Now, in response to Egyptian events, Abbas has dismissed his cabinet and called for new elections with no guarantee that fresh leadership would honor any pledges by their Palestinian predecessors. Hamas (which won a landslide victory in the only open elections in Palestinian history) angrily rejects any public or private commitments made by Abbas or even his sainted mentor, Yasser Arafat.
Americans, already exhausted by a sputtering economy and looming fiscal crisis, want to share the administration’s optimistic outlook on the Egyptian future so they can quickly forget about the Cairo commotion and concentrate on important issues closer to home – like Lady Gaga’s controversial new single and spring training for major league baseball. Nevertheless, the president’s eagerness to identify the fall of Mubarak as a sublime triumph for passive resistance, and his specific invocations of the achievements of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, introduced a false, tinny, even slightly cracked note to his otherwise eloquent remarks. “It was the moral force of non-violence – not terrorism, not mindless killing – but non-violence, moral force that bent the arch of history toward justice once more,” the president sonorously intoned. Unfortunately, he lavishly exaggerated the potency of peaceful Gandhian resistance as a matter of historical record. Only relatively civilized governments, capable of embarrassment and connected to the democratic West, yield to non-violence, as did the British Raj in India, or the die-hard segregationists of the American South. Elsewhere – in Budapest during the Hungarian uprising of ’56, or Czechoslovakia after the “Prague Spring” in ’68, or Beijing during the Tiananmen Square protests of ‘89, or Teheran with the massive “Green Revolution” outpouring of 2009 – ruthless anti-Western regimes wielded brutal force to crush resistance. There’s also the salient example of Syria’s notorious Hama Massacres of 1982—where the no-nonsense Assad regime slaughtered at least 17,000 of its own citizens (estimates go as high as 40,000) for their unspeakable rudeness in resisting the dictatorship.
Reviewing the wreckage of the administration’s mania for Middle East negotiations, it’s difficult not to see a parallel with its most questionable judgment in domestic affairs. While the public worried over unemployment and the general state of the economy, Obama and his allies focused with ferocity on the long-term and hardly urgent issue of sweeping health care reform. Similarly, while our most significant Arab ally with a population of more than 80 million teetered toward collapse, the administration concentrated attention and resources on impossible, visionary deals between Israelis and Palestinians whose combined population registers as barely one-eighth as large.
One of the most important responsibilities of statesmanship involves concentrating attention on the most urgent threats and pressing issues of the day, while postponing or disregarding all distractions. President Obama has displayed an unfortunate counter-tendency to obsess on the distractions, while putting off or altogether ignoring the most significant challenges – a menacing habit for the Middle East and for America itself.