Israel and Obama

“Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided.”

“We will also use all elements of American power to pressure Iran. I will do everything in my power to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. That starts with aggressive, principled diplomacy without self-defeating preconditions, but with a cleareyed understanding of our interests. We have no time to waste. We cannot unconditionally rule out an approach that could prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. We have tried limited, piecemeal talks while we outsource the sustained work to our European allies. It is time for the United States to lead.”

(Excerpts from Obama’s speech to AIPAC, June 4, 2008). Link to full transcript.

In my first entry for Oddlyamerican I argued that the symbolism of Nelson Mandela’s presidency in South Africa grew so powerful that it became a detriment to the very people he represented. Mandela’s symbolism and its corollary celebration was so great, so intoxicating and heady that it seemed he could do nothing wrong. The effect of which was to overshadow the hypocrisy of his crippling economic policies and limit any criticism of his administration. I summed up my criticism as such:

“… it is very dangerous to deify people like Nelson Mandela. Instead, Mandela (like all other leaders and elected officials), should be judged on their policies and actions and not their symbolic capacity to engender hope, especially when those policies directly conflict with their version of hope.”

It was with this argument in mind that I challenged my own strong support for Barack Obama in the sense that he too was a symbolic candidate of change, conciliation and hope. As exuberance for Obama grew I felt it was important not to get carried away with the excitement of his candidacy and check myself. So as objectively as I could and using the criteria of his legislative record, consistency and policy proposals I managed to justify my support for Obama.

But more specifically my support for Obama was grounded less in his position on particular issues or ideology (indeed, I thought his position on healthcare was embarrassingly weak at a time when support for market driven healthcare was at a low), and more in his commitment to democratic principles and the constitution that won my support. His rhetoric of unity and promise of conciliation through a government where everyone had a seat at the table was very appealing to me, especially within the context of the alienating Bush administration and the duplicitous Clinton years.

In that first post I wrote that Obama “attempts to usher in a new era of politics by flushing out the old, typically characterized as adversarial or dominated by special interests.”

How wrong I was.

When Obama won the Democratic nomination just over two weeks ago, the media was awash with the historic magnitude of his nomination. It was as if America were once again returning to the job of absolving itself for its ugliest sin. The premature self-congratulation ringing throughout America bore the resonant chords of atonement and celebration but it also drew that same heavy veil of symbolism that obscured Mandela’s devastating mistakes.

As I awoke the following morning, ready at last to take a breath before campaigning for the big one in November and enjoy the victory I saw that Obama was about to deliver a speech to AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) with Hillary Clinton following him. There was only one thing on my mind at that point: would Clinton concede.

What followed convinced me that I could not campaign for Barack Obama in November.

To say that Obama’s AIPAC speech was a total betrayal of his campaign platform thus far is not to overstate things. The content and wording he delivered for AIPAC was so alien to his previous speeches, so contradictory that it became instantly clear that this was an obvious pander to the most powerful lobby group in the US. Indeed, within the first few minutes he managed to equate the current violence against the Jewish state by Palestinians to the Holocaust.

Following a brief story recounting the atrocities of Nazi Germany, Obama uttered the requisite words of leadership in such situations: “never again”, and immediately used it to justify Israel’s ‘birth’ and defence. Even though it appeared a little distasteful for a non-Jewish politician to pander to his audience like this, the position is a valid one all the same and one taken by many Jews and others alike, but in a region where many suffer as a direct consequence of Israel’s birth and existence, it is both morally and intellectually reprehensible for a politician with no allegiance to any faction in the region, to choose a side and to put forth a perspective so narrow in scope.

Any serious debate on Israel and Palestine – if it is to be productive – must always acknowledge the suffering that both sides have inflicted upon each other, but it must also be recognized that the Palestinians have lost much more, by any measure, than the Israelis and continue to do so in ever plummeting depths. Instead of showing an understanding of the frustrations on both sides, as Obama previously has been apt to do, he elected to celebrate Israel’s defiance by promising more billion dollar subsidies for their defense forces complimented by rhetoric that Donald Rumsfeld would have been proud of. This was not the Obama we have come to expect.

When he delivered his tremendous speech on race on Philadelphia back in March, Obama demonstrated a quality that had been sorely missing in political leaders for a long time: a deep understanding of a highly sensitive issue and the willingness to lay out its many nuances for the public. It was almost as refreshing as a black man being taken seriously for office. But Obama went further still. Not unlike Mandela in his magnanimity, he showed sympathy to those poor whites who disdained blacks for benefiting from affirmative action, and while not forgiving them their prejudices Obama acknowledged their grievances. It was this exceptional speech that ultimately proved Obama to be the candidate that so many of us had hoped for. We were able to say to the doubters “There, you see? It’s not just hype.”

Unfortunately, his speech to AIPAC ultimately proved those doubters correct because he showed not a hint of those same qualities of empathy and understanding that we had been the cornerstone of his campaign. He instead ran roughshod over his previous allusions to a more acceptable diplomacy and delivered a speech of broad brush strokes and absolutes that was fundamentally neo-conservative by any definition.

I have spoken to a number of friends about Obama’s courting of the Israel lobby and the main defense I have heard most often has been that it was merely electioneering, that he couldn’t win the presidency without doing it. He needed to do it. They ALL have to do it. In addition there have been all the scaremongering tactics intended to portray Obama as a Muslim in disguise. And then there was the so-called endorsement from terrorist organization/Gaza Strip Government, Hamas. So he really had no choice other than to appear extra tough on Israel’s enemies.

I couldn’t disagree more.

What Obama did at AIPAC went beyond electioneering. It might have been intended that way, but I doubt it. There are few other politicians who are as acutely aware of the impact of their words than Barack Obama, and as such, aware of their consequences, especially on the international stage and especially when using such strong rhetoric. After all, this wasn’t your standard stump speech about investing in education or healthcare and the dire need for such investment. These are easy speeches; most people want to hear them and, more importantly, they are issues that don’t require a definite follow through because they are usually never given much definition in the first place. But when Obama spoke to AIPAC there was no such opacity, Obama spoke in absolutes, he spoke in threats and promises, and the consequences of these carefully chosen words was to alienate a large swathe of the Middle East before he even became President.

The political maxim that a candidate needs AIPAC to win the presidency must be retired; if we are left to defend our candidate by saying he has to compromise his core message because unless he acquiesces to the demands of a powerful lobby then he can’t win, then we lose our fundamental democratic values.

My last blog entry was a warning to progressives not to hope for too much from Obama. I know many who believe that even though he has taken many conservative positions, he doesn’t really mean it and when he gets in office he’ll deliver ‘change’. But that idea is now largely redundant because he has made absolute assurances to Israel, upon which, he cannot backtrack. He has laid out the foundations of his world view which sadly echoes of the ‘with us or against us’ tenets of Bush’s foreign policy. This he cannot change, because his policy has already begun by setting the platfrom from which he intends to lead.

The irony of all this is that after Obama promised that “We must isolate Hamas unless and until they renounce terrorism, recognize Israel’s right to exist, and abide by past agreements. There is no room at the negotiating table for terrorist organizations.” just today Israel and Hamas have agreed a cease-fire. This not only demonstrates an ignorance of resolutions in other seemingly intractible conflicts but it also shows that Obama’s view of American foreign policy bears less relation to Israeli policy and more to the current US administration. Moreover, Obama’s AIPAC stance perfectly illustrates the duplicitous standards that America has historically set between its domestic and foreign policies.

Like many ‘good’ leaders before him Obama has an unshakeable allegiance to the US Constitution and that is commendable, but also like many before him those ideals do not extend beyond the shores of the fifty states. Instead, when dealing with the ‘other’ we apparently need ‘realpolitik’ or a geo-political viewpoint where strategy is everything and empathy is weakness. Seemingly, we cannot afford to hold true to the principles the nation was founded on. We have a whole other set of rules when dealing with the rest of the world.

Over the past year, across the globe, there has been a groundswell of excitement at the prospect of an Obama administration. Combining his looks, his name, his message and America’s poor reputation abroad, citizens across the world have to come to expect that Obama’smessage may extend beyond US borders, but since the AIPAC conference we have seen that the foundations of Obama’s worldview are buried deep in the themes of the Monroe Doctrine and so-called pragmatic foreign policy. It appears to be the sad continuation of an age-old policy of hegemony under the symbolism of progressive politics. What a shame.

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~ by oddlyamerican on June 18, 2008.

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