President Obama's speech at the United Nations yesterday paled in comparison to the soaring, expectation raising addresses he gave early in his administration, particularly in Cairo, but also at past UN General Assembly gatherings. The President has lost his groove.
Obama opened with FDR's line that "We have got to make, not merely a peace, but a peace that will last." This was the perfect set up line for the President to describe how the United States was going to reinvent its leadership in an increasingly complex world where the old rules are not working.
President Obama could have described in his address a new set of global deals among the world's last era powers and ones now rising -- particularly Brazil, India, Turkey, China -- and talked about the need for responsible stakeholders in the international system to deliver on a package of rights and opportunities for citizens of the world, perhaps a new Global Social Compact that America could help design but which would need to be supported, ratified if you will, by other of the world's great powers.
That would have been something.
President Obama did give a shout out to development, to women's rights, to reaching out to those in the world who have been besieged by nature's wrath in Africa and home-grown, mankind-forged oppression. He devoted a paragraph to the important achievements of his administration in re-setting a global commons allergic to nuclear weapons and WMD materials proliferation. But these were scattered ornaments in a speech that lacked his previous vision and resolve.
Perhaps most disappointing is that President Obama, who in earlier years at the UN chastised Mahmoud Abbas, Benjamin Netanyahu, and George Mitchell for not getting more quickly on a constructive peace track, who felt that achieving an Israel-Palestine two state deal was of such strategic significance to the United States that he made it one of the very first out-of-the gate priorities of his administration, has not only offered nothing new to break the Israel-Palestine negotiations deep freeze but has acquiesced to the very narrative that on the negotiations that Israel embraces. For Israel at the moment, doing nothing is best.
Obama continues to parrot the line that peace can only be achieved between the "two parties," that only they can really bring this global ulcer to a close, when they decide to negotiate. The fact is that the status quo of frozen negotiations is benefiting the dominant, settlement-expanding Israel -- and the US, in promising to veto at the UN Security Council Palestine's bid for official state recognition, is playing guarantor to one side, undermining the aspirations of others on the other side of the equation. What if the US had said to Kosovo -- no statehood, no recognition from the US until you resolve all of your ongoing issues with Russia?
Obama's position on this is dangerous in another sense as well. Obama -- who looked to so many early in his rock star style rise to the Presidency as a leader on the level of a Gandhi, or Martin Luther King, or Mandela -- has assured the rise of Hamas, the legitimation of violence in pursuit of Palestinian political goals, by yet again showing that peaceful, non-violent moderates like Mahmoud Abbas ultimately get nothing -- even if they play the role of the "good Palestinian," the one who listens to his masters, who doesn't get too disturbed when humiliated at Israel's border check points and at UN Security Council meetings.
Abbas was not kidnapping Israeli soldiers nor firing rockets to generate political leverage in favor of getting his country's dilemma back on to the roster of global concerns. This week he is doing what Gandhi did to the Brits, embarrassing the world as Gandhi did to the then globally sprawling United Kingdom for its hypocrisy and inhumanity. Abbas is using peaceful means to move his cause, playing by the rules, and actually taking the same track to attempted Palestinian statehood that the Israelis used.
And Obama is going to say no -- rejecting Palestine's bid at the UN Security Council. It is 2011 of course. 2012 will be an expensive year of political campaigning and this makes riling up some donors in the Jewish American community politically complicated. It should be noted that some enlightened Jewish Americans support a two state solution, peace, and even Mahmoud Abbas' play at the United Nations.
If this was 2013, Obama might be in a different groove -- but by then Palestinian and the broader Arab temperature may be such that they ultimately decide the two state track is folly -- and much like Turkey giving up on its European identity aspirations -- decides to pull back and subject a recalcitrant Israel to never-ending harassment and violence, assuring that Israel ultimately becomes a state of hard-edged, security-demanding Apartheid, all while the Palestinian demographic edge inside Israel's borders booms while the Israeli Jewish population growth slows and perhaps even declines.
Obama is assuring the further emasculation and perhaps final demise of Palestine's moderates. Obama is also treating the Israelis and Palestinians as if they are on equal footing, equally able to concede to each other's demands. What Obama doesn't get is that a substantial portion of Israel's population loves not having a deal and never wants one. They are OK with a peace process to nowhere -- but that is not acceptable for the less-endowed, less-powerful Palestinian side. Hamas is in the rejectionist corner as well, seeing its fortunes rise as earnest efforts at peace go nowhere.
The world watched Barack Obama lose a battle in the last two years with Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over Israeli settlement expansion in contested and occupied territories. This is like the Soviet Union having lost a war of wills at the height of its power with Cuba.
The client state trumped the President of the United States -- telegraphing to many around the world that President Obama ultimately didn't have the courage of his convictions and wasn't able to deploy power and statecraft to achieve the outlines of what he called for in his lofty rhetoric. Obama's UN General Assembly speech has done nothing to reverse the impression that Netanyahu is the alpha dog in the relationship with President Obama -- and this is truly tragic and geostrategically consequential.
President Obama should not have let George Mitchell resign because he could have used Mitchell to repeat the same hackneyed, achieve-zilch phrases that Obama himself raised in this speech. Obama, like Mitchell, made reference to the achievement of peace in Northern Ireland -- which took eons to achieve.
The President needs to be told that this is a lame, counter-productive, irrational comparison to Israel-Palestine. Northern Ireland terrorism and political disruption could have continued another three hundred years and the world could endure it, moving past the tragedies and occasional loss of life. In the scheme of global affairs, Northern Ireland's problems were a boutique problem that didn't resonate globally.
Israel-Palestine tension in contrast comprises one of the world's serious fault lines. Explosions there have dramatic echo effects that do matter globally. The US used to be able to absorb the consequences of failing to achieve peace among the parties -- but those failures are increasingly eroding America's strategic position in the world. The US can't afford for Israel and Palestine to continue to fail to act responsibly in their mutual long term interests.
The second wrong-headed comment that Obama makes that both former Presidential Middle East envoy George Mitchell and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would say -- and which is totally wrong -- is that we can't want peace more than the Israelis and Palestinians, that peace can't be achieved without "the parties" sitting down and agreeing to negotiate.
This is ridiculous. Both Israel and Palestine cannot achieve peace on their own. Their internal domestic institutions and political order cannot take the domestic political stress of delivering on a deal. There have to be parties to blame, an institution or set of governments like the Quartet, or the US itself, that forced Israel and Palestine to do what they needed to do to achieve peace, securing their long term interests in a tough neighborhood, but which will be disruptive in the short term to an array of political interests.
The Saudis, Jordanians, Russians, French, Americans, even the Egyptians I think, the Brazilians, the Turks, the British and Germans want and need peace between Israel and Palestine more than many inside these societies want.
Inside the United States, however, a "Middle East peace business" of lobbyists and communications professionals and arms salesman and others want the business to go on and on -- not getting this package of problems resolved any time soon.
When the Japanese government was trying to figure out ways to liberalize its highly regulated economy in the 1980s but didn't want to take the political heat from outraged domestic constituents, it conspired with the United States to get the US to demand certain changes that Japan's bureaucrats were secretly calling for. This was called "Gaiatsu" or "foreign pressure." Gaiatsu was orchestrated by Japanese insiders to compel change inside Japan, but in a way that the governing LDP didn't make itself politically vulnerable.
Both Palestine and Israel need their own form of geopolitical gaiatsu from the US, from the Arab League, from the Quartet -- but this is not what Obama is giving them, and it is a mistake.
Barack Obama needs to get his groove back -- and needs to listen to the likes of Brent Scowcroft, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Thomas Pickering, Chuck Hagel, Rita Hauser, Carla Hills, and many others who have been telling him to define in greater detail his expectations of the political endgame between Israel and Palestine.
Obama needs to make Palestinian and Israeli civil society react to defined American preferences and American vision, buttressed by concerned allies and neighbors in the region.
Right now, all that seems to be happening is Barack Obama subordinating his vision to one defined by Benjamin Netanyahu.
That leaves those like Mahmoud Abbas with little choice but to embarrass the United States, to demand that Palestinians aren't going to take it any more, aren't going to wait any longer, and are now going to demand a seat in front of the bus.
-- This article first appeared at The Atlantic where Steve Clemons is Washington Editor at Large.