President Obama delivered a speech on the Middle East at the State Department today. If one takes it seriously, it signified–with one key exception–Obama’s transformation into a virtual clone of his predecessor. President Bush’s democracy agenda, which Obama once scornfully rejected, has now been adopted as Obama’s own:
The status quo is not sustainable. Societies held together by fear and repression may offer the illusion of stability for a time, but they are built upon fault lines that will eventually tear asunder. …
The United States supports a set of universal rights. And these rights include free speech, the freedom of peaceful assembly, the freedom of religion, equality for men and women under the rule of law, and the right to choose your own leaders — whether you live in Baghdad or Damascus, Sanaa or Tehran.
And we support political and economic reform in the Middle East and North Africa that can meet the legitimate aspirations of ordinary people throughout the region. …
it will be the policy of the United States to promote reform across the region, and to support transitions to democracy.
So Obama finds himself announcing principles that are indistinguishable from those advanced by President Bush in 2003. Obama even credited Iraq as an exemplar of Middle Eastern democracy:
[O]ne of the broader lessons to be drawn from this period is that sectarian divides need not lead to conflict. In Iraq, we see the promise of a multiethnic, multisectarian democracy. The Iraqi people have rejected the perils of political violence in favor of a democratic process, even as they’ve taken full responsibility for their own security. Of course, like all new democracies, they will face setbacks. But Iraq is poised to play a key role in the region if it continues its peaceful progress. And as they do, we will be proud to stand with them as a steadfast partner.
It is characteristic of Obama’s unique gracelessness that he began a speech in which he adopted (belatedly) the core of President Bush’s Middle Eastern policy by disparaging his predecessor:
Now, already, we’ve done much to shift our foreign policy following a decade defined by two costly conflicts. After years of war in Iraq, we’ve removed 100,000 American troops and ended our combat mission there. In Afghanistan, we’ve broken the Taliban’s momentum, and this July we will begin to bring our troops home and continue a transition to Afghan lead. And after years of war against al Qaeda and its affiliates, we have dealt al Qaeda a huge blow by killing its leader, Osama bin Laden.
In fact, Obama has wound down our successful effort in Iraq on the timetable that had already been agreed to by the Bush administration, and he stepped up our involvement in Afghanistan.
But it is the last section of Obama’s speech that is drawing the most attention. He called on Israel to accept withdrawal to its 1967 borders as a precursor to “peace” negotiations with the Palestinian Authority and Hamas:
The fact is, a growing number of Palestinians live west of the Jordan River. Technology will make it harder for Israel to defend itself.
I’m not sure how this is an argument for Israeli withdrawal.
The United States believes that negotiations should result in two states, with permanent Palestinian borders with Israel, Jordan, and Egypt, and permanent Israeli borders with Palestine. We believe the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states. …
These principles provide a foundation for negotiations. Palestinians should know the territorial outlines of their state; Israelis should know that their basic security concerns will be met.
Under Obama’s formula, the Palestinians would begin negotiations “knowing” that their territory will include, among other things, the entire Temple Mount, including the Western Wall. Obama can’t seriously believe that Israel would accept this as a starting point (or ending point) of negotiations.
It gets worse from there:
I’m aware that these steps alone will not resolve the conflict, because two wrenching and emotional issues will remain: the future of Jerusalem, and the fate of Palestinian refugees.
But moving forward now on the basis of territory and security provides a foundation to resolve those two issues in a way that is just and fair, and that respects the rights and aspirations of both Israelis and Palestinians.
So in Obama’s view, the “right of return” is on the table, and it is incumbent on Israel to make further concessions, on top of acceptance of the 1967 borders–correctly labeled “indefensible” by Prime Minister Netanyahu–if it wishes to continue to exist.
Others will have more profound observations on Obama’s seemingly gratuitous change in America’s policy toward Israel. For the moment, let me just note this: as with Obamacare and a number of other issues, Obama evidently is acting from conviction, not political calculation. The Mearsheimer/Walt hypothesis, widely accepted on the Left, is that the Israeli lobby exerts a sinister influence on American foreign policy. The truth, however, is that the American people overwhelmingly side with Israel, for reasons that do not need to be explained to our readers. It is shared conviction and culture, not lobbying, that accounts for America’s traditionally pro-Israel policy.
Obama will not gain politically by sabotaging Israel; on the contrary. He must know that his re-election is in grave jeopardy, and going out of his way to put his administration at odds with Israel will hurt, not help, his chances. So one can only conclude that Obama is genuinely, as a matter of philosophical conviction, anti-Israel.