Mitchell Plitnick has a post up on the Obama administration’s veto of the UN Security Council resolution against Israeli settlements, saying, “[This] is a case where it was indeed all about the Lobby.” David Bromwich echoes the point in a fine post at TomDispatch on Obama and Egypt. Below is an excerpt dealing with Obama’s character and the Israel lobby. It is followed by a postscript that Bromwich sent me, commenting on Libya and Obama’s character:
The need to give assurance seems to be an inseparable trait of Obama’s character. He deals with big decisions by first moving to cement a secure alliance with the powers-that-be, no matter how discredited they are, no matter how resounding his previous contempt for them may have been. Yet this is a reflex that often prematurely cedes control to the powerful over whom he might otherwise be in a position to exert leverage. That fight, however, is not for him.
To say it another way, Obama visibly hates crisis. He is so averse to the very idea of instability that he seems unable to use a crisis to his advantage. Seldom, to judge by the evidence thus far, is he the first, second, or third person in the room to recognize that a state of crisis exists. The hesitation that looked like apathy and the hyper-managerial tone of his response to the BP oil spill offered a vivid illustration of this trait. Egypt brought out the same pattern….
If American officials looking at Egypt felt themselves “cabined, cribbed, confined,” anyone who knew the history of our Middle East policy could see the immediate cause. There was also a mediate cause, so ubiquitous as to be easily forgotten. This was, of course, Israel and the constant presence of Israel in American politics. In the last three months alone, Sarah Palin made public plans for a trip to Israel, and the Christian Zionist Mike Huckabee said that the U.S. ought to “encourage the Israelis to build as much as they can and as rapidly as they can” on the West Bank and in East Jerusalem.
Nor has Barack Obama been indifferent to such pressures. In earlier years, he expressed unmistakable sympathy for the cause of Palestinian independence; but the story changed in 2008, as he entered the last leg of the race for president. In a speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), in June of that year, Obama made an astonishing pledge with religious overtones: the American commitment to Israeli security was, he said, “sacrosanct.” On his way to the White House, Obama purged his advisorate of figures like Robert Malley and Zbigniew Brzezinski who were deemed unsuitable by the Israel lobby.
Then, in June 2009, he made his celebrated Cairo speech, with its message of hope and sympathy for the progress of a liberal Muslim society. There at Cairo University, Obama called for a halt both to Palestinian terror and the Israeli occupation. Soon after, Hillary Clinton reiterated the demand that Israel enforce a complete stop to the building of settlements, with no exceptions for “outposts” or “natural growth.”
Benjamin Netanyahu simply defied these grave utterances; and he soon found he could do so with impunity. By the end of that summer, Obama had been persuaded to let pass in quiet disapproval anything Israel chose to do. The mid-term elections were now drawing close; and Obama apparently judged it expedient to have his Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and family photographed on a visit to the Golan Heights.
Yet the ascent of the administration to that perfection of embarrassment was gradual and its stages deserve to be remembered. When, in March 2010, Vice President Joe Biden paid a visit to Israel (saying “It’s good to be home”), he was greeted by an announcement from the interior ministry that it had approved the construction of 1,600 new building units for Jews in East Jerusalem: a calculated insult to President Obama. This led Biden to issue a public rebuke of Netanyahu, and Hillary Clinton to restate the administration’s anti-settlement policy. A request by Netanyahu to visit the White House was subsequently refused.
Netanyahu, however, realized that such embarrassment would eventually work to his advantage. By the end of May, thoughts of the mid-term election were coming to the fore in Washington. Without Israeli policy having changed in any way, the Obama administration began to warm up. The election-sensitive nature of this thaw was borne out by the revelation, in January 2011, that the White House had been dealing with Ehud Barak in preference to Netanyahu; that it had been charmed by his competence, seduced by his promises, and was now “furious” at his non-performance in the peace process.
So the pattern has been: a step toward pressure on Israel, followed by a step back into the arms of the Israel lobby — the second step coinciding with an upcoming election cycle. The 2012 election and its financing are already much on Obama’s mind. Unhappily for him, Turkey, Brazil, and other countries sympathetic to the Palestinian cause chose this moment to put forward a U.N. resolution condemning the Israeli occupation of conquered lands and designating Israel’s settlements there “illegal.”
Again, there was an embarrassed phone call from Obama, this time to Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority. Could the PA put off the vote? Or, if there had to be a U.N. statement, did it have to commit the U.S. to a legally binding resolution? But Abbas himself had lost confidence in Obama and his own reputation had recently been badly tarnished by WikiLeaks revelations of the PA’s capitulation to past American requests. The settlements were in any case in violation of international law, specifically article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention which states: “The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.” Abbas accordingly rebuffed Obama’s entreaty for a milder resolution and the American president suffered the embarrassment of issuing his first veto in the U.N. in utter defiance of the hopes expressed so eloquently in his Cairo speech.
But the interlude was not over. For Obama could not bear to stand as the sole obstacle (alongside Israel) to a unanimous vote in favor of the resolution without making it clear that he did so with a bad conscience. The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, offered the explanation in public in a speech that managed to concede almost every particular the resolution had specified: “Continued settlement activity violates Israel’s international commitments, devastates trust between the parties, and threatens the prospects for peace.”
If there is any precedent for such an “Explanation of Vote,” the precedents must be few. The only difference between Obama’s position and the U.N. resolution was that the resolution would have backed such words by enforceable action. “Set honor in one eye,” says Brutus in Julius Caesar, “and death i’ th’other, and I will look on both indifferently.” The embarrassment of the U.N. vote was that Obama set justice in one eye, and a presidential campaign in the other, and the world was in a position to see which way he turned.
Postscript from Bromwich filling in on Obama’s stance re Libya:
I’m not an interventionist on Libya, and don’t think what Obama actually did on Egypt was very wrong; though he could have made contact with e.g. ElBaradei, and spoken more pointedly against the state-hired thugs in Tahrir Square. The situation of any American president makes it hard to detach this country from the autocrats without plenty of time and “preparations”.
His problem is in his posture. Master of ceremonies of the long arc of justice as it performs its work in the world. A sort of Olympic judge in the political realm; he awards high or low marks from day to day. And he loves to say things that promise action, yet is shy of acting (unless accompanied, flanked, hedged, insured, down to five layers of the collectivization of possible blame). It is this that makes him issue lofty pronouncements such as that X or Y “must leave” or that a revolutionary “process” must “begin now.”
He is a skeptic of the American empire who has inherited the imperial policies. His strategy should be: to encourage democratic reforms, broadly, in spite of their disadvantage to imperial arrangements, but be as unspecific as possible. He is president of the United States, not president of the world. He ought to SPEAK FOR democracy everywhere but EXEMPLIFY HIS BELIEF at home. The reticence on Wisconsin combined with volubility on Egypt is the real scandal. Democracy begins at home. But his pattern has been: meaningless assertions about matters abroad, and meaningful silence at home. A terrible combination. (2012 explains some but far from all of this.)