Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Games Without Frontiers

Reihan Salam offers an odd attack on President Obama today, first complaining that Obama's not popular with Israelis:
Last year, many latched onto poll numbers that suggested that President Obama only had the support of 4 percent of Israelis. Yet those shockingly low numbers were misleading. Another survey, sponsored by the New America Foundation, found that 41 percent of Israelis held a favorable opinion of Obama, while 37 percent held an unfavorable opinion. Interestingly, only 42 percent of respondents believed that Obama supports Israel. If we accept that reality lies somewhere between these extremes, one gets the impression that while the White House has alienated many Israelis, the damage isn't necessarily permanent.
The first question that should come to mind is, what has President Obama done that would make Israelis so suspicious of him? Calling for a halt to illegal settlement construction in the West Bank, then backing off the minute Israel refused to comply? The horror. Beyond that... what? For that matter, for what other military conflicts does Reihan demand that U.S. foreign policy track and follow popular opinion in the nations affected by our policies?

Reihan echoes the bromide, "The oft-heard critique is that by seeking Israeli concessions on settlement-building first, the White House was asking Israelis to give up something tangible without getting anything in return." He appears to believe that to be true, betraying a fundamental ignorance of the history (even of recent history) both of the settlements and of the conflict, as well as the facts on the ground. To quote Ariel Sharon, “Everybody has to move; run and grab as many hilltops as they can to enlarge the settlements, because everything we take now will stay ours.... Everything we don't grab will go to them.” (A bit more on Sharon).

Really, though, all he needs to do is take a look at a map reflecting the present situation and it should be self-evident why the freezing and scaling back of Israel's settlements is critical to a two-state solution. Why people who are deeply concerned about the future of Israel believe that the present approach will make a two-state solution impossible, if it has not already achieved that end. If it is toxic to Israeli public opinion for a U.S. Administration to address the realities of the conflict and the steps necessary to its resolution, the U.S. has three choices: Stay out of things (but given our relationship with Israel and the situation in the Middle East, we'll inevitably get dragged back in), tackle the tough issues (including settlements), or wuss out in the manner of G.W. Bush and his roadmap to nowhere. Perhaps Reihan would reply that wussing out boosted Bush's popularity in Israel, and was thus a good thing, even though the all of the problems that made the conflict difficult to solve became worse over his eight years of incompetent administration?

Reihan proceeds to complain that Biden criticized Israel's announcement of massive new construction in East Jerusalem, lecturing,
East Jerusalem is viewed very differently from the West Bank and Gaza. A government announcement of a ten-month freeze on settlement construction did not include Jerusalem, and there is very little appetite for surrendering an inch of the city to a future Palestinian state.
It's of course assumed that the Palestinians will surrender much of East Jerusalem - Reihan appears to believe that this should be regarded as a done deal such that asking Israel not to bulldoze Palestinian neighborhoods, or assuming that the Palestinians will have no claim to a future capital in Jerusalem, as asking the Israelis "give up something tangible without getting anything in return". Wrong on two counts: First, being asked to give up something that's not yours is not asking much, even if you really like it and don't want to give it back. Second, the Palestinian accession to a massive transfer of their historic lands to Israel should not be shrugged off with a "What else can you give up?"
It's hard to see the awkwardness of Biden's visit so far having a broader political impact. But it does contribute to the impression, fair or unfair, that President Obama is presiding over an era of diminished American influence, in which allies and rivals alike feel comfortable thumbing their noses at a White House focused above all else on its domestic priorities.
"Fair or unfair." How quaint, coming at the tail end of an editorial by which, no matter what Obama does, he loses. If we pretend that he can obtain the cooperation of Congress for the imposation of serious pressure on Israel to return to meaningful peace talks - the type of talks that could conceivable result in a two-state solution with genuine Palestinian statehood - Reihan would presumably be whining that Israelis don't like or trust Obama. If he attempts to push ahead without Congress at his back, Reihan will probably make the same complaint but blame him for the fact that his calls for good faith acts by both sides are unfair to Israel, asking them to "give something up" before they get something in return.

If the Netanyahu Administration chooses to disregard President Obama because it recognizes that his ability to pressure Israel is hamstrung by Congress, and that many pundits will help them out both by rallying to their side and caricature Obama as weak if they ignore his requests and by decrying him as "unpopular with Israelis" if he finds a way to turn up the pressure, what incentive do they have to cooperate?

Moreover, if we assume the criticism to be sincere, what does it say about the critic's grasp of international relations and foreign policy? Is the problem that President Obama hasn't found a way to be "effective"? Or is the problem that after eight years of disastrous foreign policy under Bush, bogging the U.S. down in two wars at enormous financial and diplomatic cost, any President would be facing similar problems. Those who seem to think that Obama should "get angry", perhaps pounding shoes on tables or threatening to wipe nations off the face of the earth, seem to have forgotten the distance President Bush put between the U.S. and its allies with his "with us or against us" brand of foreign policy and military intervention. You spend how many years teaching our allies that we don't actually care what they think, we will act unilaterally even when they voice strong concerns about our actions, and that life goes on pretty much as normal when they ignore our demands, and expect that to turn around on a dime the minute a new President takes office? Welcome to the real world.

Update: Some thoughts from Daniel Larison on "enabling reckless allies".
The conduct of U.S. foreign policy is really quite a comedy show. Washington insists on trying to make regimes over which it has no leverage and no influence do things that they are never going to do, and it refuses to use what leverage it has over its allies to achieve its stated goals in their part of the world.

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