Wednesday, July 8, 2009

The Elephant in the Room

President Obama spoke before a packed house at the University of Cairo and gave

a speech aimed at a multitude of audiences. He spoke to over one billion Muslims in the

world. He proudly mentioned his middle name Hussein. He nostalgically remembered

his time spent in Indonesia hearing the call to prayer each day. He was speaking to young

Muslims, calling on them to reject extremism or inherit the mess that currently awaits

them. He called for more democracy and demanded that the rulers of nations rule "by

consent" of the people. He was speaking to an immediate audience that contained everyone

from moderate academics to the Muslim Brotherhood; and beyond the immediate audience

he was speaking to a world, including America, that has been waiting for an American

President who would honestly and forthrightly address a complex array of issues that

have led to death and destruction in so many nations including ours. The President knows

one speech will not overcome fifty years of violence, bad policy, and intransigent political

positions; but he also knows that it can be a start if it is followed by specific actions

down the line.

President Obama has a lot of history to both overcome and address. The United

States is not perceived of as an honest broker in the Middle East. While holding up Israel

as an example of democracy, the U.S. has been content to support oppressive regimes

throughout the region including Saudi Arabia and Egypt. It is the perception among many

Arabs and Muslims that the U.S. turns a blind eye to human rights abuses in nations they

consider allies (i.e. Israel), while attacking other governments for their lack of democracy

and freedom (i.e. Iraq, Iran). The United States occupies two Muslim nations, and during

the Bush years, threatened to invade Iran. The United States has conducted attacks against

Libya and Pakistan, asa well as the Sudan and Somalia. All of this has created a mistrust

of both American motives and methods, and President Obama has to try and turn this


The central issue will be what to do about Israel and it's relationship with the

Palestinians. This isn't just a sensitive issue in the Middle East. No American candidate

for President or Congress could be elected if their position is considered to be anti-Israel.

Presidential candidates cannot even consider a run for office if they are not willing to

commit to defending Israel even if that defense would involve the use of nuclear weapons.

Support for Israel is truly the third rail of American Presidential politics. If you touch it

the wrong way, you ensure political death. There is no value judgement being made here

as to whether this id good or bad; it is just a statement of fact. President Obama has to

walk a razor-thin tightrope between the distrust of the Muslim world and the distrust of

supporters of Israel who view any compromise as a slippery slope to the nations destruction.

The President has already signaled that times have changed regarding the United

States and Israel. For eight years the Bush Administration turned a blind eye to the

Israeli-Palestinian conflict, giving free rein to Israel. Most of Bush's national security

appointees were signatories to the Project For a New American Century(PNAC) document,

calling for an invasion of Iraq. In that document, one of the central reasons given for

taking out Saddam Hussein was to protect Israel. In 1992, Paul Wolfowitz and Richard

Pearl, two of the architects of the Iraq policy, wrote a paper along with current Israeli

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, calling for an invasion of Iraq. Wolfowitz, Pearl,

Rumsfeld, Bolton, Addington, Libby, Feith, and most particularly Vice President Cheney,

were all Israel hawks. They couldn't convince Bush#41 to take out Iraq; nor could they

talk President Clinton into action, but with Bush#43 they found an easy mark. At the

base of the antipathy they all held for Saddam Hussein (who, after all, had been our guy

and done our bidding for years) was his support for the families of Palestinian suicide

bombers who attacked Israel. The Bush Administration demanded democratic elections

in the West Bank and Gaza; but when Hamas emerged as the hands-down victor, they

immediately refused to recognize the results. There are reports that Israel received

tacit permission to invade Lebanon from Bush, Cheney, and company, a decision that

was a disaster for both Israel and the United States. While President Bush accused Iraq

and Iran of being part of an "Axis of Evil" and used the specter of a nuclear Iraq to scare

the American people into support of his disastrous invasion; the United States has ignored

the over 100 nuclear weapons Israel possesses. In fact, Israel refused to sign the "Nuclear

Non-Proliferation Treaty." United States law requires economic sanctions against nations

who refuse to sign; and yet that provision has been ignored by every administration

whether Democrat or Republican. President Obama has to overcome the perception of a

double standard when it comes to how the U.S. deals with Muslim nations and how it

deals with Israel.

The President has already signaled a big shift in policy. Reports of his discussions

with Prime Minister Netanyahu say that the Prime Minister wanted to talk about Iran and

get a commitment from Obama to prevent Iran, using any means necessary, from acquiring

a nuclear weapon. He did not get any such commitment. Instead, the President is said to

have told him that there has to be a two state solution (which Netanyahu refuses to

support), and that no more settlements can be built in the West Bank. Secretary of State

Clinton reiterated the American position recently, saying all settlement growth must

stop, including so called "natural" growth. (The Israeli's contend that building a bigger

house for an enlarged Israeli family in the settlements is perfectly acceptable "natural"


The President cannot be perceived as waffling or backing off of either of these

positions or he will be dismissed as another tool of Israel, and his outreach to moderate

Muslims will be a failure. The President should also encourage a plan supported by

Saudi King Abdullah which would trade recognition of Israel's right to exist, in all the

Arab World, for Israel retreating to the nation's borders as they existed prior to the 1967

war. This would go a long way towards rehabilitating America's image as an honest

broker for peace.

Israel has every right and reason to exist. The United States should say that in

no uncertain terms. The full faith and support of the American people should be behind

such a principle. However, Israel doesn't feel the same way about a Palestinian state.

Prime Minister Netanyahu's government is on the record as saying that a Palestinian

state would never be allowed to control it's own air space. Palestinian leaders would not

be allowed to sign military assistance treaties or arms agreements with other nations.

Palestinians would not have unfettered control of their borders. There are other issues

too; the most important of these would be questions about water rights between Israel

and a Palestinian state, and what would be done with Jerusalem.

President Obama has to be very specific about what the United States is willing

to do to move the peace process along. He cannot be seen as paying lip-service to reforms

while again allowing Israel to do what it pleases. He holds a huge carrot stick that

American Presidents have been terrified to use. He can cut off military and non-military

assistance to Israel that runs into billions of American tax dollars every year. It is aid

that Israel desperately needs; and it is fair to ask whether such aid should be forthcoming

if Israel refuses to work with America towards a two state solution.

President Obama appears to be personally very popular among the people of

the Middle East. One must hope that he can transfer these good feelings to this nation

as a whole; and this trip and his Cairo speech tell us a lot about how well he will accomplish

that task. What do you think? I welcome your comments and rebuttals. Please send them



  1. The problem is Bernie, the strongest force among the Palestinians, has made it perfectly clear that they will never accept a sovereign State of Israel. Obama can say and do whatever he wants to, but he will never change that reality. There will never be peace in the Middle East. Israel can assure her survival only one way. She must remain militarily stronger than her adversaries are.