I’ve made no secret of my admiration for Barack Obama. He had the easiest act to follow since the Buchanan-Lincoln transition. But his speech on the Middle East this week must be a low point. The rhetoric sounded like it was on autopilot. The substance was all over the place. No wonder Obama aides were arguing over the speech until the last minute (the speech was delayed by more than half an hour because they were haggling over wording as if White House policy were a shop front in an Arab bazaar). There’s no clarity of vision in this administration regarding the Middle East. Past the soaring phrases, it’s a salad of contradictions, of hollow presumptions, of back-tracking and hair-splitting.
This was no landmark speech. There was no seizing of opportunities created by the killing of bin Laden. It was stylishly written clichés. I’m amazed at how easily the domestic audience, domesticated as it is by the patronizing and infantile simplicities of television networks (whether Fox or CNN, delude yourself of a difference), bought into the narrative of the “groundbreaking,” or pumped up the hype. Even in print, where, unlike television, IQ is occasionally recognizable. “Obama’s Israel Bombshell,” was the Wall Street Journal’s four-column headline.
Bombshell, no. A bomb of a speech, yes.
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Obama was still speaking as if the United States could make much of a difference in the region. But it’s not just al-Qaeda that’s become irrelevant. The events of the last few months have shown to what extent American influence has shrunk, and how compromised America’s moral standing continues to be. It’s not Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, secret prisons and the no-exit muddles of Iraq and Afghanistan so much anymore, though those blights continue to accrue interest in America’s bank of shame. These days it’s Obama’s refusal to see thuggery for what it is and deal with it on equal terms. He starts another war against Libya because that country’s mad man turned his tanks against his own people. But Bahrain’s and Syria’s mad men are doing the same, and all Obama can do is slap a few sanctions on Syria, after saying nothing for weeks of massacres, and keep hugging and kissing the Bahraini king, because America’s Fifth Fleet is anchored in his port, while the king’s murderous troops crush demonstrators and invite Saudi troops to boot.
Obama continues to be a flip-flopper on these Arab revolutions, which are losing their momentum. For weeks he couldn’t figure out how to respond to the revolts in Tunisia and Egypt. He hedged his bets. He wanted to make sure that if the tyrants didn’t fall, he could still be friends with them. He aligned himself with the insurgents only when he was certain that the gangsters he’d called allies and friends all those years were done for good. That’s not courage. It’s keeping up with CNN.
The big news Thursday was supposedly Obama’s endorsement of Israel’s pre-1967 borders as the starting point for negotiations over a Palestinian state. But all he’s doing is catching up to international law, to United Nations resolutions, to where the rest of the world has been, to where even several previous presidents were when American policy wasn’t a subset of whatever Israel was asking for. The only big news about those 1967 borders is that it took the United States so long to rediscover them, and the law.
Even then, Obama was all about hedging. A president who’s allegedly all for self-determination and human rights derided the Palestinians move toward declaring an independent state next September at the United Nations, much in the way that Israel declared itself a state in 1948. It took Harry Truman 20 minutes to recognize Israel back then. It’s been 63 years that the United States has joined Israel in denying Palestinians the right to exist. That hasn’t changed. Yet Israel still grouses, from its invulnerable and immovable existence, that Palestinians deny it the right to exist. Talk about illusion in the service of rhetoric.
In that sense (as in a few others, terrorizing Palestinians militarily, killing them arbitrarily and calling it collateral damage, and repressing them widely and illegally through occupation) Israel is worse than Hamas. Hamas denies Israel’s right to exist in words as idiotic as they are divorced from reality. That’s the mark of imbecilic fanaticism (forgive the oxymoron; the Palestinian Authority and the PLO, incidentally, explicitly recognized Israel’s right to exist in 1993. But Israel denies not only Palestine’s right to exist in actual fact; it denies Palestinians the right to exist—in history, in culture, in textbooks, and of course in the most important state of them all: in a state of their own. Obama, like most of his predecessors, have been complicit in that denial, swallowing whole the disingenuous Israel’s rhetoric about its existence hinging in the least on what Hamas’s moronic charter says. That didn’t change in Thursday’s speech. It was instead emphasized with Obama’s obnoxious suggestion that September’s UN vote for Palestinian statehood would be counter-productive. That from a president fighting four wars in the Middle East—Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, “terror”—allegedly in the name of Arab and Afghan self-determination against those who’d deny it.
But the square-peg-in-round-hole-hypocrisy of American presidents has no bounds in the Middle East. Arabs and Muslims briefly imagined Barack Obama to be different. He’s been an improvement. But improving from catastrophic to dismal isn’t much of an improvement. There was not a word about Saudi Arabia in Thursday’s speech, either, though Saudi Arabia, as close an ally as any in the Middle East, is in the same league of regressive tyrannies as the Taliban or North Korea—a sheikhdom as corrupt as they come, an illegitimate monarchy, an insult to women and an offense against liberty that the United States nevertheless embraces with strategic abandon. No word about the United Arab Republic, for that matter—a nation that’s just hired Blackwater’s private mercenaries to build it a private army of Seal-wannabes, apparently with the Obama administration’s quiet approval—and no word about other Arab clients that are no less illegitimate than Libya: Algeria, Morocco, Kuwai, Oman, Yemen, even Qatar and Iraq, where democracy is a vague glimmer.
And no word about the region’s backsliding. Egypt hasn’t been much different since Hosni Mubarak’s departure. The country is ruled by a military dictatorship. Arbitrary arrests, military trials, torture, censorship and the humiliation of citizens goes on. A blogger who had the temerity to criticize the military in a few sentences was sentenced to three years in prison, after the obligatory torture and humiliation that substitutes for Miranda rights in Egypt as it does in virtually every Arab state. In Egypt now there’s the added anxiety of street crime, which was rare during the old regime. Instead of reminding Egypt that it’s still the second-richest recipient of American aid after Israel, and that those billions should depend on immediate and verifiable civil rights reforms, Obama has accepted the new dictatorship as if the revolution never took place.
Elevating the Bush administration’s Mideast policy, which really was no policy other than war by every mean, would be ludicrous: American legitimacy and credibility is bankrupt primarily because of Bush’s trigger-happy cavalcades in the region, and his blind eye to Israel’s disproportionate clobberings of Palestinians on one hand and its South Florida-like development of the occupied West Bank by illegal settlements on the other. But Condoleezza Rice, Bush’s secretary of state, delivered one speech in 2005 in which which she admitted in a few lines what Obama has yet to do: “For 60 years, my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region, here in the Middle East, and we achieved neither,” she said.
Make that 65 years.
The victorious people of Cairo’s Tahrir Square now have kindred spirits in the people of Chicago’s Grant Park, who must be wondering what happened to the man they elected in 2008. It’s like the Seth Myers joke at the White House correspondents’ dinner three weeks ago. Myers made fun of the Republican field of presidential candidates which, lucky for Obama, stars a line-up of suits approximating life forms. “So it’s not a strong field, and who knows if they can beat you in 2012,” Myers told the president, “but I can tell you who can definitely beat you Mr. President: 2008 Barack Obama.”
That’s assuming that that man’s existence was ever any more real than, say, a Palestinian state.