Obama at the UN: Rhetoric and Reality

President Obama’s UN speech marked the culmination of perhaps the most counter-productive American foreign policy in memory. A president who came into office with a Palestinian state as one of his top priorities, criticizing his predecessor for not having devoted greater attention to it, was still trying after nearly three years simply to get negotiations started; he had accomplished the unusual feat of alienating both Israelis and Palestinians in the process; he had diminished his own stature and reduced the influence of the United States in the region; and he ended up faced with having to veto a Palestinian state.

They are going to be studying this one at the Fletcher School, Johns Hopkins and other schools of international relations for a long time to come.

In a Middle East Brief, Professor Shai Feldman, director of the Crown Center for Middle East Studies at Brandeis University, catalogs the long list of Obama’s mistakes. He mis-focused his diplomatic efforts on a construction freeze, without getting a Palestinian commitment not to make it a precondition for negotiations. He failed to rally support for his policies from the American Jewish community. He declined to address the Israeli public while repeatedly addressing the Muslim and Arab ones. He set a one-year deadline for negotiations, even though it was “not clear why [he] thought he could achieve within a year what had eluded his predecessors for over four decades.”

But Feldman misses the larger point: all these were unforced errors. In June 2008, Obama had told 7,000 people at AIPAC --  in one of his trademark let-me-be-clear statements -- that “any agreement” had to involve “secure, recognized and defensible borders,” and that Jerusalem “must remain undivided.” Once in office, “defensible borders” disappeared from his vocabulary, and the mere announcement of future Jewish housing in a Jewish neighborhood in the capital of the Jewish state set him off.

He declined to endorse the commitments in the 2004 Bush letter given in exchange for the Gaza disengagement. He decided the U.S. had been too close to Israel and told a delegation of American Jewish leaders that Israel should engage in serious self-reflection. He repeatedly declined to visit Israel, even when his own supporters requested it, and he humiliated Israel’s prime minister multiple times. He eventually endorsed the Palestinian goal of the 1967 lines as the basis of negotiation, and then had to quell the uproar with another AIPAC speech three days later. It is still not clear how the two speeches relate.

In Feldman’s analysis, Obama lacked any real strategy and relied instead on rhetoric:

[B]rilliant speechmaking became a substitute for establishing policy and devising strategy. While masterfully articulating his understanding of Arab-Israeli realities, Obama’s speeches rarely provided or were followed up by an action plan incorporating practical steps that would enable the U.S. to achieve the administration’s stated objectives.

With the exception of two words -- “brilliant” and “masterfully” -- the above analysis is correct. Obama’s strategy was to give speeches, but they were neither brilliant nor masterful. On the contrary, they raised hopes without articulating any means of satisfying them, and were conveyed in a manner that made it clear he believed he was the smartest man in the room.

As one example, consider Obama’s 2010 UN address, and then compare it to his 2011 UN address.

A year ago, Obama sounded like a parent lecturing children about the necessity of eating their peas:

[W]e can come back here next year, as we have for the last 60 years, and make long speeches about [the conflict]. We can read familiar lists of grievances. We can table the same resolutions. We can further empower the forces of rejectionism and hate. And we can waste more time by carrying forward an argument that will not help a single Israeli or Palestinian child achieve a better life. We can do that.

But Obama assured the nations assembled before him that a better future could be claimed simply by claiming it. After telling the nations they could do the same thing they had been doing for 60 years (“We can do that”), he presented this solution: “we can say that this time will be different.” To be specific, he sketched this alliterative alternative:

[T]his time we will not let terror, or turbulence, or posturing, or petty politics stand in the way.