This commentary first appeared in the Algemeiner on January 11.
The last time I wrote about President Obama’s then only rumored selection of Chuck Hagel I said two things I knew I would wish to revise. The first, rhetorically, was the question: “What was he thinking?” The second was a quotation from Gil Troy’s generally very good writing on this subject, which I qualified then as “[p]erhaps overstating the case.” In attempting to answer the rhetorical question, I need to begin by deepening my critique of the passage I quoted from Troy.
The question of where Obama stands regarding Israel has often pivoted on this deeper question of which Obama shows up when doing foreign policy. His conjuring up of an American-Muslim heritage in Cairo, his dithering before supporting Iran’s Green Revolution, his historically sloppy comparisons between Palestinians and African-Americans, and his occasional “tough-love” approach to Israel, all expressed his inner McGovern—revealing how a position that appears lovely and idealistic often becomes morally myopic. But supporting Israel militarily, endorsing Israel’s defensive war against Hamas missiles, and backing Israel in the U.N., have all expressed his inner Kissinger—sprinkled with a dash of nobility and idealism worthy of Daniel Patrick Moynihan.
I cited these words by Troy because of this schism he noted in Obama’s foreign policy tendencies. The schism is real, but Troy characterized it too crudely and mislabeled its divisions. Nothing in Obama’s foreign policy descends to the McGovern caricature of “lovely and idealistic.” (And for the record, let us all recall that George McGovern flew 35 combat missions in World War II as a B-24 bomber pilot.) Nothing in Obama’s foreign policy descends to the cynical imperial machinations of Henry Kissinger.
What Troy confuses with Kissinger’s Machiavellian realism is Obama’s more straight forward and empirical political reason. Obama was clear about it in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech. Awarded a prize he knew he had accomplished nothing to earn, Obama’s expressed acceptance in a speech before that audience of the need for state violence, on that occasion and under such circumstances, constituted a minor profile in courage. Said Obama,
[A] head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by [Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.’s] examples alone. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: Evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism — it is recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.
I raise this point, I begin with this point because in many countries there is a deep ambivalence about military action today, no matter what the cause. And at times, this is joined by a reflexive suspicion of America, the world’s sole military superpower.
But the world must remember that it was not simply international institutions — not just treaties and declarations — that brought stability to a post-World War II world. Whatever mistakes we have made, the plain fact is this: The United States of America has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms. The service and sacrifice of our men and women in uniform has promoted peace and prosperity from Germany to Korea, and enabled democracy to take hold in places like the Balkans. We have borne this burden not because we seek to impose our will. We have done so out of enlightened self-interest — because we seek a better future for our children and grandchildren, and we believe that their lives will be better if others’ children and grandchildren can live in freedom and prosperity.
The concentration and determination with which Obama has prosecuted a controversial, vigorous and deadly stealth and drone war against the United States’ terrorist enemies is testament to the truth of the beliefs expressed in these words.
In a speech that attempted to grasp and express complexities of human and state development, and international relations, greater than those captured by brute or simplistic concepts identified with either Kissinger or McGovern, Obama said the following as well.
[W]ithin America, there has long been a tension between those who describe themselves as realists or idealists — a tension that suggests a stark choice between the narrow pursuit of interests or an endless campaign to impose our values around the world.
I reject these choices…. No matter how callously defined, neither America’s interests — nor the world’s — are served by the denial of human aspirations.
Along with the anti-terror campaign, we can see this complex of beliefs at work in Obama’s response to many of the developments in the Middle East not specifically related to Israel. On the one hand, while Obama’s more idealistic critics on the left and more militant critics on the right judged him harshly for weak support of the Iranian “Green Revolution” of 2009, Obama judged, realistically, that in the absence of evidence that the protests could actually succeed, the U.S. had nothing to gain by appearing one more time, however honorably in American eyes, to support the overthrow of an Iranian government. No greater and forceful expressions of idealistic or militant U.S. support for the protests, absent any inconceivable American military interference, would have made a difference to the outcome. Nothing to gain and historical propaganda points to be lost.
In much bolder terms and against the prospect of much greater losses than a propaganda war, Obama has made the same realistic determination about Syria.
The President received similar criticisms, more heavily weighed from the right, regarding his response to the toppling of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. Again, Obama even more finely weighed the apparent tensions between realism and idealism. The President, like every president before him, accepted the realistic necessity, toward other ends, of working with an autocrat like Mubarak. As with Iran, considering an uprising that might not succeed and the political losses that might follow from hasty support for the protests, Obama hedged his bets with middle of the road comments. Once the magnitude of what was occurring became fully apparent, Obama rightly judged that the United States – rather than working in practical self-interest with autocrats – could not be seen, as it was during the Cold War, actively to support autocrats in the repression of their own people.
Avoiding and overcoming such American excesses of the Cold War, and their continuation in too ready post Cold War entry into any but absolutely necessary wars, is central to Obama’s long-term vision of U.S. international realignment. That alignment is away from a unipolar America imperial reach and self-assertion toward an America that is rather a leader in a community of nations. Said Obama in Oslo,
More and more, we all confront difficult questions about how to prevent the slaughter of civilians by their own government, or to stop a civil war whose violence and suffering can engulf an entire region.
I believe that force can be justified on humanitarian grounds, as it was in the Balkans, or in other places that have been scarred by war. Inaction tears at our conscience and can lead to more costly intervention later. That’s why all responsible nations must embrace the role that militaries with a clear mandate can play to keep the peace.
There is no such mandate in Syria, not a mandate greater, really, than much of the rest of the West pushing American troops into battle. Obama ran in 2008 clearly against such solitary American commitments, especially after over a decade of war in two battle zones, and not to mention the untold unintended consequences that might follow. In Libya, however less consequential the case may seem, other nations, in an extraordinarily rare occurrence, did take the lead in promoting and accepting responsibility for the intervention while the U.S. bore the background brunt of the air and intelligence campaigns. This was precisely what Obama wished under the circumstances as they developed and entirely in keeping with his vision of an American international future.
Among American politicians, Obama is rare in recognizing the essential requirement, more than two decades after the Cold War’s end, of realigning the United States away from the imperial position it assumed in leading democratic forces in that war. Even an imperial sway conceived as benign and beneficial produces a perpetual descending cycle of reinforcing needs and behaviors. The breadth of interests that super power sway requires entails a breadth of power to protect them. A breadth of power generates its own interests. Imperial behavior conceived only as an advancement of noble ends can expand innocently and then be justified, in the maintenance of an imperial nature, as a necessary protection of interests.
Because the U.S. is the sole superpower in the world, it acts to extend the reach of its power (power not being static) in order to maintain itself and to protect the interests that naturally attach to that power’s reach. As the interests expand, the superpower must engage more nations with the purpose of pursuing and maintaining those interests. Ironically, this makes the superpower a supplicant, always needing to negotiate with other nations over those nations’ more natural interests and spheres of power, and far from the natural sphere of the superpower’s interests, because now the world has become its sphere. World security concerns become the superpower’s security concerns, and multiple nations, pursuing their own more vital interests, to some degree of variance with the interests of the superpower, now become problematic concerns.
The current conservative formula is that any reconsideration of this cycle is a disengagement bespeaking weakness. In order to avoid this appearance – indeed, reality – of (relative) weakness, the cycle must be maintained perpetually. The United States, now that it is the sole superpower, must ensure that it remains the sole superpower. If it is not the conquering, occupying power of imperial epochs past, it must now be and remain the imperial power of enforceable influence wherever its interests and security are perceived to reside, and increasingly they are perceived to reside almost everywhere.
Such, however, is part of the historic pattern in the decline of empires.
Chuck Hagel shares this vision with Barak Obama, and in a post-Iraq, post-Afghanistan world, Obama seeks Hagel’s advice and support in directing the nation toward its first profound international realignment since the Second World War. All this is independent of Israel.
The record of Barack Obama’s support for Israel is clear. Policy missteps and symbolic miscues provide fodder to those already otherwise inclined to mistrust him, but the record of action thus far is irrefutable. However, the idealist in Obama, the late twentieth century liberal in him, and the biographical outsider in him – however he may recognize the distinctions between Israel and the autocratic societies that have been its enemies – makes it difficult for him to articulate those differences in cultural or anything resembling Manichean terms, despite his asserted belief in Oslo in the existence of evil. Thus Obama, for all his vision, greater than many around him, of a necessary and better American international future, fails to see more than geopolitically local and limited threats. The limited are non-state organizations such as Al-Qaeda and the like. The local are the normal geopolitical contenders, such as China in Asia, and the historically garden-variety despots such as Gaddafi and Assad. However, there is a greater threat in the world.
A confluence has occurred in the post Cold War world. One stream may be found in Islamist theocratic intolerance, rooted in so many anti-Semitic cultures. This intolerance finds a supportive voice in far left postcolonial rationalizations of the conduct of “marginalized” and “powerless” peoples. It is further abetted by liberal reluctance, like Obama’s, to make cultural claims not only in praise, but in censure. This confluence finds its center in the Middle East, around Israel, and it is the greatest international threat since the fall of the Communist world.
The mystery will remain as to why Obama did not mind disappointing women in rejecting the highly esteemed Michèle Flournoy for Secretary of Defense. It will remain why he did not mind so upsetting so many Jews at his selection of Hagel. It may well have been his calculation that most of the Jews who would object were already opponents who mistrust and criticize him. There is much evidence to support the latter part of that claim.
About Hagel’s ultimate influence over Israel policy, a best case scenario might recall Obama’s obvious desire to surround himself in his cabinet with varied figures of name and stature, among whom he will still make his own final decision. From Mark Bowden’s book The Finish, about the Osama bin Laden decision:
The only major dissenters were [Vice President Joe] Biden and [Secretary of Defense Robert] Gates and, by the next morning, Gates had changed his mind. [Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General James Cartwright and Leiter favored the drone over the raid.]
That is the Vice President and, initially, the Republican and very heavy weight Secretary of Defense disagreeing, and a major military adviser and the director of the National Counter Terrorism Center urging a different option. Obama knows his own mind.
The worst case scenario is that Hagel further weakens a so far bumbling and ineffectual approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, that he amplifies Obama’s failure to perceive the larger picture in the Middle East, and that his choice sends exactly the wrong signal to Iran.
The worst case scenario is too real, the consequences too great. That is why Hagel’s choice, despite the sense that can be found in it, is the wrong one.