The Latest Futility: New President, Same Middle East

Paul Greenberg

5/20/2011 12:11:00 PM - Paul Greenberg

Remember our president's speech in Cairo at the bright onset of his tenure, the speech that was going to change everything? But the Middle East being the Middle East, and Barack Obama being Barack Obama, it changed nothing.

Yet some things can change in that part of the world -- with the speed of wildfire. See events this year from, west to east, Tunisia to Syria. This administration is still trying to catch up with that whirlwind, aka the Arab Spring, and it still sounds way behind.

We've seen this movie before. Recall all the ballyhoo that accompanied the new president's appearance in Cairo on June 4, 2009, which now seems so long ago. That speech was going to be a Breakthrough, a New Departure, a Historic Outreach to that part of the world. Which is how Thursday's presidential address was billed, too. And it's likely to have about as much effect.

If there is a single phrase to sum up this administration's policy in the Middle East, it would be Too Little, Too Late. Way too little and way too late. It's taken this president almost half a year to endorse the Arab Spring in his own, always carefully qualified way. (Only this week did Washington impose travel restrictions on Syria's dictator for his accustomed brutalities.)

It all fits into a disappointing pattern. Our president's first official venture into the shifting sands and ephemeral winds of the Middle East could scarcely be described as a rousing success. That "breakthrough" speech consisted largely of apologies for the West's being the West while he extended an open hand to all the autocracies -- i.e., Islamic countries -- in the region. We can all see how well that worked.

Yet there was much to be learned from the new president's initial appearance in that troubled region even if he didn't learn it. For instance, there was that telling moment, the significance of which may not have been fully recognized at the time, when he almost apologized for introducing what he called a "controversial" subject: democracy and the need for it in Hosni Mubarak's Egypt.

Mr. Obama needn't have hesitated, as it turned out. His university audience broke into applause when he spoke of democracy. But its significance was lost on this stranger in a strange land. Our still new president seemed surprised, even nonplussed at the enthusiastic response to his throwaway line. But then he recovered and went on as if nothing had happened, as if he hadn't just accidentally bumped into the future.

His first venture into Middle Eastern speechmaking and peacemaking having proved a bust, Barack Obama chose a different but all too familiar tack this week. He rolled out all the tried and tested (and failed) cliches of American diplomacy in those sun-drenched latitudes.

In a speech before his Mideast speech Thursday, a trial run earlier in the week, he fell back on every platitude, banality and meaningless generality that has marked presidential speeches about the Middle East for, oh, the past half-century or so. It wasn't a speech so much as a long press release -- indeed, a compilation of the State Department's press releases about the Middle East since time runneth not to the contrary.

Speaking just after his meeting with Jordan's latest King Abdullah, the president's talk consisted largely of one tinker toy phrase joined to the next with such predictable regularity that the official text should have come with hyphens between the familiar, not to say timeworn, words:

"... (I)t-is-more-vital-than-ever-that-both-Israelis-and-Palestinians-find-a-way-to-get-back-to-the-table-and-begin-negotiating-a-process-whereby-they-can-create-two-states-that-are-living-side-by-side-in-peace-and-security. We-will-continue-to ... encourage-an-equitable-and-just-solution-for-a-problem-that-has-been-nagging-the-region-for-many-many years."

You still with me? If you haven't nodded off, please note that the solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict must always be described as "just-and-equitable." Or sometimes "fair-and-equitable." It's against house rules for that elusive solution to be only one or the other.

By now justandequitable must have become just one word in the style book for presidential addresses on the Middle East. Like one of those German compound nouns that rumble past like a line of boxcars. The same construction is also a favorite of Jordanian monarchs, who are inclined to take refuge in talk of the just-and-equitable when things aren't.

A president can be excused for rising above the sordid facts now and then. An American leader, like an American preacher, should make it a point to sound a note of hope. It is part of the Western tradition. Not for us the fatalism of So It Is Written, So It Must Be. Which is why an American president should side with the forces of freedom now sweeping across the Middle East. And point out that peace and freedom go together, even if it may take patience and fortitude to see that they do.

The course of freedom, like true love's, never did run smooth. In any part of the world. But that's no excuse for withdrawing from the struggle. On the contrary, it is another good reason to stay committed to it.

The moral of this story: An only fitful attention to the securing of freedom every couple of years just won't get it.

As for the oldest established permanent floating mirage in the Middle East, at least about the Arab-Israeli conflict, it centers about the idea/illusion of trading land for peace. But after retiring from Lebanon, and watching Hezbollah fill the vacuum, and after leaving Gaza, and watching that ancient pesthole become the base of a separate but equally hateful terrorist outfit, Hamas, the Israelis may finally have seen through this game.

American policymakers still talk of the conflict between Israel and her neighbors as if it were a territorial dispute -- just a matter of drawing new lines on the map, holding a peace conference, and signing on the dotted line, as in any other real estate deal. But it has become clearer and clearer over the years that the key territory much of the Arab side is interested in acquiring is Israel itself.

That last point is only underscored by the inclusion of Hamas, an outfit sworn to Israel's destruction by its charter, in the new leadership of the proto-state of Palestine. Nor is that goal just a matter of words; the words are regularly punctuated by rocket attacks on Israeli cities. Whatever the president says, he's not proposing to negotiate with a group of Jeffersonian democrats here. And the Israelis shouldn't.

Some may call this a territorial dispute, but for Israelis with eyes to see and experience to learn from, it is an existential one. And may always have been. Even that untiring negotiator, George Mitchell, seems to have finally understood the futility of such negotiations; he's just resigned.

It is good for an American president to have his hopes, but they will not be realized if they are founded on a basic misunderstanding of what is at stake in this conflict -- not just Jerusalem or the West Bank or the Golan Heights but Israel's existence. This conflict, it has slowly become clear -- even to those of us naifs who once thought peace was inevitable in the Middle East once direct negotiations began -- has never been about the creation of still another Arab state, but about the elimination of the Jewish one.

So long as an American president will not recognize that elemental, brutal, obdurate truth, and confront it openly, directly and honestly, then one futile presidential speech will follow another. That's the Middle East.