Obama Plays the Middle East -- Again

05/20/2011 10:52 am ET | Updated Jul 20, 2011

Public declarations of statesman can convey belief and intention. Often, one must strain to discern them as they are hedged by qualifications and contingent references. At other times, the overriding purpose is obfuscation. That becomes the goal when a leader temporizes, is indecisive and disinclined to make decisions on matters that entail risks and costs -- be they diplomatic or domestic. Such was the nature of Barack Obama's address on the Middle East Thursday.

Trying to discern in his remarks the contours of a coherent foreign policy is futile. For the elucidation of a strategic design was not the purpose. Nor was the purpose to stake out firm positions that would be the pivot for future actions re. Palestine, reform movements in those countries where they are being repressed, or Iran. The aim was political -- in two senses. The first, primary consideration was to create favorable impressions among the American public -- especially the political class -- of Obama's stewardship and the country's exalted standing in the world. Among Israel's supporters above all. The secondary objective, I believe, was to shape wider perceptions of the United States as a sober, responsible and 'humane' power whose leadership in the Middle East is indispensible.

Toward that end, Obama took a dual approach. The first element was casting the discourse at a high level of abstraction: "our enduring values and principles," the imperative of economic development, the necessary reconciliation of stability with progressive change. The pronouncement of American commitment to a 'two state' formula to resolve the Palestinian impasse was also abstract even if it had a specific referent. Obama gave no indication of a readiness to alter the servile attitude of the United States toward the willful, unbending Israeli leadership. Words about settlements ring hollow when there is no evident readiness to twist the Israelis' arms or impose serious sanctions. Reference to a renewed 'peace process' for the umpteenth time is meaningless when there is no plan to include Hamas or even favorable notation of its reconciliation with Fatah.

A Washington that shies from the most tepid criticisms of Israel's most egregious actions (e.g. Operation "Cast Lead," or the assault on the Gaza flotilla, a Washington that has been stared down on the most modest curtailment of West Bank settlements, is not credible when it talks about the pre-1967 borders. It is just a verbal landmark to encourage the thought in some impressionable circles that the United States is breaking fresh diplomatic ground. Similarly, a vague passing allusion to Bahrain carries no sign of a shift in priorities that until now has heavily favored reassuring the Gulf autocrats of America's continuing devotion to their partnership.

The other element in Obama's address was stylistic. Rather than formulate an integrated strategy that was politically and intellectually coherent, Obama chose to present a sort of collage or, perhaps more accurately, a modernistic painting a la Kandinsky. That involved displaying on the canvas (the minds of his audience) arresting images in various shapes and splashes of color along with stray lines, vaguely connected to each other, that commented upon the bright passages. All the components were chosen with care to evoke certain impressions and images. Bows to the greatness of the Arab past; conjuring in vivid terms the spectre of endless war that must be exorcised; pious allusion to the Divine spark and our eternal longing to comport with our better angels; presenting America in its Sunday best -- the virtuous power with the means and will to promote the enlightened interests of everyone in the Middle East. In short, America under the leadership of Barack Obama is the one best hope of Muslims, Jews and Christians alike. These unoriginal materials were speckled throughout the speech, suitably attired for the grand occasion. They give tone and were meant to be felt as tokens of earnestness while creating a mood of uplift.

We have heard all of this before -- in Cairo, at the Nobel ceremony in Oslo. The overall composition, as well as its individual ingredients, is designed to play on feeling rather than to engage thought. Certainly not critical cognition. These are not dots, data points, encouraging you to connect them by your own applied intellect. They are an invitation to see reality in the speaker's terms without the audience's sensing the artist's guiding hand. This is the way non-representational art works, when there is intelligent intent behind its creation.

The tangible recognizable bits (Egypt, Tunisia, a visionary Israel/Palestine) are interspersed throughout not for the purpose of instruction. Rather, they are intended to ensure that your thoughts/feelings about them should be made favorable by the composition of evocative symbols that surrounds them. Oratory of this nature is meant to leave a lasting impression. An impression of the person and his conduct whose afterglow will cast in a becoming light all else that will (or will not) emanate from him. It burnishes his persona. It is but a highlight in a campaign -- a campaign to make of a virtual reality to which there is no commitment to make actual, seem genuine.

This is vintage Obama. He sets himself tests not of tangible accomplishment but of rhetorical creation. Gratification comes from assembling the pieces so that seem to hang together -- that they make the desired impression, that they punctuate the moment and shape political imagery in the future long enough, and with a deep enough impression, to fend off the critical judgments of initiatives that never come, of half-measures that are never completed, of goals that fade further into the horizon.

This time, it will not work. For those in the vanguard of Middle East reform, we have shown ourselves the well-wisher of democracy but the hand holder of autocracy. We embrace freedom when it is cheap and easy. We speak of self determination, but Palestinians are denied succor except for the stale words that catch in the throat. We pronounce the desire to put the war on terror in perspective, yet we prosecute war unrelentingly in Afghanistan and elsewhere while clumsily intervening in the combustible affairs of Pakistan. We paint pictures of a new era of cooperation, yet balk at even considering possible engagement of the Iranians on anything but our own terms. We speak of regional harmony, while contributing directly and indirectly to a looming war of Armageddon between Sunnis and Shi'ites.

The past five months has seen events of historic importance: the upheavals of the Arab Spring whose repercussions continue to register; the Hamas-Fatah political reconciliation; and the Osama bin Laden affair. All of American strategy is challenged thereby, its premises undermined, its aims misaligned with new realities, its tactics losing viability, America's standing losing credibility. Yet nothing in Washington's mentality changes. That is confirmed by Obama's high-minded and high sounding speech that uses the lexicon of change, of resetting, but instead leaves all the essentials in place.