Friday, May 20, 2011
A Borderline Case
A Borderline Case
By Roger Kaplan on 5.20.11 @ 6:09AM
The question one asks oneself, upon listening to President Barack Obama's Middle East speech yesterday, is almost impertinent, certainly surprising given the expectations that preceded it: Where has the man been for the past six months?
Here is the leader of the United States, the most powerful country on earth and its last, best hope for freedom, and he is telling us -- and the world -- that finally, at last, under his guidance, we have found the right policy for the Middle East:
A billion dollars. 1967 borders.
The American politician's habit of throwing money at problems meets the Arab terrorist's habit of denying his opponent's right to live. President Obama's specific policy proposals are these: "…
[W]e have asked the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to present a plan at next week's G-8 summit for what needs to be done to stabilize and modernize the economies of Tunisia and Egypt.… [W]e must help them recover from the disruption of their democratic upheaval… [W]e do not want a democratic Egypt to be saddled by the debts of its past. So we will relieve a democratic Egypt of $1 billion in debt, and… [guarantee] $1 billion in borrowing… to finance infrastructure and job creation.
This sounds like business as usual. This, and the promised aid to promote trade instead of aid, to encourage investment and entrepreneurship, is what we have been doing for decades: removing the responsibility for taking charge of their own destinies from the peoples concerned in these regions, by promising guarantees and subsidies.
The people who took to the streets in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and elsewhere may or may not have represented some kind of critical mass in these countries. We really do not know. President Obama compares them to the Boston patriots and the civil rights movement activists, like Rosa Parks. No doubt many of them are what the Europeans call liberals, people committed to the free competition of ideas in the political market place. That is what our liberals, in that sense, from colonial Boston to Jim Crow Birmingham, demanded: freedom, and the structure of free institutions -- democratic representation, civil and political rights for all -- that makes the exercise of freedom meaningful.
But just reminding ourselves of the abstract meaning of political freedom and civil liberty shows how little we really know about what has been going on in the Arab Revolt. Tunisians and Egyptians regurgitated the symbols of humiliation and scorn under which they felt oppressed, namely, the rai, or leader, who had grown old and corrupt and heedless. Zine Ben Ali, Hosni Mubarak, were despised and hated -- at least by the modernizing, urban classes -- because they showed so brazenly how they despised their own countrymen.
Whatever else this means, it is not the same thing as clearly understanding, as our ancestors did, that their political rights as Englishmen were denied, that their civil rights as Americans were flouted. And there is something else: neither in the 18th nor in the 20th century did Americans demand a reward because they fought for freedom: it was its own reward, and they knew they would make of it what they, themselves, were capable of. Far from expecting a subsidy from France, or any other power, the young Republic announced it would pay the debts incurred during the Revolution years and the Confederation period.
Freedom, my friends, ain't free.
But here is our president telling them right off the bat, before he even knows who is in charge or what their plans are, that we are going to pay for the damage. Frankly this strikes me as just another example of brushing the problems under the carpet -- a carpet provided by American taxpayers. If, as the president said in his speech, the region is full of human potential -- well-educated (if unemployed) young people; a full half of the population, the women, left out of the economy instead of contributing to it and to the political liberalization that inevitably will accompany their economic empowerment, and so on and so forth -- then why in the world do they need us to pay for their progress?
The president pointed out, quite accurately, that the region is rich, not wealthy: that is to say, it has oil riches, but produces nothing anyone wants ("exports on the level of Switzerland," he said, which is giving them too much credit). Of course not: the Arab economies are confiscated: "pockets of wealth" as the president put it, is much too nice; what they have is mafias. Instead of telling them all the nice gifts we are preparing for them, whether in export subsidies or anything else, we should be telling them to finish their revolts by liberating their potential to produce goods worth exporting, beyond the hydrocarbons that happen to be under their soil.
The president is quite right to note, as he in effect did, that keeping armies in Mesopotamia and Afghanistan is not a winning proposition for us and we must draw down. We need to keep fighting the barbarians in these regions, and it may be that we will be doing this for years to come -- a new form of containment, in effect, more mobile, adaptable, innovative than the one that stared down the Soviet divisions in central Europe for 50 years. Perhaps it was diplomatically impossible for him to say that we cannot take responsibility for the failures of local politicians and we will not countenance their taking us for all they can.
By not saying this, however, President Obama undercuts his own unreal, or at least unproven, vision of a "new" Middle East led by people worthy of comparison with Thomas Paine and Rosa Parks. He undercuts it further by giving the Israel-Palestinian conflict exactly the pride of place that it always has had in the "old" Middle East. While making the obligatory rhetorical gestures toward Israel's security and its ties to the U.S., he turned the canard of the "1967 borders" into official American policy.
No president, not even Jimmy Carter, ever did this so explicitly, and for a reason. Two reasons, actually: first, there are no "1967 borders," only armistice lines that were drawn due to Arab efforts to exterminate every Israeli; and, second, referring to them is to concede the Arab (not just Palestinian) argument against the legitimacy of Israel, because it has always been understood in this region that going back to "1967" is the first step, and only the first step, toward going back to 1947, the British Mandate, no Israel at all.
IT WOULD NOT NECESSARILY be a sign of weakness or failure for a U.S. president to admit that he really does not fully understand what has been going on in the Arab world. Who does? And who is to say that it can be reduced, in these varied societies, to one thing? Instead of leaving well enough alone on this score while saying, as he did, that as a general principle we support democratic reform, President Obama fell back on the one sop that is supposed to win us friends among Arab reformers though in fact it does not, namely, recognition of the justice of the Palestinian cause in its radical formulation (not that it has a credible moderate formulation).
However, the whole idea of breaking with the mistakes of the past would at a minimum include breaking with the hateful and self-destructive way of blaming the shortcomings of one side on the existence of another. Yet here is the president of the United States saying in effect: Go ahead and feel that way. At least it is consistent with the awful idea that we can buy them off with money.
Pull yourselves up by your own bootstraps, get a grip on these terrible political fantasies of extermination: sending that message would show that we believe a real change has occurred in these past months and we respect it and want to support it.
If there was, if there is, to be a future of hope and freedom for the Arab Revolt of the past several months, there must be evidence of a revolution in the Arab imagination. President Obama, indeed, evoked just such a revolution when he referred to the emotions people have said they felt demonstrating -- fighting, in some places -- for their dignity. But this is only the flicker of a beginning. If their own dignity is to be bought at the expense of the lives of seven million Israelis, what is it worth?
The president stated that the U.S. is perceived in the Middle East as narrowly focused on its own interests. He said this perception began to change when he appealed two years ago, in a speech in Cairo, for a new relationship based on mutual respect. He clearly hopes that yesterday's speech, in Washington, will accentuate this change. If the two most specific items in the speech -- an offer to bail out a region awash in a product the entire world needs, and an endorsement of Palestinian irredentism -- do anything, they will convey to millions in the region that the U.S. is not the champion of freedom and the responsibilities that go with it, but simply another tyrant who doles out some money and deflects frustration toward a mythical enemy.
It is difficult to think of a major speech by an American president, with the possible exception of Jimmy Carter's announcement that we were past our inordinate fear of communism, that so thoroughly missed an opportunity to join American ideals and purposes with the aspirations of people in foreign lands. This is unfortunate, though we can take some consolation in that, anyway, we have only a vague idea of the aspirations of the Arabs and if our idea were clearer we might well find it not to our liking. But to those Arabs, and there are many, who have been saying no to the old ways of doing things in their lands, President Obama's speech must be a cruel disappointment.
Since When Is Obama Above Criticism?
By Aaron Goldstein on 5.20.11 @ 2:31PM
John Guardiano informs us that he is "taken aback" by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's "disrespect for President Obama."
Disrespect for Obama?
If anyone is guilty of disrespect it is Obama towards Netanyahu. It was just over a year ago when Obama had Netanyahu over at the White House to dress him down over the settlements and to add insult to injury he told the Israeli Prime Minister to show himself out. And now this broadside?
As I have noted here, in a matter of seconds, President Obama went from stating the United States could not impose peace to demanding that Israel retreat to the armistice lines of the I948-1949 Israeli War of Independence. Under the circumstances, Prime Minister Netanyahu would have certainly been taken aback. He is fully within his right to demand an explanation from Obama on behalf of the people of Israel.
If anything, Netanyahu has been admirably restrained in his response to Obama. If Guardiano thinks Netanyahu was disrespectful towards Obama then he might wish to consider Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's comments when he rejected Obama's overtures to Iran in March 2009.
And since when is President Obama above criticism? Does Guardiano expect Netanyahu to remain silent when Obama makes untenable demands of Israel? The bottom line is that Netanyahu did not disrespect Obama. He was merely defending the country he was duly elected to lead. Someone who claims to be a friend of Israel ought to understand this implicitly.
To read a related article from the other side, click here.
Posted by Brett at 11:57 AM