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.
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.
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.)
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.
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