Whatever magic Barack Obama uses to beguile American audiences into credulity apparently stayed in Washington as the president visited the Middle East last week.
President Obama was heckled repeatedly in Israel and Palestine, he was challenged and defied by foreign leaders at joint press conferences and his speeches often demonstrated a galling lack of understanding of the history and struggles of the region.
At one point, President Obama even compared the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the relationship between America and Canada, implying that if we Americans can coexist with our neighbors to the north (perhaps “South Park” was the in-flight entertainment on Air Force One), then Israelis and Palestinians should be able to overcome their differences. The breathtaking ignorance evinced by such analogies suggests that President Obama isn’t the policy wonk the administration goes to such lengths to portray him as. This was not the man who stood in Cairo in 2009 and promised a “new beginning” of American interaction with the Middle East; this was just another in a long line of U.S. presidents to use his second term to wade arrogantly, ignorantly and carelessly into the world’s most complicated and expansive minefield.
The best that can be said about the trip is that it revealed that mounting frustration with and hostility toward the U.S. government is one phenomenon that both Israelis and Palestinians can get behind.
So what are we to make of this?
To be sure, Barack Obama finds himself in an impossible position. He has, as neoconservatives and lobbyists for the Israeli government incessantly point out, taken a harder rhetorical line on the Israeli government than any sitting president since perhaps Eisenhower. The Obama administration has issued harsh rebukes of Israeli settlement policies, and the relationship between President Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu is famously icy.
On the other hand, while the current administration’s rhetoric has lost the air of sycophancy that has typified the relationship between American politicians and the Israeli government for decades, actual U.S. policy continues to manifest immense favoritism, including massive aid contributions to the Israeli state and on behalf of it to third parties such as Egypt. Even if Barack Obama has taken the hardest line on Israel in modern memory, he still falls far short of George Washington’s exhortation to avoid “passionate attachments” to favorite nations lest “[r]eal patriots who may resist the intrigues of the favorite are liable to become suspected and odious, while its tools and dupes usurp the applause and confidence of the people, to surrender their interests.”
So, in the end, President Obama is excoriated on one side for his less-than-enthusiastic support of the Israeli government while simultaneously being condemned on the other side for the continued existence of the favoritism in the first place (regardless of the enthusiasm with which it is bestowed). As a result, Barack Obama finds himself in foreign policy no man’s land, having alienated both sides of the conflict along with those “Washingtonians” who would have us disengage from the fight altogether.