Saturday, January 29, 2011


This past Tuesday night, I was participating in a panel at Washington’s Jewish theatre, Theatre J, talking about a play we had witnessed concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. All three Abrahamic faiths were represented on the panel, which was composed mainly of members of Yes We Can – Middle East Peace (, my favorite peace group. But what we have in common is far more than our religious heritage: we all viscerally care about working for a just and secure peace in the Middle East. And I don’t doubt that as a result of the play we witnessed and the talk-back session of which we were a part, members of the Jewish and Arab communities began to understand each other’s narratives just a little bit better. Facilitating such understanding, one Jew and Arab at a time, is the key to reconciliation.

Barack Obama is a man of peace. You can tell that from listening to him speak. He is calm, rational, deliberate, thoughtful, friendly, and, like all other Presidents, he’s had to develop a thick skin. If that’s not a formula for a peace-loving person, I don’t know what is. On Tuesday night, while we were talking about peace at Theatre J, Barack had an opportunity to do the same in his own State of the Union. He had an opportunity to address our nation’s commitment to ushering in an era of justice and peace throughout the world, and especially in the Middle East, an area which seems to spawn so much violence and hatred.

Suffice it to say, the President whiffed. He said precious little about the outside world, other than the obligatory boasting about how splendidly our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are going. Indeed, if this speech could have a title, it would be “It’s the Economy, Stupid.”

Well, in a sense it is the economy, though not just the economy our President had in mind. Last month, it was the Tunisian economy. This month, it’s the Egyptian economy. For whenever an oppressed people realizes that its economic well being isn’t adequate, that’s usually when it starts reflecting on other things, such as the extent to which it enjoys basic liberties. In that regard, the “Arab Street,” as technocrats like to call the hoi polloi in most Middle Eastern nations, is coming to grips with the fact that it has not exactly created Jeffersonian Democracies. And do you know what? These folks are none too happy about that. As someone who always carries around two $2 bills in my wallet, I can’t say I blame them.

Barack is not blind to foreign affairs. In fact, it is still my view that when he came to the Presidency, he actually understood those matters infinitely better than he understood economics. That is probably why he has devoted virtually all of his energies to the latter; it was as if he realized he needed to go back to school and major in economics in order to be a well-rounded fellow -- I mean, leader of the free world. The problem is that Barack tried once to truly lead in matters of foreign policy, and in that regard he fell flat on his face. Ironically, in light of what is going on right now, the place he chose to exert his leadership was the great city of Cairo, and the topic on which he chose to stake his claim as an international leader was the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Talk about swinging and missing.

Truth be told, the President had the right idea in Cairo, though I’m not sure why he chose Cairo as opposed to Jerusalem to give that speech. He devoted equal time to both the Palestinian and the Israeli causes. Unfortunately, someone mistakenly gave Barack the idea that it made sense to demand that Israel make a very important concrete concession (freezing settlement construction) and not to make any analogous demand of the Palestinians. As a result, he pissed off Israel, its Government thumbed its nose at him, he realized there was nothing he could do to change their policy and backed off his demands, and now he has unified both Arabs and Israelis in thinking of him as irrelevant.

Is it surprising that during the State of the Union address, despite the fact that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been all over the news lately, Barack didn’t say a single world about it? He spoke for an hour, but on what was supposed to be the crown foreign policy jewel of his Administration, he couldn’t even muster an “Oy Vey.”

Where’s the leadership we know he’s capable of?

As for Egypt, on the 25th of January, the day of Barack’s speech, Cairo was flooded with demonstrators who had had just about enough of the Mubarak Government’s repressive policies. Again, Barack was silent on the matter, as he has been throughout his Administration. Notably, though, he did have something to say about the spark that lit the Egyptian torch: “And we saw that same desire to be free in Tunisia, where the will of the people proved more powerful than the writ of a dictator. And tonight, let us be clear: The United States of America stands with the people of Tunisia, and supports the democratic aspirations of all people.”

There you have it, the sum and substance of what Barack had to say about the Democracy movement in the Middle East.. We stand with the people of Tunisia! We stand with all who demonstrate for democracy and against tyranny! No matter that Tunisia’s dictator had already stepped down more than a week before the speech, and that Egypt’s dictator is still very much in power and refusing to give it up. God forbid we would take a stand against Mubarek and send a message of solidarity with the Jeffersonians in the streets. (We sure didn’t do much of that when Iran was having its demonstrations.) Better to just wait and kick around the guy in Tunisia – the one who is already kicked out.

Where’s the leadership we know he’s capable of?

Mr. President, I realize that you spent December and January reading the polls and listening to the pundits. And I know how many talking heads have been falling all over themselves praising you for your successful Triangulation strategy – with you playing the role of honest broker, you’ve seen one domestic policy bill after another passed by Congress. But as much as you might like this nation to go back into our shell and obsess exclusively about its tax rates and infrastructural investments, knotty events abroad have a tendency of rearing their ugly heads. And occasionally, just occasionally, when those events occur, Presidents are called upon to do something other than splitting the difference between Democratic and Republican orthodoxy. It’s called showing leadership.

In printing those words, I have to laugh, because when I think about the foreign policy actions most often associated with Barack to date, I think about his war policy, and especially the way he’s dealt with Afghanistan. The Democrats wanted out. And the Republicans wanted a surge. So what did he give us? A surge, combined with a promise to leave within a couple of years. So even when it comes to the issue of war, Barack’s instinct was to split the baby. It always seems to be his instinct. Triangulate for Breakfast. Triangulate for Lunch. Triangulate for Dinner.

Given our own nation’s growing allergies to polarization and partisanship, Triangulation should probably work pretty well as a domestic political strategy. But overseas, I don’t foresee the same appeal. For years, America was looked to for leadership, especially in the Middle East. This, after all, is a country where Jews, Christians and Muslims come together into a vast melting pot, a nation founded on a respect for religious values exceeded only by its respect for religious freedom. If such a country can’t stand proudly for Democracy and Justice, what can? But Bush got our manhood stuck in our zipper in Baghdad and Kabul, and Barack made his fateful boo-boo two years ago in Cairo. So at this point, I’m not sure who is looking for leadership from us. At this point, we’ll have to earn some of that credibility back.

Barack is perfectly capable of doing just that. He is a great orator. He is a true believer in Democracy. And he is a natural mediator. The man is brilliant, charismatic, and just plain likeable. But what he’s not, at least not yet, is a politician who is willing to sail out into the wild blue yonder on behalf of a vision. Reagan did that, and lo and behold, the Iron Curtain came down. Barack, by contrast, would rather devote all his time to acting domestically, thinking small, and getting re-elected.

Call it a Presidency on cruise control. The President on whom I placed such tremendous hopes doesn’t even seem to be breaking a sweat these days. Triangulation is the easy way out. Or if you prefer a different metaphor, call it playing the prevent-defense shortly after half-time. Barack might think he has a big enough lead, and judging from the Seven Republican Dwarfs who are aiming to take him on next year, he may indeed be playing a bad enough team to justify that strategy. But I’m not so much thinking about Barack the candidate, I’m thinking about Barack the Leader of the Free World. When it comes to the latter, the Gallup Poll won’t help and neither will the pundits.

Leadership isn’t something one simply calculates by splitting the difference. It requires a vision, and it requires courage. In fact, when you style yourself a progressive and a leader, you had better figure out a way to appeal to the aspirations of the masses. Right now, Barack might be appealing to the aspirations of David Brooks and the other chattering moderates in the New York Times and Washington Post. But his gig isn’t working in Cairo, and it’s doing little better in Tel Aviv or Hebron. Let’s pray that changes soon. Before the events spin out of control in Egypt and Yemen, and before we lose another opportunity to make peace in Israel/Palestine, the world needs some meaningful input from the land of Jefferson. That’s a hell of a lot more important right now than the Obama re-election campaign.

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