President Obama's interview
with al-Arabiya television is remarkable in several ways, but what strikes
me the most is that it coincided with the first air strikes on Pakistan under
his administration: 22
people were killed, including between four and seven Taliban/al-Qaeda bad guys.
In the Arabiya interview, Obama was at his charming best, and the easily charmed
were bowled over. Andrew Sullivan, for example, fairly swooned,
and announced it's "about the same thing as inviting Rick Warren or supping
with George Will: it's about R-E-S-P-E-C-T."
What would you say if the police came into your neighborhood to confront reported
criminals, killed a few – and also managed to knock off 18 or so bystanders?
Would you say this shows the police respect the neighborhood?
All the sweet talk won't drown out the protests
of the elected president of Afghanistan, who wants us to stop bombing his people
too. Yet, truth be told, Obama's honeyed words are alluring:
"My job is to communicate the fact that the United States has a stake
in the well-being of the Muslim world, that the language we use has to be a
language of respect. I have Muslim members of my family. I have lived in Muslim
"Al-Arabiya: The largest one."
"Obama: The largest one, Indonesia. And so what I want to communicate
is the fact that in all my travels throughout the Muslim world, what I've come
to understand is that regardless of your faith – and America is a country of
Muslims, Jews, Christians, non-believers – regardless of your faith, people
all have certain common hopes and common dreams."
Even as he was speaking, American drones were snuffing
out lives and his generals were planning
a wider war. That seems to be the signature Obama style: cool, calm, and
collected as he talks out of one side of his mouth, while he's giving the
order to kill out of the other. If that doesn't scare you, then you've probably
had a little too much of that sweet-tasting Obama-brand
Yes, these issues are all "interrelated," as the current Washington
buzzword would have it, albeit not in the way Obama imagines. Many Muslims
worldwide watched his interview on the same day – perhaps in the same newscast
– they heard of the Pakistani air strike. It's a short walk, in this instance,
from cognitive dissonance to hypocrisy.
The Arabiya interview had some troubling aspects, an undercurrent of hardness
running through the feel-good rhetoric, the mailed fist beneath the velvet
"Now, Israel is a strong ally of the United States. They will not
stop being a strong ally of the United States. And I will continue to believe
that Israel's security is paramount. But I also believe that there are Israelis
who recognize that it is important to achieve peace. They will be willing to
make sacrifices if the time is appropriate and if there is serious partnership
on the other side."
"Paramount," according to Merriam-Webster's online dictionary, means
to all others." This is what President Obama is telling the peoples
of the region: Israel comes first, over and above the Palestinians, the security
interests of Israel's neighbors, and maybe even above any moral concerns one
might have. (You'll note he didn't condemn Israel's brutality
in Gaza, even though the interviewer gave him ample scope to do so.)
But there's a message in there for us Americans, too: Israel's alleged security
also trumps U.S. interests in the region,
an odd situation that, as Professors John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt pointed
out in their book, The
Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, has distorted and in many ways
poisoned our relations with the Arab world.
Those who criticize our new president on these grounds are bound to be attacked
by the party-liners, as Professor Juan Cole has been – if you can take this
empty razzing seriously -- by the talk-radio lefty Taylor Marsh. Cole's
answer to her is priceless:
"The notion that we should not say something critical of the policy
of a Democratic president because it might give aid and comfort to the right-wing
enemy is completely unacceptable. It is a form of regimentation, and equivalent
to making dissent a sort of treason. We had enough of that the last eight years
(it used to be from different quarters that I was accused of traitorously succoring
"I am an analyst, and a truth-teller. I don't work for anyone except,
in a vague way, the people of Michigan, who took it into their heads to hire
me to tell them about the Middle East, and their charge to me is to call it
as I see it. I serve no interest. I am a member of the Democratic Party, but
I don't accept everything in the party platform, and I am not so partisan that
I cannot admire politicians and principles of other parties, whether the Greens
or (some) Republicans. I didn't agree to join the Communist Party, such that
no dissent is allowed lest it benefit the reactionaries and revanchists."
The occasion for the Obama-ite assault on the respected Professor Cole was
War," a Salon.com piece that questioned the president's announced
plan to launch a major escalation of the Afghan war by extending it into Pakistan.
As Obama begins to implement this vastly ambitious military campaign, a mindless
"you're giving aid and comfort to the 'enemy'" mindset will increasingly
dominate the pro-Obama airwaves – yet on the Internet it's a different
and this is the real playing field on which the future of American politics
is being contested.
Don't let the Iraq "drawdown" – if
and when it occurs – fool you. Those troops, for the most part, will be transferred
to Afghanistan and environs. Bring the troops home? Not a chance.
Aside from signing on to the "war on terrorism" concept, a generational
conflict comparable to the Hundred Years War or both World Wars, Obama has also
inherited the Bush
doctrine, the central canon of which is military preemption of potential
threats. He is now acting on that principle: that's what the Pakistan air
strikes and the Afghan "surge" are all about.
What rationale is there now for continued U.S. military operations in Afghanistan?
Osama bin Laden and his crew have long since vanished into obscurity, and there
is no real evidence he's hiding in the wilds of Waziristan, as is constantly
inferred. U.S. military operations in Pakistan are a blatant violation of international
law, and the potential blowback is frightening to think about. If we destabilize
the government of Pakistan, and radical Islamists take possession of the country's
– I don't even want to think about it. Yet this is a very real danger.
If we are really in for an extended military occupation of Afghanistan, and
even parts of Pakistan, let's hear it from the chief: how long, and at what
cost? I'm very much afraid, however, that, like a president he increasingly
resembles, he's apt to say we must pay any price, bear any burden. How many
will follow him into that abyss?