The Dick Cheney of Israel

By James Fallows

Three points about Obama's recent speeches on the Arab world and the Middle East -- the one at the State Department, and the one today at AIPAC. Jeffrey Goldberg has been responding to these in detail.


1) It's complicated. We should no longer be surprised that a major Obama speech on an important topic is characterized mainly by its embrace of complexity.  Here's why this matters:

Traditionally the role of a Presidential speech is to say, in bald terms, which side of an issue the Administration is coming down on. Are we going to war, or not? Is the president going to sign a bill, or veto it? People outside the government underestimate how important big presidential speeches are in resolving policy arguments and deciding what an administration's approach will be.

Obama's big speeches have been unusual, because the side they come down on is that of complexity. In his classic Philadelphia "race in America" speech: the recognition that every part of our racial mix has its insecurities and blind spots. In his Nobel prize address: that military force is not the answer but is an answer. In his West Point speech a year and a half ago: that the U.S. can't stay in Afghanistan forever but should stay for a while. You can apply this analysis to almost every major address.


Including these latest speeches. He argued that the United States has "interests" in the Middle East -- oil, stability, anti-terrorism -- and it also has ideals. So it will try harder to advance its ideals, without pretending it has no (often contradictory) interests. He presented Israel-Palestine in this same perspective. As a meta-point, he said that Israel-Palestine is only part of the larger Arab-world evolution, but is a crucial part. On the merits, he emphasized that Israel has to be secure, that Hamas must accept that reality, that Israel must be able to defend itself -- but that it cannot stand pat, wait too long to strike a deal, or forever occupy the West Bank.

My point here is about Obama rather than about the Middle East. From some politicians, for instance those otherwise dissimilar Georgians Jimmy Carter and Newt Gingrich, a collection of "complex" ideas often comes across as just a list. Obama, most of the time, has pulled off the trick of making his balance-of-contradictions seem a policy in itself. Rather than seeming just "contradictory" or "indecisive." This is unusual enough that it's worth noting. (And for another time: the vulnerabilities this approach creates.)

2) Israel's Cheney. By "a Cheney" I refer to the vice presidential version of Dick Cheney, who (in my view) mistook short-term intransigence for long-term strategic wisdom, seemed blind and tone-deaf to the "moral" and "soft power" components of influence, profited from a polarized and fearful political climate, and attempted to command rather than earn support from allies and potential adversaries.

That was bad for the U.S. when Cheney was around. It's what Netanyahu is doing to Israel now, and Israel has less margin for strategic error than America does.

Right after Obama made his big speech, it was welcomed in most of the world and by most major U.S. Jewish organizations. The immediate critics were Mitt "throw Israel under the bus" Romney, Sarah Palin, Tim Pawlenty, Mike Huckabee, and Binyamin Netanyahu. Explain to me the universe in which this is a wise strategic choice for a nation highly dependent on stable relations with the United States -- and on ultimately making an agreement in the region that allows it to survive as a Jewish democratic state.

Think of this contrast: when China's Hu Jintao came to Washington for a state visit, each of the countries had profound disagreements with the other. (Chinese leaders hate the U.S. policy of continued arms sales to Taiwan, much more so than Netanyahu could sanely disagree with any part of Obama's speech.) Neither China nor America is remotely as dependent on the other as Israel is on the United States. Yet Obama and Hu were careful to be as respectful as possible, especially in public, while addressing the disagreements. High-handed and openly contemptuous behavior like Netanyahu's would have seemed hostile and idiotic from either side. As it is from him.

The real service Netanyahu may have done is allowing easier U.S. discussion of the difference between Israel's long-term interests and his own.

3) God bless this speech. President Obama showed that it is possible to end a speech with ... a real ending! The usual one might have sounded odd in a speech largely addressed to the Islamic world. So the release text of his speech concluded in this admirable way:

>>"We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal."

Those words must guide our response to the change that is transforming the Middle East and North Africa -- words which tell us that repression will fail, that tyrants will fall, and that every man and woman is endowed with certain inalienable rights. It will not be easy. There is no straight line to progress, and hardship always accompanies a season of hope. But the United States of America was founded on the belief that people should govern themselves. Now, we cannot hesitate to stand squarely on the side of those who are reaching for their rights, knowing that their success will bring about a world that is more peaceful, more stable, and more just.<<

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2011/05/the-dick-cheney-of-israel/239269/