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Sinking Fast

Obama's multiplying Middle East failures.

The U.S. ship in the successor flotilla aiming to break the Israeli embargo of the Gaza Strip has been named The Audacity of Hope. It is a bad joke that Barack Obama deserves. His proven coldness toward Israel has emboldened these foolish and meretricious people (including the uproariously silly Alice Walker) to open yet another front against the Jewish state. Of course, their campaign is not really about the embargo. It is about the very existence of Israel. It is not genocide, but it is politicide, and this is also a crime against humanity. Is the president just a wee bit embarrassed by this unironic tribute to himself? I doubt it. If he is, he might consider taking the organizers to task for launching this campaign against a country whose bonds with the United States he has described as "unbreakable."

Let us be clear. There is but one country in the world that many millions of people are encouraged to hate. Many of these people barely know the name "Israel." But they do know the word "Zionist," a more difficult concept, which nonetheless is for them a simple curse. And they also know the word "Jew." Still, given that there are only about 13 million Jews in the world, not many of these haters have ever seen a Jew, and many fewer have ever conversed with one. Once in Kashmir, almost five decades ago, I was happily sitting in a boat on serene Dal Lake, talking with its Muslim proprietor. He asked me what my nationality was, and I responded, "American, Jewish." "Oh, no!" he said. "And you are such a nice man." It was not my first word of self-definition that disgusted him. He quickly rowed me and my non-Jewish girlfriend back to shore. As if a Jew has anything at all to do with the life of an ordinary Kashmiri man. But he was riveted by his hatred.

Actually, I don’t fret that zillions of Muslims hate Jews and Israel. There is little we can do about it. There are almost no Jews in Muslim lands to suffer the effects of this hatred (they and their descendants are now mostly in Israel, where 800,000 of them arrived as refugees after 1948), and the Jews in Israel are incontrovertibly capable of defending themselves—ferociously. Roughly half of the planet’s Jews live in Israel. Much as the Jewish past is anchored in Zion, so much of the Jewish future will be charted in and from Zion.

One cannot deny that, generally, Muslims who hate Israel also hate America, Europe, and other Western societies. Multiculturalism has been a failure in Europe, while, here in the States, Obama has managed a dishonest public discourse with Muslims as if everything were hunky-dory, fabricating knowledge he did not have and which was false in the first place (like his Cairo narrative of the Barbary wars and the ensuing diplomacy), inventing wrongs against them to stir up progressive outrage (was the IRS really blocking contributions to legitimate Muslim charities?), taking sides in intra-civilizational disputes that put him on the side of religious orthodoxy and the narrow-souled of Islam. For a long time it was said that “homegrown” Islamic terrorism can’t happen here. But it has happened here, again and again. Are no conclusions to be drawn from this? Is alarm really just another form of Islamophobia?

An imperative that emerges from this reality is another one that the administration has ignored. That is immigration policy. Unless we formulate both a vision and a strategy for admitting people aspiring to be Americans that takes into account the country’s economic circumstances—i.e., its work-profile needs—and the dangers to our safety and security, we shall find in the end that we will flail around and simply discriminate against Muslims. This would be the worst consequence of sloughing off the matter. We cannot ignore that all the military conflicts in which our soldiers are engaged are struggles against Muslim regimes, Muslim movements, Muslim fanatics, and Muslim mythomaniacs. Still, there are millions of American citizens who are Muslims, loyal American citizens. And they, too, are endangered by the president’s pretense that tout va bien.

So Obama’s elaborate intellectual construction has now collapsed. The Arab spring, whatever you think about its prospects, has given the lie to his complacent celebration of the Muslim world. It is Obama’s freakish fate that he came to the presidency just at the moment when several Muslim societies have imploded and exploded at once. It’s not as if Bill Clinton and George W. Bush hadn’t been enmeshed in such hostilities. But these conflicts have so deepened and expanded that the intensity and cartography of combat with Muslims has become colossal. Obama had pledged that the United States would never make war on Islam. This promise was easily fulfilled: No American president, not George W. Bush, either, had made war on Islam. But, as Tom Friedman has rightly explained, since the end of the cold war, we have “increasingly found ourselves at war with another global movement: radical jihadist Islam.” It’s too bad that Friedman didn’t or couldn’t explain this to Obama, who prefers to cleanse his language of such historical and cultural and religious specificities. It’s also unfortunate for the president that he took an early liking, so to speak, to the war in Afghanistan: It was the “good war,” and one we had to win. Now we are beginning to leave. Will Obama tell the parents of those who’ve been killed in Afghanistan why they died in what he now thinks is a hopeless war? I am of clear conscience on this: I never believed in the Afghan struggle and never deemed it winnable. This is not because I am adept at war strategy. It is because I knew, as any student of history would, that the country’s problems are rooted in unappeasable tribal identities and in a virulent strain of Islam that gives no quarter. Like Pakistan.

The democratic revolts in Arab countries in the last seven months have been exhilarating, in that those participating may find in themselves and in the freedom of the street an instinct for justice. And jihadist Islam can take no comfort from the Muslim crowds agitating for open societies. But this is not the end of the story. The rebellions themselves are no more than rebellions against one-man rule: Hosni Mubarak, Muammar Qaddafi, Bashar Al Assad, Ali Abdullah Saleh, and the rest. But the unintended consequence of the resistance to one kind of tyranny may yet be the emergence of another kind of tyranny: In Egypt and Syria, the Muslim Brotherhoods are waiting in the wings—as are Hezbollah (Shia) in Lebanon and the Wahhabi (true-believing Sunnis) in Saudi Arabia. Try to imagine something worse than the Brotherhood governing in Cairo and Damascus. One might almost have nostalgia for Mubarak—but no, not for Assad.

The fact is that Egypt’s early promise seems to be dissipating. Our expectations were too great. Can a country kept poor and significantly illiterate, which maintains a vast military establishment without political reason or rationale (Israel will not attack them, believe me), bring itself to a tolerant and fully developed modernity? It is already mired in the violent revival of a religious conflict which puts the 9 percent of the population that is Coptic Christian, one of the first churches of Christianity, in constant peril of pogroms.

Yemen is a far more chaotic place, of course. It rudely came to our attention when the “underwear bomber,” son of one of the wealthiest men in Nigeria, was nabbed coming off a flight in Detroit and confessed that he had studied how to be a real terrorist in Yemen. Obama quickly, and rightly, put the country on his target list. We had, to be sure, encountered Yemen some years before when the U.S.S. Cole was bombed in Aden, killing 17 of our servicemen and injuring 39. In the decade since, one of the guilty has been let free by the country’s dictator. That dictator is gone for now, but who knows? And the democratic revolt is well on its way to becoming a tribal civil war. No promise of anything here, except perhaps Al Qaeda.

Surprise: Jordan, too, is unstable, a country that has enjoyed uninterrupted one-family rule for 90 years. There have been raucous protests, including several against the king. This is really news. Abdullah is liked, though his queen is detested, deservedly. Jordan is a poor country whose population is at least half Palestinian but is ruled by a descendant of the Prophet (from a real Arabian princely family rather than the Saudi brigands who now run the Empty Quarter) and his Bedouin allies. Are the jitters about Jordan also not justified?

Bahrain is more complicated trouble. It is, like Iraq, another Arab country that is majority Shia. The monarchy, however, is Sunni, and the royal family actually rules. So Iran is deeply involved in the riots against the monarchical regime. The Al Khalifa dynasty has ruled since 1783, six years before George Washington became president of the United States. America has a naval base in Bahrain, and it is central to the defense of our implicit and explicit alliance with Muslim states that quiver before Shia Iran and may soon quiver before present-day Shia Iraq. Obama had almost but not quite hectored the ruling family to make more room for democracy in the kingdom. But it hasn’t and it won’t. What does democracy mean when and if a Shia demos under clerical domination takes over? In any case, the Saudis sent troops, now being recalled, and weapons to help the Bahraini royals deal with their troubles.

The two greatest Arab embarrassments for Obama and his secretary of state are Libya and Syria. Now, it was George W. Bush whose administration fixed up the relationship between the United States and Colonel Qaddafi, a murderer of many Americans. Western oil companies were clamoring for Washington to bridge the breach, and a Republican administration obliged them. Alas, the last mortification was Obama’s and that of his Labour comrades in London. They watched and fibbed more than a bit when they tried to push the prison release of the man responsible for the Pan Am 103 bombing off on non-sovereign Scotland, all dressed up as an act of mercy for a man about to die. The president claimed he was “surprised, disappointed, and angry” that the prisoner was released. In fact, prior to the release, Scottish officials had reportedly concluded that U.S. objections to the move were “half-hearted.” Having been welcomed home by Qaddafi and his sons, this mass murderer has now been living for nearly two years “free,” so to speak.

Now Qaddafi’s soldiers have been shooting insurgents with abandon. It makes me think: Have you ever heard anyone inquire into the proportionality of Muslim warfare? Can a market bombing ever really be targeted or proportional? Of course not. Recently, two paradigmatic atrocities were perpetrated in Afghanistan. In the first, at least 20 people were dead on June 25 in a bomb blast at a provincial hospital; at least 23 were injured. In a hospital, mind you. The next day, an eight-year-old girl was tricked into carrying a bomb toward a police car. She detonated the device when close to the vehicle. Only she died. This, forgive me, is barbarism.

The popular rising against Qaddafi’s lunatic rule even persuaded Obama that the United States must make some show of acting against the brutal tyrant. But in 2009, according to the Associated Press, the administration added $77 million of armored troop carriers to Tripoli’s buy list, an attempted acquisition that was hurried by the dictator’s son Saif, who was agitated by premature hints of rebellion in tribal areas of the country. (This was a bipartisan intricate tale: The certified Democratic eminence Lee Hamilton along with General Anthony Zinni and Bush Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff—as chairs of the U.S. arm of the company behind the deal—were involved in these machinations.) The president’s people now say that we will lead from behind. By providing aircraft to NATO and complaining that our allies in Europe aren’t doing enough? Secretary Robert Gates noted that our NATO allies are undermanned and underarmed, and he is chasteningly right.

Obama has preened about Libya, but he hasn’t come clean about it. His heart is simply not in it. As in Iraq and Afghanistan, the president wants to fight and not to fight at the same time. The same callowness pervades Obama’s attitude to Syria. If anything should humiliate him, it is his courtship of the Assad family tyranny, which has been in power more than four decades. Bashar’s father, Hafez Al Assad, named the insurgency he led “the corrective revolution,” and it was the last modest theme to be associated with the family. Obama fell for Bashar’s hoax that he is a “reformer,” rather in the way that Vogue treated Mrs. Assad as some sort of style icon worthy of the Condé Nast seal of idiotic approval. Ms. Wintour, have you no shame? Do you know anything about these blood-drenched rulers? In 1982, 10 to 40 thousand Syrian Sunnis were murdered by Assad’s kith and kin in Hama, a city once again rising against the regime. Perhaps I should not expect the fashionistas at 4 Times Square to know this. But I must expect Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton to know it. And yet the Obama-Clinton administration busily fawned over the gentle ophthalmologist with a taste for Phil Collins, and still cannot bring itself to lend a hand in the brave struggle to depose him.

Obama’s delusion about Assad owed a great deal to his delusion about the Middle East peace process. Israel sits on land that it captured from Syria nearly 45 years ago in a short but costly war that Syria began, along with Egypt and Jordan. Obama is not interested in the complexity of the history of the Golan Heights, which begins with the regional unraveling of the Ottoman Empire. Obama thinks only that Israel must give it up. And for what? A piece of paper. More risibly, a piece of paper signed by Assad. Obama also believed that Assad could play a positive role in bringing about peace between Israel and the Palestinians—which is especially perverse, since Assad is the man who has given sanctuary in Damascus to the leader of Hamas. But Assad was unresponsive to the president’s high hopes. Syria would not “flip.” It had no interest in breaking with millenarian Iran or in suspending its patronage of Hezbollah. It preferred to remain the headquarters of Hamas—and to torment its own Palestinians and the immiserated Palestinians of Lebanon, who, if truth be told, Syria believes belong to itself. Where Clinton got the notion that Assad was a “reformer” no one can tell. People who work for her look mortified when asked. Alas, not mortified enough.

One would have thought that the savagery and strategic abandon with which Assad responded to the brave Syrian opposition would have chastened the president and his top diplomat. The two have been palpably reluctant to give up on the ruling family—until now? It is hard to tell. All of a sudden, Obama and Clinton are talking tougher about Assad and declaring that they can do without him. But what follows from this rhetorical turn is unclear. The new anti-Assad rhetoric seems toothless. If they have given up on their illusions about Assad, they have not put any policies against him in place. I expect that they will continue to pour more ice water on Bibi Netanyahu than on Bashar Al Assad.

And the Syrian diplomacy of the Obama administration illumines the fallacy of the president’s larger approach to the Arab world. It is a grand illusion in that he believes what Arab politicians tell him and what they tell his satraps. Obama does not make fine distinctions. King Abdullah? Fine. Mubarak? Fine—until he is about to fall, and then not fine. Mubarak’s successors? Fine. Assad? Also fine. But wait: Is Assad in trouble? Well, hedge a bit: Fine, but not too fine.

The obvious truth is that Assad’s survival would be a disaster for U.S. foreign policy. His fall would be a strategic boon for us and our allies: It would badly damage both Iran and Hezbollah. Recall that Syria was building a nuclear installation with North Korean materials, until the Israeli air force (to the deep but silent joy of the Arab world) took it out. So the Sunni majority, which may be dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, would nonetheless bring about a useful internecine realignment. It might even concentrate on Syria itself.

The political universe of the Arab peoples is governed by official violence, but official does not mean restrained. In Syria, in Libya, in Bahrain, in Yemen, we have been witnessing extraordinary cruelty by governments against peoples. Even in the most humane of the Arab polities—in Morocco, for example—peaceful demonstrations have ended with bloodshed. In Cairo, in the epiphany of Tahrir Square, more than 800 people were injured. Meanwhile, in Sudan, the president of which has been indicted by the International Criminal Court but is still a welcome guest in much of the world, mass slaughter proceeds unimpeded, skipping from one part of the country to another but never coming to a halt. And, even in Sudan, Obama has trimmed. A new ethnic cleansing appears imminent, and what will the United States do? Nothing, I assure you. Nothing. After all, we cannot act with any force in another Muslim country, can we? That would be downright Bush-like. Worse, it would be imperialism. Obama will not lift a hand against another Arab state, even it means lifting a hand for another Arab people. In one of the most consequential hours in the history of one of the most consequential regions, U.S. policy is just bankrupt.

Martin Peretz is editor-in-chief emeritus of The New Republic. This article originally ran in the August 4, 2011, issue of the magazine.