly on the ter­ri­to­ries the Arabs lost to Is­rael in 1967 is his­tor­i­cal in a way that should be ob­vi­ous: The con­flict pre­dated the 1967 war, or there would not have been a 1967 war, let alone the Arab-Is­raeli War of 1948-49. The Arab cause against Is­rael and Zion­ism is rooted in re­li­gious and na­tion­al­is­tic prin­ci­ples. It’s far more than a hodge­podge of prac­ti­cal griev­ances about bound­ary lines, set­tle­ments and refugees. It’s been a cen­tury-long war based on the con­vic­tion that all the land gov­erned by the Jews in Pales­tine — in­clud­ing Is­rael within its pre1967 bound­aries — is Arab land.

The Oslo peace process im­ploded in 2000 for es­sen­tially the same rea­son that peace ini­tia­tives failed decade af­ter decade since World War I: Even Pales­tinian leaders will­ing for tac­ti­cal rea­sons to ne­go­ti­ate po­lit­i­cal deals with Is­rael have been un­will­ing to aban­don the idea that all of Pales­tine be­longs to the Arabs and no Jewish state can achieve le­git­i­macy there in their eyes.

If Mr. Obama thinks the con­flict is less than a prin­ci­pled re­jec­tion of Is­rael and Zion­ism, his diplo­macy will strain U.S. re­la­tions with Is­rael without mov­ing the re­gion closer to peace. Amer­i­can pres­sure on Is­rael to ban nat­u­ral growth within ex­ist­ing set­tle­ments — that is, to pre­vent fam­i­lies from adding new bed­rooms when they add new chil­dren — is sure to re­main un­con­struc­tive.

Is­rael’s en­e­mies have made a fetish of the set­tle­ments be­cause the is­sue fits within their grander cam­paign to dele­git­imize all of Is­rael as a Jewish set­tle­ment on Arab land. The right of Jews to set­tle in the West Bank is rooted in the same law and his­tory that Zion­ist leaders in­voked in declar­ing Is­rael’s state­hood in 1948. Mr. Obama may not know this, but key par­ties in the re­gion do. The pres­i­dent’s peace pol­icy will have bet­ter prospects if he sys­tem­at­i­cally dis­cour­ages — and does not in­ad­ver­tently en­cour­age — on­go­ing ef­forts to deny Is­rael’s le­git­i­macy.

As for Iran, if Mr. Obama un­der­stood the regime’s hos­til­ity to the United States, his Cairo speech would not have sug­gested the an­tag­o­nism de­rives from the Eisen­hower ad­min­is­tra­tion’s role in the 1953 coup in Iran.

The Ira­nian regime cler­ics be­lieve the most ba­sic ideas and in­sti­tu­tions of the demo­cratic West — in­clud­ing pop­u­lar sovereignty, women’s rights and the sep­a­ra­tion of re­li­gion and state — in­sult God’s law and God’s sovereignty. To as­sume that the dif­fer­ences be­tween the United States and Ira­nian regime are merely his­tor­i­cal griev­ances or pol­icy dis­agree­ments is as big an er­ror as to ig­nore the ide­o­log­i­cal di­men­sion of the U.S. con­flicts with fas­cism, Nazism and com­mu­nism.

The Cairo speech was an ad­ver­tise­ment for Mr. Obama that won praise from many in his au­di­ence. But it pro­vided dim il­lu­mi­na­tion and no se­ri­ous anal­y­sis — and, far worse, it ex­posed su­per­fi­cial think­ing by the pres­i­dent about im­por­tant sub­jects. In the words of an old po­lit­i­cal quip: Deep down, it was shal­low. It raises the ques­tion of whether Mr. Obama can man­age ma­jor prob­lems that he seems not to un­der­stand. The an­swer is: He must.

Dou­glas J. Feith, a for­mer un­der­sec­re­tary of de­fense for pol­icy (2001-05), is a se­nior fel­low at the Hud­son In­sti­tute.

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