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Tel Aviv Journal: President Obama’s Wrongheaded Middle East Counselors

Wowy, zowy, Obama is doing his own thinking on the Middle East and here’s the even worse news: He’s taking advice from Tom Friedman and Fareed Zakaria.

These pathetic tidings about the inner Barack Obama, who puts his very own twist on all things, particularly Arab and Muslim matters, and the other Barack Obama, who needs counsel from two political therapists, famous and even clever but not especially deep, come from the subtle and highly reliable journalist Mark Landler in The New York Times. These tidbits are not contradictory. Zakaria’s diagnosis, at least for the last few years, is that America is over, just plumb over. Or, to use the ill-omened word from his The Post-American World, “enfeebled,” which implies continuous decline. Enfeebled nations do not, after all, usually rise again. Zakaria was, however, more than a bit mortified by being called a presidential adviser, although it was he who labeled himself. He posted a statement on Saturday saying, well, that he didn't really advise but spoke to Obama several times in face-to-face meeting about the Arab Spring (which, by the way, in my view is fast becoming Arab winter, like the east coast winter last season.) Anyway, if he is trying to establish a difference, it’s not a distinction.

 But why should I paraphrase? Read it all here:

The characterization that I have been “advising” President Obama is inaccurate. Over the last few months I’ve had a couple of conversations with the president, off-the-record. At no point did President Obama ask me for advice on a specific policy or speech or proposal, nor did I volunteer it. I know that he has had similar meetings with other columnists.

On Thursday night, in badinage with my good friend Eliot Spitzer, he had given Obama a B-plus: “It’s been a very thoughtful conversation.” Thursday, Saturday, what difference does it make? And who cares whether Glenn Beck puts you down? Which is actually what happened after Fareed was on Eliot’s show. Anybody should be willing to give the president counsel, if asked or not asked. And Zakaria not only confirmed the fact that he did. He trumpeted it. He’s a self-important guy. In the news business who isn’t?

What’s strange about his putative advice is that Obama didn’t need it. He and Zakaria are in fundamental agreement. America is weak. America is poor. America is politically sundered. The only real difference between them is that the president believes that America is historically and morally compromised. But rising upper class minority Muslim from Bombay, rising American from Yale and Harvard (and now a member of the Yale Corporation, from which perch he counseled the president of the university and the university press not to permit images of the Prophet to appear in a book it was publishing, The Cartoons That Shook the World by Danish scholar Jytte Klausen), Zakaria was once a supporter of the great imperium. So I don’t know whether he thinks it is a matter of ethics. It’s more a matter of “can do” or “cannot do.” He thinks it cannot.

The president’s disposition is similar in that, from the campaign on to this very morning in the Middle East, his message has been restraint. Yes, I know there was also, “Yes, we can.” But, if you remember, there was no “what” attached to the can do. It was all in the abstract. It was to “accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative,” according to the great Johnny Mercer song made famous by Bing Crosby and more recently by Bette Midler. It’s exactly the opposite now. According to Obama, we are forced into restraint and we choose restraint. Restrained hopes and restrained actions. The Mickey Finn in all this is that American restraint is applied to and felt most by the damned of the earth, in whom Obama, despite the expectations of his young campaign enthusiasts, has little interest.

He has numbed the nation’s idealistic impulses by playing it oh, so cool—not agitated by evil or especially perturbed by calamity. I wonder, in fact, how he maintained his energy and perseverance as a “community organizer,” since the vocation itself doesn’t have real gauges of success. Or maybe that was its secret. If there’s no recognized measure of achievement or, for that matter, of failure, you go on doing what you’re doing “till the cows come home.” Or until you get a real job. Obama appears to be allergic to passion, although he can get a bit nasty when some foreign leader doesn’t quite accept a simple remedy—his simple remedy—to an intricate strategic dilemma. Take the president’s irritable manner with Israel and its prime minister. Yup, Zionism is something he just doesn’t get. And also doesn’t like. (Did the Obamas’ Passover show seder include the crowning prayer, “Next Year in Jerusalem,” which even the Daily Kos said “ends every seder around the world”? I doubt it. But he did include a lame and certainly premature allusion to “modern stories of social transformation and liberation unfolding in the Middle East and North Africa.” From his mouth to God’s ears. Still, is this really the Passover of the Arabs? I am sure it is not.)  

In contrast to Zakaria, Friedman is not embarrassed by being seen as the president’s counselor. His column is the closest thing there is to an up-front advice column, like Ann Landers and now her daughter, my old flame of half a century ago, Margo Howard. Tom even writes open letters to those he wants to exhort, advise, dissuade. It’s an old journalistic trick, the oldest trick in the book, really. When you are desperate for a hook you use this one. I should admit that I nurse a certain envy towards him and doubtless it is because of his sway over millions. We are friends but only because he is tolerant. In any case, my first tangle with him was after he published From Beirut to Jerusalem, which I reviewed hostilely in these pages. Anyway, Tom’s lens for seeing contemporary America is through contemporary China. He wishes America were China, almost the way some native fascists like Charles Lindbergh wanted America to be like Germany and the way ignorant but “idealistic” oodles of American intellectuals and radical Jewish immigrants wanted the country to be like Soviet Russia. The Chinese can do everything. America can do nothing. Except push the peace process. Yet even Obama must grasp that there is no peace process to push. Mahmoud Abbas has dispatched those killed trying to invade Israel on Nakba Day to the heavens as “martyrs,” moral exemplars, indeed. It took only a few days after the reunion of Fatah (alias, the functioning Palestinian Authority) and Hamas before the Muslim jihadists in Gaza and those exiled in Syria were cursing the U.S. for killing Osama bin Laden.  

Now, Abbas has written a little essay in yesterday’s New York Times op-ed page, which purports to be both historical and legal but is neither. It deals with the 1947 Partition Plan, which he argues was aborted by Israel in starting a war against the Palestinians. First of all, no Palestinian body of any sort accepted either the map or the concept of partition. Second of all, the armies that waged war on the nascent Jewish state were Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Iraq (yes, Iraq) and pathetic Lebanon. There was some small number of local Arabs who also participated in the fighting, but for the military and political aims of the surrounding “fraternal” peoples. It wasn’t as if Egypt and Jordan came away with nothing from these battles. They governed what is now thought of as Palestinian patrimony and without a bitch or a hitch from the locals. Jordan took the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and then annexed them as part of the Hashemite kingdom … again without a peep from the Arabs of Palestine, who barely existed either in name or as a political force. (And, believe me, when the monarch, King Abdullah I, though descended from the Prophet, possessed Al Quds and the Haram al-Sharif, they were hardly the third holiest anything in Islam. As for the Shi’a, they don’t venerate Jerusalem at all and have their own holy shrines in Iraq, which are regularly terror-bombed by Sunni fanatics.) Egyptian troops were turned back from their rampage and pillage to Gaza, where they set up a vast prison house in comparison to which Gaza under Israeli occupation was the French Riviera. Even King Farouk—yes, the one with the silly Turkish fez—apparently grasped that Gaza was a prison house also for its captors. Abbas does not mention the one widely-recognized leader the locals did have: Haj Amin Husseini, the “Grand” Mufti of Jerusalem. Sadly, he was a passionate Nazi who spent the war years in the Reich, from where he “commanded” Arab troops fighting for the Germans against the British in Iraq. Take a look at a scrupulous book by Jeffrey Herf, one of our contributors who teaches history at the University of Maryland. It is titled Nazi Propoganda for the Arab World, which is about the essential synchrony of the one for the other.

I wonder what Obama can really learn from Zakaria and Friedman, neither of whom know Arabic, neither of whom know the sources (arcane or simply erudite), both of whom jump from one fashionable topic to another. Today, it’s energy. No, that was yesterday. Wouldn’t the president have been better off and the country better off, too, if he had sat down with, say, Fouad Ajami, who doesn’t agree with him but has the learning to explain why. Maybe Obama should also sit down with Paul Berman, who has explored the ties between radical Arab politics and radical Muslim theology, a generally forbidden topic, especially in this White House. (Berman has done much of his essay writing in this magazine.) Or is it the president’s habit to talk only with people who agree with him?  

In one of his almost weekly columns, Ajami has pinioned the administration’s “look away” attitude towards the Assad tyranny between both strategic and moral imperatives. Ajami quotes an exchange between The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg and Hillary Clinton. Goldberg asks: “Would you be sad if his [Bashar Assad’s] regime were to disappear?” Hillary: “It depends on what replaces it.” Sequestered in this breezy answer is the Obama entourage’s firm belief in Assad’s moderation and reform commitments. Even now, after the massacre of nearly 1,000 Syrians, some—to be sure—nasty pietistic Muslim Brothers. (I hope you don’t attribute sexism to me if I remind readers that another secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, was convinced of Papa Assad’s reforming instincts. Poor morally compromised lady: She was the one who, with Susan Rice, then her assistant secretary for African affairs and now our ambassador to the U.N., also labored hard and succeeded in keeping America from intervening in the Rwanda genocide.)  

And here’s one more suggestion for whom the president ought to meet: I don’t know Timur Kuran, a Turkish economic historian at Duke. But I did read his book, The Long Divergence: How Islamic Law Held Back the Middle East. It will clarify why Obama is so wrong in insisting that Muslim religious principles are unrelated to the regressive politics and economics of countries under their sway. Obama should at least have a conversation with this man, especially since he can’t possibly have time to read a serious scholarly book.

Of course, it is not exactly the president’s lack of knowledge about the Arabs (and the Jews, for that matter) that has left his Middle East policy in shambles. It is the continuous Arab sandstorm of sanctimony and duplicity which has blinded him to the precise underlying realities the sandstorm was meant to conceal. He is a victim of their deceit and his own credulity. But it is even more than that: He believes in his own powers to discern and to persuade as a function of that discernment. Now that virtually every society in the region has upended Obama’s benign take of their reality, it remains to be seen whether he himself can adjust his inner lens to accommodate the brute bedrock.  

It may be tempting for the president to persist in his antagonistic fixation on Israel. Indeed, given his general move to the center, it is the only issue that would connect him to his progressive past … and, by the way, to his former pastor. But this still is a matter of conjecture, and we will only know when he reacts (or doesn’t react) to Abbas’ link-up with Ismail Haniyeh and Khaled Mashaal. He will also have to react to Bibi Netanyahu’s ever more conciliatory initiatives, conciliatory in that they entail a withdrawal from some 90 percent of the West Bank and the communities in that territory. I wonder what he thinks now of his appointment, two days after the inauguration, of George Mitchell as his special envoy for the conflict. No president enjoys conceding errors, so we will never know authoritatively. (As it happens, the last days brought news that the settlement of the Irish conflict was not so settled as we thought. Mitchell’s success in Northern Ireland may turn out to be a failure also.) As it happens, Obama met on Tuesday with Jordan’s King Abdullah, the grandson of Abdullah I. They talked as if the monarch had anything to contribute to the situation. But the president did his “more vital than ever” spiel which, believe me, will not make the Palestinians more conciliatory. They will read Obama’s urgency as a sure sign that Israel can be pressed and pressed some more.

Yet we have little idea of what Obama’s policy in more brutish areas of the region really is. In Libya, NATO forces (basically without much American participation except for air coverage of British ships) are fighting inconclusive military battles. The big initiative against Qaddafi seems to be in getting him indicted in the International Criminal Court. This will not frighten the colonel dictator. After all, the president of Sudan has also been charged by the I.C.C. and he still rules with the protection of all the other Arab despots whom he needs. The United Arab Emirates have hired an 800 man armed force, put together by the founder of Blackwater—just in case. Pogroms are now in fashion in Egypt. But they are pogroms against the Copts, who are roughly 10 percent of the population. Who will be the country’s next president? Probably Amr Mousa, the old secretary-general of the Arab League, with ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, a long record of surplus hostility to Israel, and a generally villainous character. Yemen? What do you expect?

Syria is where the new paradigms of Arab history will be made. The brutality of the Assad dictatorship is legendary, and it has gone over 40 years from father to son. No one is willing to predict whether the family will survive or be taken out. If it survives, it will be more dictatorial than anyone imagined possible. If it is overthrown, it will be replaced by a regime equally cruel but more pious, much more pious. It is not easy for outsiders to decide what they want.

But Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have already more than indicated that they prefer the continued dominion of Bashar Assad. You have to be pretty cold-blooded to make a choice like that. There are other consequences to this decision. Syrian dominion over Lebanon will continue. The Syrian alliance with Iran will continue. Syrian influence over Turkey will continue, perhaps intensify. Syrian intrusion in Iraq will continue. Syria might even get its chance to be on the U.N. Human Rights Council. Hey, and here’s a good thing: The Golan will remain a part of Israel.

Martin Peretz is editor-in-chief emeritus of The New Republic.