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.
But while President Obama is in an impossible position, his own lack of political courage is what keeps him there. He is mapping out a Middle East policy that has no adherents, that is championed by no one and that is utterly incoherent because it is not based on any particular logic or worldview beyond the president’s own desire to distance himself from America’s foreign policy past without bothering to actually change any policies.
In short, this trip was a humiliation for the Obama administration and for U.S. policy in the Middle East. Barack Obama looked out of his element, in over his head and entirely unprepared for the hostility he encountered. While our hyper-partisan political culture will be quick to spin this as a rebuke of Barack Obama the man (see Dr. James Robbins, a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council, exhorting the president to convince the Middle East “he still matters”), this disaster was a microcosm of the U.S. government’s entire misadventure in the Middle East over the last 65 years.
For three generations, the U.S. government has recklessly meddled, extorted, bribed, overthrown, threatened, invaded and occupied its way to “relevance” in Middle Eastern affairs. But what do we have to show for all of that blood, treasure, time and the loss of so many lives and liberties? The vision of the Middle East crafted and imposed by the Western powers during the 20th century is crumbling, washed away by the tide of the Arab Spring and the expansion of a reactionary, venomous religious authoritarianism that preys on people whose only experience with the “liberalism” of the West is being oppressed in its name.
This is not the time, after yet another clueless, arrogant foray into Middle Eastern politics, for the president of the United States to “convince the Middle East” that he and the U.S. government are still relevant to the region. This is the time for him, for us, to finally acknowledge and embrace the fact that they aren’t.
Adam Bates received a B.A. in Political Science from the University of Miami (FL) in 2007, and a J.D. and M.A. in Middle Eastern & North African Studies from the University of Michigan in 2011.