In November 2009, German chancellor Angela Merkel invited US President Barack Obama, still in his first year in office, to attend the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The annual commemoration recalls for Europeans the final defeat of the bloody ideological excesses of the 20th century, an overcoming of a terrible history – more than anything else, by dint of American power and idealism. It is hard to think of a more pro-American political narrative than the one experienced and remembered by so many millions of Europeans on that day.
The leaders of Europe were all in attendance, from the prime minister of Britain to the presidents of France and Russia. Obama, however, was not.
The president was busy, the White House said, citing “commitments for an upcoming Asia trip.”
The Europeans were shocked. “Barack is too busy,” read the acerbic headline in Der Spiegel.
The event didn’t really clash with his schedule, but rather with his foreign policy sensibilities. Obama would travel to Copenhagen a month before the event to lobby the International Olympic Committee to grant the 2016 summer games to his hometown of Chicago, and would return to Europe a month after the commemoration to accept the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo. His travel itinerary as president signaled something about his vision of the world, and of America’s and his administration’s place in it. The commemoration of America’s rescue of Europe did not rank high in that vision.
It was similarly telling that Obama’s first trip to the Middle East, in April 2009, was to Turkey. “Turkey’s democracy is your own achievement. It was not forced upon you by any outside power,” he told the Turkish parliament in an obvious rebuke of his predecessor in the White House.
His own life experience, he told the lawmakers, informed his decision to go to Istanbul. “The United States has been enriched by Muslim-Americans,” he said. “Many other Americans have Muslims in their family, or have lived in a Muslim-majority country. I know, because I am one of them.”
His second Middle East trip brought him on June 4, 2009, to Cairo, where he delivered his famous speech to the world’s Muslims, a speech that acknowledged that America had too often been part of the problem in the Muslim world rather than part of the solution.
In trip after trip, something important about Obama’s priorities and sensibilities was becoming clear. And for Israelis, as for the Germans before them, it was hard not to notice that Obama’s travel plans, and with them his policy priorities, seemed to skip them over.
At a recent gathering of the Israel Council on Foreign Relations, the eminent former director general of the Foreign Ministry, Prof. Shlomo Avineri, called Obama’s foreign policy “provincial.” It was a strange choice of words to describe the policies of a president with such a cosmopolitan outlook and so much eagerness to engage the world.
But Avineri had a point.
Obama’s remarkable memoir, “Dreams from My Father,” includes a powerful account of how his experiences as a young, keenly observant social organizer in South Chicago instilled in him the sensibility that would come to define his presidency.
In the book, he describes his reaction upon hearing the children of a poor Chicago neighborhood divided into “good kids and bad kids – the distinction didn’t compute in my head.” If a particular child “ended up in a gang or in jail, would that prove his essence somehow, a wayward gene…or just the consequences of a malnourished world?”
“In every society, young men are going to have violent tendencies,” an educator in one majority-black Chicago high school told him in the late 1980s. “Either those tendencies are directed and disciplined in creative pursuits or those tendencies destroy the young men, or the society, or both.”
The book is full of such ruminations, and they echo throughout Obama’s rhetoric as president. In his last speech to the UN General Assembly, he asserted that “if young people live in places where the only option is between the dictates of a state or the lure of an extremist underground, no counterterrorism strategy can succeed.”
For Obama, terrorism is, at root, a product of social disintegration. War may be necessary to contain the spread of Islamic State, for example, but only social reform can really cure it.
Add to this social vision the experience of a consummate outsider – half-white and half-black, with a childhood and a family scattered around the world – and one begins to see the profile of a man with an automatic empathy for the marginalized and an almost instinctive sense that the most significant problems of the world are rooted not in ideology but in oppressive social and economic structures that reinforce marginalization. This sensibility is broader than any economic orthodoxy, and is rooted in the hard experience of South Chicago.
After taking the helm of the world’s preeminent superpower in January 2009, this social organizer set about constructing a foreign policy that translated this consciousness into geopolitical action.
“The imperative that he and his advisors felt was not only to introduce a post-Bush narrative but also a post-post-9/11 understanding of what needed to be done in the world,” James Traub noted in a recent Foreign Policy essay. “They believed that the great issues confronting the United States were not traditional state-to-state questions, but new ones that sought to advance global goods and required global cooperation — climate change, energy supply, weak and failing states, nuclear nonproliferation. It was precisely on such issues that one needed to enlist the support of citizens as well as leaders.”
The world was one large Chicago, its essential problems not categorically different from those of South Chicago’s blacks, and the solutions to those problems were rooted in the same essential human capacity for overcoming social divisions and inequities. This was Obama’s “provincialism” — his vision of the world that favored the disadvantaged and downtrodden, that saw the ideological and political clashes between governments as secondary to the more universal and ultimately social crises that troubled a tumultuous world.
It was this expansive humanitarian vision that led Obama to make his first major strategic mistake when it came to Israel. Indeed, it was in Israel that his narrative of world affairs first crashed into the unforgiving realities of geopolitics.
In his Cairo speech, while vowing to defend Israel and extolling America’s alliance with the Jewish state, Obama also told the Muslim world that Israel’s settlements were illegitimate, as opposed to the past American insistence that they were merely unwise, and suggested that the Jewish claim to Israel was rooted in the devastation of the Holocaust rather than in millennial Jewish attachment to the land.
This insult to the legitimacy of the Jewish polity in Israel, in both rhetoric and travel itinerary, was entirely unintended. It took place just a few months before he unwittingly insulted the Germans over the Berlin Wall commemoration. In both cases, the reason was the same: prosperous, powerful Israel, like Europe, wasn’t part of the world Obama was trying to save. By virtue of its success it was irrelevant to his foreign policy vision.
With one exception: the social, economic and political injustice meted out by Israel to the hapless Palestinians.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict seemed to share a great deal with the American social ills he had battled his entire adult life: a conflict between two divided communities, sustained by bigotry, mutually exclusive narratives of victimization and the debilitating absence of empathy and hope.
Obama’s early and energetic commitment to Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking was not rooted in the usual strategic calculations that drive foreign policy, but in the sense that it fit so neatly into the new sensibility that now defined his presidency.
But geopolitics are not social work. And what is true in Chicago may not be true in Jerusalem. Obama’s first major foray into the conflict, extracting a 10-month freeze on settlement construction outside Jerusalem from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, set the tone for the next five years of efforts.
The Obama White House was confused and frustrated when it became clear that Netanyahu’s unprecedented “trust-building” measure actually pushed the Palestinians away from the negotiating table.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not a fight against social or economic disadvantage, but between national identities. Even if he wants a peace deal with Israel, as Obama wholeheartedly believes, PA President Mahmoud Abbas must maneuver within the confines of a Palestinian national narrative that rejects the Jewish national cause as irredeemably illegitimate. Abbas cannot simply compromise; he must be seen to win.
So the fact that the White House had demanded and obtained an unprecedented settlement freeze from Israel did not prove to Palestinians that Israel was amenable to compromise – but rather that their own leaders were demanding less from the hated occupier than the unabashedly pro-Israel White House. The White House, a bastion of Zionists by its own admission, had effortlessly extracted a concession no Palestinian leader had ever even demanded.
In his very first effort at trust-building between the sides, the Obama White House had disastrously narrowed the domestic political maneuvering room of the Palestinian leadership. That initial error established the dynamic that stymied America’s most concerted efforts to rekindle negotiations. Each time American pressure on Israel grew, the domestic pressure on Palestinian leaders to raise their demands and preconditions grew apace.
Social organizing does not grapple with these layers of ideology and identity, with the unforgiving logic of ethnic conflict, and Israelis soon came to believe that Obama could not see them. After 2010, Obama remained a well-regarded figure in Israeli popular culture, but according to polls he lost something more important than his likability: he came to be seen as dangerously naïve. Israelis trusted his intentions, but not his judgment.
Obama’s foreign policy has developed in the six years since he became president. His initial optimism has been tempered by the reality checks of Ukraine, Syria and other crises. American policymakers still struggle to find ways to translate the vision that defines his presidency into smart geopolitical action. Loudly applauded everywhere he went, Obama spent those first years quietly and mostly unintentionally burning bridges with some of America’s closest allies. Six years in, the luster is gone. The optimistic zeal for global engagement has faded into a handful of minimalist principles: kill any terrorists who threaten Americans, avoid costly wars, stay close to stable allies.
The Obama White House hates Benjamin Netanyahu. It is an animus that longtime observers of US-Israel relations often point to but rarely try to explain. President Obama’s dislike for Netanyahu is intense, and the sentiment sometimes filters down into the ranks of advisers and senior officials on both sides.
There is little doubt the derision has become personal – one American Jewish leader has asserted that it was President Obama himself who gave the interview to The Atlantic in which an unnamed official mocked Netanyahu as “chickenshit” – but its origins are deeper than personal dislike.
Netanyahu is unabashedly sectoral. His rhetoric over the past six years is dominated by endlessly repeated platitudes about Jewish history and Jewish rights. Even when he offers a rhetorical olive branch, as in his famous 2009 speech at Bar-Ilan University, he refuses to include language that accepts as a matter of principle the legitimacy of competing narratives. In the hours before he lifted off for this week’s contentious trip to Washington, Netanyahu took the time to pray at the Western Wall in Jerusalem and made a pilgrimage to the grave of his father, a historian of Jewish history and persecution whose focus on Jewish suffering through the ages looms large in Netanyahu’s worldview.
For Obama, Netanyahu is Rafiq al Shabazz, a former gang member who converted to Islam and became an activist in South Chicago’s black community in the 1980s.
In “Dreams from my Father,” Obama recalls how Shabazz explained the community’s troubles: “People from outside our community making money off us and showing our brothers and sisters disrespect. Basically what you got here is Koreans and Arabs running the stores, the Jews still owning most of the buildings. Now, in the short term, we’re here to make sure that the interests of black people are looked after, you understand. When we hear one of them Koreans is mistreating a customer, we gonna be on the case. We gonna insist that they respect us and make a contribution back to the community—fund our programs, what have you.”
Shabazz viewed black interests in narrowly sectoral, zero-sum terms, failing to grasp what Obama knew: that in an interconnected economy, whether Chicago’s or the world’s, the future prosperity and social vitality of blacks and Koreans and Arabs and Jews were inextricably linked.
When Netanyahu insists on speaking about Jewish history at the UN General Assembly while refusing to speak about Palestinian dispossession, when he rejects outright and repeatedly the notion that Iran’s eventual rehabilitation might be more desirable than permanent confrontation, Obama hears echoes of those Chicago activists whose chauvinism did more harm to their communities than good.
Netanyahu’s partisan horizons, his deep-seated pessimism about the Palestinians and the region, the hard-nosed politics that both reflect and inform his constituents’ skepticism – for Obama, these attributes embody all that ails the world. The “deadly adversary” of America and the world, Obama has said, is not a geopolitical foe, but the loss of hope, the triumph of apathy, and the crushing social (and by extension, geopolitical) structures that inhibit opportunity and sustain inequality.
Netanyahu, an ally too close and too vocal to be ignored, chafes against Obama’s vision of the world and is a standing rebuke to the broad-minded consciousness that has become Obama’s political identity.
Netanyahu, too, despises Obama. The American president’s blindness to geopolitical realities is rooted in an unexamined confidence in his own moral superiority, Netanyahu believes. And Israel stands to pay a heavy price for that personality quirk, not only in the mismanaged peace efforts but in the far more dangerous battleground of the Iran crisis.
Netanyahu grew up in the identity politics that have confounded Obama. He grasps as his American counterpart cannot the role that narratives of national identity play in domestic and international politics. This understanding has convinced him that peace with the Palestinians cannot be achieved without legitimation. Unless the Palestinian national movement becomes able to accept that there is some legitimacy to the Jewish claim to a homeland in Israel, Palestinian leaders will remain frozen in place and unable to compromise for peace. Meanwhile, Israeli concessions to a Palestinian leadership that continues to reject Israel’s very legitimacy will only reinforce that rejectionist impulse by sustaining the illusion that a final victory against Israel’s existence is possible.
For Netanyahu, then, any American strategy that begins with Israeli concessions instead of seeking a shift in the basic narrative of the other side puts the cart before the horse — and all but ensures continued failure.
(It must be said: the Palestinian unwillingness to see justice in Israel is reciprocated in a similar impulse in Israeli politics that rejects any legitimacy in the Palestinian narrative – an impulse found mostly on Netanyahu’s side of the political map. For Netanyahu, too, the political costs of compromise are not small, and will only grow as Palestinian politics remains hunkered down in their rejectionist narrative.)
On Iran, Netanyahu’s assessment of Obama’s strategic abilities is equally unflattering. By abandoning the sanctions standoff in which the US had all the cards and the world was united in opposition to Iran’s nuclear ambitions, Obama has conceded much and obtained very little. A country the size of Western Europe with a record of hiding entire facilities and lying repeatedly to IAEA inspectors and the UN Security Council cannot be trusted to abide by an agreement. A world that could scarcely tolerate the prospect of a war would now become intolerant even to a restoration of sanctions. The dam had been breached, and no one could guarantee that it could be restored if Iran violated the agreement.
The White House’s favorite argument for the deal – that the choice before Western powers was to strike a deal or go to war – demonstrates for Netanyahu the incompetence he saw in the White House’s strategy. The argument amounted to a declaration to the Iranians that the US needed a deal more than they did.
Even the complaint about his decision to deliver Tuesday’s speech to Congress wins little sympathy from the Israeli leader. After all, Obama was the first to travel to the other’s capital and rebuke him to his own people. When Obama finally came to Israel as president, in March of 2013, he pointedly turned down an invitation to address Israel’s parliament – the comparison to his eager address to the parliament in Istanbul four years earlier was not lost on Israeli pundits – and instead gave a public speech to an audience of young Israelis at Jerusalem’s International Convention Center.
It was a speech “to the people of Israel,” not its leadership, the White House said – much like the Cairo speech was addressed not to governments but to Muslims. “I can promise you this,” Obama told Israelis of their prime minister, “political leaders will never take risks if the people do not push them to take some risks.”
Netanyahu has written off the Obama White House as a failure; blinkered by its pompous self-assurance, it cannot be trusted to competently manage the security of the world. Obama has written off Netanyahu as an obstacle, a hypocritical partisan whose narrow vision of politics stand in the way of meaningful progress on any issue in which he is involved.
For both men, the gap runs deeper than the Democrat-Republican divide, deeper than the Palestinian issue, deeper even than the battle over Iran. Obama sought to introduce a new consciousness into global affairs, a consciousness that defined his political identity. Netanyahu defiantly champions the old ways of doing business — on which, he believes, his nation’s safety depends.