March 30, 2010
Obama's Ire, Not U.S. Interests, Directs Israel Policy
It is now beyond cavil that Barack Obama personally dislikes Israel and harbors an affinity for the Muslim/Arab world, to include the so-called Palestinian Arabs. This is no surprise given Obama's background and associations, which range from school days in Muslim Indonesia to close friendships with Palestinian militants, radical leftists, and his conversion to the idiosyncratic anti-American and anti-Zionist Christianity of the Reverend Jeremiah Wright.
Obama, like any American, is entitled to his personal preferences and prejudices. He was elected by the American people in spite of them -- and for some of his supporters, particularly on the hardcore left, because of them.
However, President Obama has a duty to act in the best interests of the American people regardless of his personal prejudices. In the case of his administration's relations with Israel, the Arabs, and Iran, these prejudices are damaging American interests and, indeed, putting the American people and military personnel in harms way.
Obama is not the first president to have differences with Israel. For example, supporters of Obama point to President Eisenhower's intervention in the 1956 Suez Crisis to justify the administration's recent hard line with the Jewish state. However, the comparison is unjustified. In 1956, America faced simultaneous crises in Hungary and Suez, and in an increasingly bipolar world, Eisenhower saw the multilateral Anglo-French-Israeli action as interfering with American prerogatives in the Middle East and vis-à-vis the Soviet Union. Eisenhower pressured the Anglo-French to abandon Suez, which they did promptly. It took a year of American threats, guarantees of Israeli access to the Straits of Tiran, and the demilitarization of the Sinai to force Israel to withdraw.
Even so, this American "success" only resulted in eventual disaster. Nasser, instead of being grateful for American intervention, fell even farther into the Soviet camp, dragging Syria and much of the Arab world with him. Eleven years later, Nasser made a hash out of Eisenhower's guarantees by booting U.N. peacekeepers from Sinai and blockading the Straits of Tiran. In 1967, with little or no help from America, Israel retook Sinai from Egypt and expelled hostile Syrian and Jordanian forces from the Golan and the West Bank. The Johnson and Nixon administrations, seeing the error of Eisenhower's policies, allied the United States with Israel for the first time and replaced France as its principle supporter and arms supplier.
Still, Eisenhower acted against Israel not out of any personal animosity, but from the sincere, if mistaken, belief that American interests required a return to the status quo in the area. Since 1967, other American presidents have had occasional policy differences with Israel, as one would expect when an ally in a tough, dangerous neighborhood vital to U.S. interests must sometimes act in its own interests. Nonetheless, U.S. presidents have for the most part pressured or confronted Israel only when international circumstances and important American interests seemed at stake.
Nixon and Ford got tough at times in the context of the Cold War and 1973 oil crisis. Carter, no friend of Israel, acted (mostly) to secure the critical peace agreement between Egypt and Israel, aggrandize himself, and, (however incompetently) in the context of the Soviet Afghan invasion and the 1979 oil shock, venting his full anti-Israel animosities after leaving office. Reagan initially condemned Israel for its strike on the Osirik reactor in Iraq, although he privately recognized ("boys will be boys") that the attack was a boon to the free world. Reagan also mistakenly got drawn into the aftermath of the first Lebanon War following the hysterical international reaction to the Christian Phalangist attack on the Palestinian camps of Sabra and Shatila that also caused U.S.-Israel tensions.
Neither George H.W. Bush nor his principal advisors were personally inclined toward the Jewish state, but they pressured her (justifiably) to stay out of the Gulf War, and thereafter in the mistaken belief (Madrid) that after America's Gulf victory, a comprehensive Middle East peace beckoned.
Clinton, like Carter, sought to finalize accords (Oslo) negotiated outside American ambit and glorify himself, but in so doing, he critically misjudged (as did many Israelis) the true intentions of Yasser Arafat.
Finally, George W. Bush, the president most personally sympathetic to Israel, nonetheless balanced American interests in the region and became the first American president to publicly call for the establishment of a Palestinian state.
Obama, on the other hand, came into office at a time of relative quiescence in the area. The two most radical Arab forces (Hezb'allah and Hamas) were at least temporarily cowed by Israeli offensives, as was Syria thanks to an Israeli strike on a clandestine nuclear facility. The somewhat less radical Palestinian Authority was making strides toward establishing a functioning proto-state and talking directly to Jerusalem. Only Iran posed a real threat to stability in the area, and, rationally, Obama should have directed American pressure and wrath against Tehran.
But Obama's personal prejudices and desires direct policy. Instead of focusing on Iran, Obama almost immediately called for a freeze on Israeli construction in the West Bank without making corresponding demands on the Palestinians. The Palestinians predictably sat back -- as they do still -- anticipating that American pressure against Israel will allow them to pocket gains without giving anything in return. The resulting stalemate irked Obama and his largely amateur and often buffoonish coterie of close advisors, who, following the leader, blamed Israel for the impasse.
Obama struck over the silly issue of Jerusalem housing permits, a matter over which no great power ought care one whit. Never mind the fact that the construction was perfectly legal and aligned with mutually articulated understandings and promises between the two countries.
No critical American interests were at stake, so Obama and his crew invented a blood libel. First, Vice President Biden accused Israel of putting American servicemen in harms way via apartment construction -- a charge he now unconvincingly denies.
In addition, the White House stood idly by when a blogger for Foreign Policy incorrectly claimed that General David Petraeus said something similar during a classified Pentagon briefing in January that was forwarded to the White House. Testimony by Petraeus before the Senate Armed Services committee was also widely mischaracterized in the tumult. But when close Obama advisor and political hack David Axelrod was asked directly on ABC's "This Week" whether the libel concerning danger to U.S. personnel was true, he did not deny it, and instead heaped more calumny on Israel.
The White House allowed Petraeus to dangle in the wind for several days while critics from the left and right assailed him for comments he never made. He clarified the situation in a press briefing, phoned Israel's friendly and cooperative Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, and even sent Ashkenazi a supportive blog post by writer Max Boot.
The only fair way to describe the affair is malfeasance on the part of the White House. Obama deliberately created a severe crisis with a close and key ally where no vital American interests were at stake. He compounded the wrongdoing by knowingly and falsely implying that such interests were at risk, most notably a direct danger to American service personnel. And finally, he exposed the country's most decorated and important Army general to unwarranted attack because it served his own narrow, personal prejudices.