This is part of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.
President Obama punted last night. The war mongers – especially AIPAC – lost their bid for war. The Assad government lives to see another day. Despite the rhetoric, the President and America’s foreign policy establishment may have decided that Syria’s present dictator is better than the one who would follow.
Sad to say, the suffering masses in Syria are beside the American political point. They are beside the Russian point, too. Big power rivalries still trump ordinary people and their desire to live their lives in stability and peace.
The weakest part of the President’s address last night was his description of the victims of the chemical attack. In a period of mass suffering, it doesn’t make sense to signal out one episode as horrendous simply because of the way people died. The world stands silent as over one hundred thousand Syrians have died and millions have become refugees. Or worse, too much of the world has its hands in that suffering. Count America and Russia among the culprits.
Morality and politics mostly live separate lives. True, the President’s speech last night contained its requisite moralisms but they were eclipsed by his emphasis on Assad’s sins and American exceptionalism. In Obama’s view, America shouldn’t be the world’s policeman. But it’s also the President’s view that America is the only nation that will enforce internationality morality. What other nation has morality as central to its identity and destiny?
Though the President chose the Russian way out, Russia is hardly a moral beacon. True enough. Yet the simple assertion that America’s destiny is to be on the frontlines of world ethical behavior is so ingrained that even a nod to Russia’s last minute gambit is impossible to register in the frame of American exceptionalism. In American exceptionalism language, Russia’s plan is pure politics. Politics is simply a disguise for ambition and power.
Though the next days will see international political wrangling – with American politicians of all stripes weighing in as well – trying to reboot American intervention through Congress will be difficult, if not impossible. Delaying the vote in Congress means that the Obama administration thought they might lose the vote or that the vote would be too close to claim a mandate for missile strikes.
What should Jews of Conscience take away from the President’s decision to opt for international control of Syria’s chemical weapons’ stockpile? AIPAC suffered a major setback last night on several levels. Obviously the Obama administration chose further negotiations rather than the intervention AIPAC was pushing hard for. AIPAC’s loss was a public one, since media outlets, including the New York Times, have featured AIPAC’s insistent lobbying efforts for missile strikes and beyond. AIPAC’s lobbying isn’t often so publicly identified. Its losses are rarely reported. This one is obvious.
The Israeli political establishment admonished AIPAC as well for its bellicose push toward American military intervention in Syria – a policy that outside and around its rhetoric, Israel may not want. This admonishment may also be connected to AIPAC’s bellicose support for and Israel’s ambivalence toward attacking Iran. Isn’t it better to keep Iran perpetually under the gun than risk pulling the trigger with the end result unknown?
Israel is sitting pretty in the Middle East right now. What Israel wants is controlled instability in the region. Controlled instability means dictatorial regimes spend their time and resources disciplining their own people, thus continuing de-development in the Arab world, the ultimate guarantor of Israel’s ascendancy. In the meantime, the Israeli/Palestinian negotiations have stalled. They have been pushed to the back pages of world attention. Israel gets kudos for being at the negotiating table that isn’t really there.
The defeat of AIPAC should be acknowledged but Jews of Conscience can take little solace beyond the moment. The key to unlocking the decline of Jewish history – the suffering Israel continues to cause Palestinians – is no closer to being found. In fact, we are more distant after the President’s address to the nation. American exceptionalism continues to embrace Israel as its ancient and contemporary model. On this issue President Obama will never punt.