Obama at AIPAC
“Promise her anything but give her Arpege.”
–Perfume advertising slogan
It is good to have the president of the United States on your side, especially if he may be reelected to another four-year term, meaning he will govern America for the next five years. And so, ultimately, here’s the bottom line: How do we know President Barack Obama supports Israel?
Answer: He says so.
This is the key point about Obama’s well-received speech to AIPAC. And that’s why the speechwriters, several of whom are no doubt Jewish, wrote it that way.
Jews are a very misunderstood people in part because both enemies and friends think them self-consciously powerful. Antisemites and anti-Israel activists, two groups with a lot of overlap, think pro-Israel Jews run the U.S. government and media.
But Jews look back at a long history of powerlessness, victimhood, and mass murder. They know that much of the Middle East bays for their blood, that a lot of the mass media won’t give Israel a fair break, and that on many campuses Jewish students are feeling intimidated and pro-Israel activities are besieged.
And so the great majority of American Jews are profoundly grateful that an American president — even if they gave him 79 percent of their votes — will, verbally at least, stand by them.
What happens after he wins reelection and no longer needs their votes? Well, we can hope for the best, right?
I have read a number of articles, papers, and talking points lately that portray Obama as a pro-Israel presence. They consist of four themes:
1. Obama has continued military and intelligence cooperation with Israel.
Leaving aside that little thing called the U.S. Congress, this praises Obama for continuing past levels of support.
2. Obama says he supports Israel.
As noted above, this is of the highest psychological importance for Jews who are used to people stating their antagonism straight-out. But nice words prove nothing.
3. Israeli leaders say Obama is a great friend of Israel.
They are just doing their job. What’s said privately is something else.
4. Obama has done stuff that’s nice for Israel such as vetoing anti-Israel UN resolutions, putting more sanctions on Iran (there’s that forgetting of Congress again), and turning against the Syrian regime, etc., etc.
I can at this point list 20 or 30 points to the contrary. For example, on Iran there were his long attempts to court Iran and failure to support the opposition; his slowness on pushing forward sanctions; efforts to reduce congressional sanctions’ proposals; and giving a free pass to Russia, China, and Turkey to break the sanctions.
On Syria, there was his courting of the Syrian regime despite its repression, antisemitism, and sabotage of peacemaking which continued until the revolution within the country forced him to reverse course, at which point his administration supported a Muslim Brotherhood-led opposition leadership.
And then there’s the history of the Israeli-Palestinian “peace process” policy that always gave the Palestinian Authority a pass and put the onus on Israel; all the events you know about; the dissing of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu; the pressure on Israel to dismantle sanctions on the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, and so on.
Finally, and most serious, is the policy toward revolutionary Islamists and their rule or takeover of Turkey, Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia.
Why go on? You know all this already.
Now Obama effectively wipes all this out in one nice speech because of two things.
First, it is better to believe that the president of the United States is your great friend and will support you than it is to believe the president of the United States is only pretending to be so and is going to hurt your security and endanger your survival.
Of course, an aspect of this has been the anti-Obama exaggerations that he loathes Israel, wants to destroy America, and is a secret Muslim. When you compare Obama’s dreadful performance with these far-reaching accusations he looks far better than if you compared him instead to a normal, competent U.S. president.
Second, he promises not just to contain Iran but to smite it (or applaud Israel smiting it) as much as needed to stop the Islamist state from getting nuclear weapons.
Here’s the key line: “I will not hesitate to use force when it is necessary to defend the United States and its interests.".
But there’s a catch: Obama is the one determining what U.S. interests are and what defending them means.
Obama will do nothing to press the Palestinian Authority toward compromise with Israel, nor will he make it pay any price for walking away from talks, seeking unilateral independence without negotiating with Israel, or unifying with Hamas.
And if it goes to another intifada he will do nothing about that either.
Obama will do nothing as Egypt, Libya, and probably Tunisia become increasingly radical and Islamist. Nor will he act decisively if Egypt acts as a safe haven for Hamas attackers against Israel for building weapons’ factories in Sinai or smuggling arms, terrorists, and money into the Gaza Strip.
And if Hamas attacks Israel with either indirect or even direct help from Egypt in fighting a new war then Obama will do nothing.
And Obama will do nothing as the Turkish regime becomes increasingly hysterical in its hatred and attempts to damage Israel.
And he will do nothing effective if Hizballah starts a new war on Israel.
And he will do nothing—in fact he will contribute to the process—as American credibility continues to plummet.
So will Obama use military force or support a future Israeli attack to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons? That’s a matter of opinion. My opinion is “No.”
Remember the conversation between Obama and Haim Saban in 2008 when the largest single contributor to the Democratic Party asked the candidate what he would do if Iran attacked Israel. Obama responded that the response would have to be studied.
Of course, my view is that Israel shouldn’t attack Iran at this point but rather build a system capable of both defending the country and launching a preemptive attack if that prove necessary in future after Iran has nuclear weapons.
But let’s leave Iranian nuclear weapons aside for the moment. By January 20, 2013, the Middle East will be a region in which there will probably be radical Islamist regimes that want to destroy Israel in Tunisia, Lebanon, Libya, Egypt, Sudan, the Gaza Strip, Turkey, and Iran. There is more likely to be a radical regime in Syria that agrees with that proposition.
Whether or not Iran has nuclear weapons, this is the real problem facing the region and Israeli security. Remember, too, that it isn't just Israelis who feel that Obama has empowered the radicals and undermined their own security. The same view is held by the governments of Saudi Arabia, the smaller Persian Gulf monarchies, Morocco, Algeria, and Jordan (just about the only other clients the United States has left in the region) and the democratic oppositions in Iran, Turkey, Syria, and Lebanon.
Incidentally, Iran has already lost the battle for the region. On that list above, Iran can only depend on two (Lebanon and Syria) of the eight as allies, and Syria is very shaky. Leadership of the region belongs to the Sunni and Arab, not the Persian and Shia, Islamists. Iran’s influence cannot take over Afghanistan, it is too limited to gain power in Iraq, and it has been defeated in Bahrain. With or without nuclear weapons, Tehran’s bigger ambitions have sunk.
And if you really want to know the truth, Iran’s alleged crazy regime that plans to wipe out Israel in order to bring back the twelfth imam no matter how many millions of Iranians are killed is largely a figment. Iran is a dangerous and ambitious adversary but not an insanely suicidal one. The history of the last one-third of a century under that regime amply proves that fact.
Yet if the danger is that Iran thinks it can get away with subversion, terrorism, and maneuvers for power, Obama’s approach is all the more damaging. His actions have made Tehran think it can get away with such things. And that’s even truer for the Sunni Islamists.
Keep in mind there is a very specific Israeli strategy here. Suppose Israel feels compelled to attack Iran in a year or two or three—with Obama still in the White House—will he be locked into keeping his promises?
Now the Israeli prime minister, Netanyahu more likely than not, in his post-attack speech can quote what Obama said about Israel not being able to tolerate a nuclear-armed Iran.
So don’t get me wrong. AIPAC, those attending the conference, and the official Jewish community and organizations are all doing their duty by being nice to Obama and trying to maximize his support or Israel. They did right to applaud as loud as possible. Their job is to seek to make Obama want to keep his promises.
My job is to evaluate Obama’s actual performance.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His book, Israel: An Introduction, has just been published by Yale University Press. Other recent books include The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). The website of the GLORIA Center and of his blog, Rubin Reports. His original articles are published at PJMedia.