More than any other American president, Barack Obama seemed to be thinking about his legacy from the moment he took office, viewing himself as a transformative and iconic world figure. He received international accolades before he even began. His desire to humble America before the Muslim world in Cairo, his discomfort with American exceptionalism, his eagerness to apologize for America’s historical transgressions were rewarded with a Noble Peace Prize.
Last week the president, continuing his legacy quest, spoke to his go-to journalist Jeffery Goldberg, who then wrote an article in The Atlantic entitled, “The Obama Doctrine: an Exclusive Report on the US President’s Hardest Foreign Policy Decisions.” The president’s disappointment with Israel featured prominently.
Goldberg reported that former US defense secretary Leon Panetta said President Obama “questioned why the U.S. should maintain Israel’s so-called qualitative military edge, which grants it access to more sophisticated weapons systems than America’s Arab allies receive. And he decided early on that he wanted to reach out to America’s most ardent Middle Eastern foe, Iran. He has bet global security and his own legacy that the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism will adhere to an agreement to curtail its nuclear program.”
None of this was a surprise to anyone who was paying attention.
In 2009, the president reached out to the Arab world claiming Israel was created as the world’s reparation for the Holocaust, while undermining the actual Zionist historical narrative, to promote his rapprochement with the Muslim world. At the time I wrote and told anyone in Congress who would listen that the president looks at Israel as a foreign policy liability, not the strategically indispensable ally all previous presidents, save for Jimmy Carter, had valued.
I received an incredulous response. It was America 2009, and the people were in a “Hope and Change” mentality, war weary, with the nation looking for a new direction.
The president, according to the Atlantic article, tried to revise his own historical narrative, claiming that in his infamous Cairo speech he said, “Let’s all stop pretending that the cause of the Middle East’s problems is Israel.” This turns reality on its head, and former ambassador Michael Oren couldn’t just let the remark go unchallenged, so he stated last week that the president never said any such thing.
Oren told The Algemeiner, “President Barack Obama’s recent claim about the real meaning of his 2009 Cairo speech is patently unsubstantiated by the text...
[which] nowhere mentions that the Israeli-Palestinian issue is not the core of the Middle East’s other conflicts.” On the contrary, Oren emphasized, “It actually implied the opposite.”
When the president and many of his ideological allies, harsh critics of Israel, said that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the principal source of Muslim frustration, myself and many others said this was far from the truth.
What does the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have to do with the centuries-old Sunni-Shi’ite hatred, today’s Syrian genocide, Hezbollah’s control of Lebanon, Houthi ascendancy in Yemen, Iran’s quest for hegemony over Iraq, Afghanistan and Bahrain, the barbarism of Islamic State (ISIS) or the disintegration of Libya? What does Israel have to do with the rise of the most dangerous worldwide Islamist movement, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, or misogyny in the Muslim world, human trafficking and repression in Saudi Arabia or human rights abuses and major involvement in terrorist atrocities around the world by Iran.
The administration’s “creating daylight” approach lead to a moral equivalence narrative between the Israelis and Palestinians in 2009, as the president wanted to become the “honest broker” not taking sides in the dispute. He therefore choose to ignore the fact of Palestinian outright rejection of prime minister Ehud Olmert’s 2008 proposal. Israel as the weaker party fighting defensive wars, the one suing for peace even though it kept winning, did not fit in with the Jarrett, Rice, and Obama doctrine that Israel is the occupying Western colonialist power, depriving the Palestinians of their natural rights.
The rhetorical support for Israel belied the calculated actions of the administration to embarrass and create “daylight” between the two long-term allies. None more so than provocation to change the status quo on areas like Gilo, the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, and French Hill which became the equivalent of international war crimes. The European/UN politicized version of international law to delegitimize Israel’s rights became the American position under President Obama. A constitutional lawyer should know that international law in this region is gray, not black or white, as the West Bank is most accurately described as an occupation of disputed territory acquired in a defensive war. That fact is indispensable for the possibility of an eventual lasting peace treaty, even if Israel chooses to return 99% of the territory.
Unfortunately this does not fit with the true Obama doctrine, which sees Israel as the persecuting Goliath. To Susan Rice, Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes, J Street president Jeremy Ben-Ami and the president, it is all about the “illegal” settlements. Defensible borders are irrelevant to this crowd. Rockets won’t be landing on their children’s schools.
Looking at the domestic and international struggles within the Islamic world, it is apparent that Israel plays the scapegoat role, deflecting attention from their leaders’ shortcomings and enmities.
It must be pointed out that in the case of the leadership of Iran, Israel is not just a scapegoat. These ayatollahs may actually believe that an Armageddon and the eradication of the Jews pave the way to salvation.
Not tying the concessions of the nuclear deal to human rights, missile tests, or support of terrorists in Syria and beyond has made a laughing-stock of America and undermined American interests for years to come. I don’t envy the next president’s predicament, but it is even worse for Israel, as the president has empowered a nation that truly wants to eliminate it and has the patience to wait for its opportunity in eight or 15 years when the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) legally allows Iran to amass unrestricted amounts of nuclear fuel for a doomsday weapon. Just last week the Iranians unveiled a missile capable of reaching Tel Aviv, with the words, “Israel Must Be Wiped Off the Earth” written on it in both Farsi and Hebrew.
The Obama doctrine is about the president’s abandonment of the Syrian people, not even trying to slow the Syrian genocide by creating no-fly and safe zones. It reminds me of Edmund Burke’s saying, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
The president’s promises to Israel leading up to and after the signing of the JCPOA to make up for the Iranian sanctions relief have also evaporated. The MOU (Memorandum of Understanding) for future American assistance was supposed to compensate for Israel’s new vulnerability, with Iran on the Golan, rich with billions in sanctions relief money, to support conventional weapons and missiles to Hezbollah and Hamas.
Now the administration that all along knew it was never going to substantially increase aid to Israel is trying to force Israel to accept an MOU (Memorandum of Understanding) which ignores the new and more dangerous reality the president created by signing the JCPOA.
Israel’s situation is now even more unstable with the mullahs flush with cash, destabilizing Syria, Jordan and Lebanon, while strengthening Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad and Hamas with its newfound wealth.
The president’s own hand writes his legacy and the Obama doctrine on foreign affairs. To his credit, during the past seven years he has gone beyond the previous MOU, adding additional funding for the Iron Dome. Yet the Iran deal, and his reinterpretation of international law as removing Israeli rights to any land over the Green Line will make Israel more isolated than ever before, aiding the growing boycott movement.
The Obama doctrine will make Israel appear to be a thief trying to retain stolen territory in any future negotiation.
For seven years the administration has promoted a moral equivalence between Israeli legitimate self-defense and Palestinian terrorism, which has left Israel in a much more precarious position than in 2009 when the Obama doctrine began.
No amount of rhetorical or historical revisionism can change that.
The legacy of the Obama doctrine on foreign policy will be one of vacuums created, and allies abandoned.
The author is the director of MEPIN™ and is a regular contributor to The Jerusalem Post. MEPIN™ (mepinanalysis.org) is read by members of Congress, their foreign policy advisers, members of the Knesset, and journalists. He regularly briefs Congress on issues related to the Middle East.