Commentary Magazine


The Age of Obama May Look Rather Familiar

With Israel’s retaliation in Gaza we once again undertake the effort to discern who it was we elected in November(dove? hawk? realist?) and what he intends to do that is so revolutionary, so transformational in American foreign policy. The New York Times is a bit puzzled:

Mr. Obama’s election has raised expectations, among allies and enemies alike, that new American policies are forthcoming, putting more pressure on him to signal more quickly what he intends to do. In the case of Israel and the Palestinians, Mr. Obama has not suggested he has any better ideas than President Bush had to resolve the existential conflict between the Israelis and Hamas, the Palestinian group that controls Gaza.
.   .   .
For Mr. Obama, the conundrum is particularly intense since he won election in part on promises of restoring America’s image around the world. He will assume office with high expectations, particularly among Muslims around the world, that he will make an effort at dealing with the Arab-Israeli conflict.

President-elect Obama remains silent, to an even greater degree than he did in the wake of the Mumbai massacre. Then he could manage to express shock and horror, and even condemn the terrorists’ ideology. But when it comes to Israel he’s playing his cards close to the vest. And it is really not hard to figure out why:

Early on as a candidate, Mr. Obama suggested that he did not necessarily oppose negotiations with groups like Hamas, though he spent much of the campaign retreating from that position under fire from critics.

By the time he arrived in Israel in July, he suggested he would not even consider talks without a fundamental shift in Hamas and its behavior, effectively moving his policy much closer to President Bush’s. “In terms of negotiations with Hamas, it is very hard to negotiate with a group that is not representative of a nation-state, does not recognize your right to exist, has consistently used terror as a weapon, and is deeply influenced by other countries,” he said then.

Mr. Obama received an intelligence briefing on Sunday and planned to talk late on Sunday to his nominee for secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, and his choice as national security adviser, James L. Jones, according to a spokeswoman, Brooke Anderson.

One option would be for an Obama administration to respond much more harshly to Israel’s policies, from settlements to strikes like those this weekend, as many in the Arab world and beyond have long urged. On Sunday, though, Mr. Axelrod said the president-elect stood by the remarks he made in the summer and, when asked, noted the “special relationship” between the United States and Israel.

Otherwise, Mr. Obama could try to pressure surrogates to lean on Hamas, including Egypt, which shares a border with Gaza. He can try to build international pressure on Hamas to stop the rocket attacks into Israel. He can try to nurture a peace between Israel and Mr. Abbas on the West Bank, hoping that somehow it spreads to Hamas. All have been tried, and all have failed to avoid new fighting.

As with so many aspects of the Bush administration’s foreign policy agenda, it was far easier for candidate Obama, playing to the netroot crowd, to chastise Bush’s inability to solve the world’s problems and to vilify America’s conduct than it is for President-elect Obama to figure out what he might do differently.

In the case of the “Middle East peace process,” the Gaza counterattack underlines the obvious and central dilemma for even the most earnest diplomats: there isn’t a viable Palestinian peace partner for Israel to deal with. That’s not President Bush’s “fault” (goodness knows he expended enough energy simply to confirm that unpleasant fact). That’s the reality that President Bush faced and that President Obama will need to cope with as well.

Another reality: so long as Hamas is bent on Israel’s destruction, Israel will do what it deems necessary to defend itself, and most of the rest of the world will recoil in horror at the notion that Israel must kill those threatening its population. And if President Obama, like President Bush, is forced to veto UN resolutions seeking to condemn Israel for exercising its right of self-defense, will Obama also be “acting unilaterally” and “making enemies” around the world? International popularity is an elusive thing, it seems.

All of this may be troubling and deeply disappointing to those who were banking on the dawning of a new age in international relations. For some who were convinced that Obama was a unique figure able to bring us all together, it might seem unnerving to find out that it’s not so easy. Mumbai terrorists and Hamas seem unaware of the Age of Obama.

It remains to be seen once the protective cocoon of the transition period is lifted just how forceful President Obama will be in prosecuting the war on terror and in defending Israel’s right of self-defense. But he and his dreamy supporters may find that the Bush administration wasn’t the source of the world’s problems. And more importantly, the dramatic departures which some envisioned (e.g. immediate withdrawl of U.S. forces from Iraq, a Israeli-Palestinian breakthrough, closing of Guantanamo) aren’t remotely possible any time soon.

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