I would like to respond to the more substantive and therefore interesting criticisms of my recent blog, “Obama’s Dilemma.” I meant the term to apply not merely to Obama’s Israeli policies, but more broadly to his overall political dilemma. Several commentators so understood this implicit broader argument, as their criticisms suggested. So I will begin with a response to this broader “dilemma,” and then briefly address the Israeli issue specifically.
I was charged with having fallen victim to “Obamaphilia,” which presumably means that I love him so dearly that I am blind to the alleged fact that he is nothing more than a “cowering politician,” who could have done what we liberals long to see done, if only he had some guts. What I do think is that Obama is highly intelligent, fundamentally liberal, and a man of great personal character-- but that he must seek to govern in a political environment which places severe constraints on his ability to do what should be done. If Obama tried to ignore this environment and its constraints, he would lose decisively. Indeed, in terms of Obama’s overall agenda, the outcome would be worse than if he had continued his cautious, measured, half-a-loaf-is-better-than-none approach.
Another implication of the criticisms of Obama is that he is concerned only about the electoral prospects of the Democrats in the forthcoming congressional elections and, even more so, his chances of being reelected in 2012—as if these concerns, which I’m sure he has, were very narrow if not simply egoistic ones. I must say that I find this notion to be quite odd. The U.S. is the most conservative, rightwing country in the West, and in a number of respects it is rapidly drifting even further to the right. The alternative to Obama and the Democrats is political domination by the Republican party—and this would have the most severe consequences to all of us.
Perhaps I got carried away a bit—but only just a bit—when I characterized the Republican party as “Neanderthal,” or later, “reptilian.” What I actually do believe-- and now I choose my words with care--is that the Republican party today is increasingly dominated by dangerous and ignorant yahoos, and that if they take control of Congress after this fall’s elections, and then the presidency in the 2012 elections, it will be a national or even global disaster. Thus, my concern is not really with Obama, personally, or the Democratic party as such, but rather with the nature of our society, the prospects for rational domestic and foreign policies, and the future of liberalism in this country.
As for Israel, in particular. Several critics suggested a list of things that Obama could do to pressure Israel. That line of argumentation simply ignores my argument: It’s not that I can’t think of things that Obama could do to pressure Israel, but rather that there is no chance that he could take any meaningful actions without congressional support, which he won’t get. Yes, he could take a few symbolic actions and issue a few verbal slaps on the wrist to Israel, but that will (a) fail to change Israel’s policies, and (b) result in a backlash in Congress, even among Democrats.
In short ,the strongest action Obama could take--making all US aid conditional—has no chance of being implemented, and the weakest actions have no chance of being effective. Moreover, I argued, even in the purely hypothetical case in which the U.S simply cuts Israel loose, that would still be unlikely to bring about a change in Israeli policies. Indeed, it would be more likely to lead to an hysterical and defiant Israeli reaction which will drive that country even further to the right. Of course, it is possible that this argument is wrong. However, it must be addressed, not simply ignored.
In the real world—outside the blogosphere, that is—consequences matter. Visceral anger at Obama’s retreat on Israel is understandable—indeed, that is often my own initial reaction. But then I remember the wisdom of Peter Viereck, the great American poet,historian, and intellectual: “Reality is that which, when you don’t believe in it, doesn’t go away."