First person

How I learned to stop loving Obama and worry about the bomb

The Times of Israel’s military correspondent takes stock, six years after writing a heartfelt letter in support of the presidential candidacy of a young senator from Illinois

Mitch Ginsburg is the former Times of Israel military correspondent.

US President Barack Obama talks on the phone in the Oval Office, July 25, 2014. (photo credit: Pete Souza/White House)
US President Barack Obama talks on the phone in the Oval Office, July 25, 2014. (photo credit: Pete Souza/White House)

Sometime in the fall of 2008 I sat down at my desk and banged out an impassioned letter to my sister. She was on the fence, I knew, about the young senator from Illinois who was running for president. There was some talk in the family that perhaps, on at least one occasion, during the Bush years, she had voted Republican.

We chalked it up to her decision, made as a college freshman, to marry a skilled and caring med student, who hailed from Michigan and loved cars. He drove a Chevy, Grand Am — candy red, I think — and called the city of his birth Dee-troit.

Sure, we realized, he was a terrific father and a stand-up guy all around, but he distrusted all things organic — he was in the habit of scrubbing my sister’s farmers’ market apples with hot water and soap — and he wore jeans while skiing. He loved mayonnaise and iceberg lettuce, had a soft spot for ATVs and leaf-blowers.

In short, we didn’t ask who he voted for — there was some hope that he might be a Libertarian — but, in the fall of 2008, the facts seemed quite clear: He was going with John McCain and Sarah Palin. My sister, I feared, might follow suit.

And so I took to the computer. In an email entitled “Politics” — which I reread this week for the first time in the wake of the nuclear framework deal agreed upon in Lausanne, a deal that has left me with the clammy feeling of anticipated betrayal — I spoke about the horrors of the American prison system and the plague of racism that continue to rot America from the inside; I spoke about drugs and how only people of color are incarcerated for using and dealing them, while people like George W. Bush and every other person I knew in college was free to pull bong hits, take acid, and boil ‘shrooms to his or her heart’s content. I think I spoke about African-American role models and education and gay rights. I even told her to read Frederick Douglass.

A November 4, 2008 photo of then presidential and vice presidential candidates John McCain and Sarah Palin in Phoenix, Arizona (AP Photo/ Matt York)
Then-presidential and vice-presidential candidates Sarah Palin and John McCain in Phoenix, Arizona, November 4, 2008 (photo credit: AP/Matt York)

Then I lampooned McCain for never having sent an email and mentioned his age. “McCain is 72,” I wrote. “He has had four of five bouts of melanoma. He spent five and a half years in a POW camp. He is dad’s age. Dad is in great shape for his age. He has not been to the Hanoi Hilton. Yet he falls asleep at dinner regularly. Something could happen to McCain. In walks the moose hunter.”

As for Israel, I said with all the authority I could muster, it didn’t really matter. No president has recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. The United States believes in a two-state solution. The occupation of the West Bank and its subsequent settlement with civilians made sense historically, emotionally, but was a horrid piece of irony: The nation that had lived under persecution for two thousand years because of its statelessness had, in a sublime moment, carved out a state in its ancient homeland and revived its wizened language only to sacrifice that historic achievement on the altar of — of all things! — territorial expansion.

A deal with the Palestinians, pushed forward by American muscle, was in Israel’s interest, I said. Without a two-state solution, guided by someone like Barack Obama, “Palestinians will outnumber us and will no longer consider 1967 a relevant date. The battle will be for all of Israel and they will win. Everyone will be yelling ‘Apartheid.’ Within two generations we’ll see the destruction of the Third Temple.”

Moreover, I noted, Bush, with his love of Zion, had been a disaster, inadvertently empowering Iran. Obama, with his cool detachment, was just what we needed.

Lastly, I encouraged her to vote Democrat, now, before her Alex P. Keaton-like eldest got the right to vote and canceled her out.

And she did (I think, maybe). She even wrote to me about the beauty of that cold January day in 2009 when he was sworn into office.

From al-Azhar to Tahrir

The Cairo address, on Obama’s third trip to the region — after Turkey and Iraq and Saudi Arabia and years before Israel — did not alter my impression or dim the stars in my eyes. Stopping at Buchenwald rather than Jerusalem, I felt, was a fumble, borne not of malice but of the centrality of the Holocaust for so many American Jews in the assembly of their identity. Rahm Emmanuel, David Axelrod and the rest, I figured, had given him bad advice.

Then, in June 2009, came the Green Movement in Iran. All of my Israeli friends mocked Obama and his detachment. I said it was best — American support was the last thing the students on the streets needed. Iran — one of the four true nation states of the Middle East — was scarred by the CIA-orchestrated overthrow of Mohammad Mussadeq in 1953; the revolution against the ayatollahs had to come from the people, for the people. Staying on the sidelines, I told my friends, was a painful but astute piece of policy.

The Arab uprisings began in December 2010. My friends, like most Israelis, were up in arms over the abandonment of Hosni Mubarak. I was not. Mubarak was horrible. Egypt was a failed state. It could not even feed its own population.

Then, in June 2009, came the Green Movement in Iran. All of my Israeli friends mocked Obama and his detachment. I said it was best

In one ear, I heard the breathless praise of Tahrir from the English-language media I consumed: “In 40 years of writing about the Middle East, I have never seen anything like what is happening in Tahrir Square,” Thomas Friedman declared in February 2011. “In a region where the truth and truth-tellers have so long been smothered under the crushing weight of oil, autocracy and religious obscurantism, suddenly the Arab world has a truly free space — a space that Egyptians themselves, not a foreign army, have liberated — and the truth is now gushing out of here like a torrent from a broken hydrant.”

And in the other ear, the Jeremiah of our generation, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: “The promise of a new day,” he said in a public address several days before Friedman’s triumphant arrival in the Cairo square, “is not in its dawn but in the darkness it can bring.”

Egyptian protesters in Tahrir Square, Cairo (photo credit: Amr Nabil/AP)
Egyptian protesters in Tahrir Square, Cairo, Egypt (photo credit: AP/Amr Nabil)

I wanted to believe Obama, but knew that Netanyahu had not blindly banished hope: There remains little in the way of national leadership in that proud and ancient land beyond the option of the Muslim Brotherhood and the military-backed dictatorship.

In June 2012, in Egypt’s first free election, Mohammed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood’s second-string candidate, won the popular vote. For those of us who live nearby, who have watched the $1.5 billion of annual aid delivered from the US to the Egyptian military, this was the first step in a nightmare scenario. We’d seen it happen, amid a less hostile population, in Iran in 1979, and more recently in Turkey. Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s leader since 2003, elegantly explained the process: Democracy is like a bus ride, he said, according to King Abdullah of Jordan, who relayed the tidbit to The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg in 2013. “Once I get to my stop, I’m getting off.” And as we well know, 12 years into his autocratic rule, Erdogan has long since reached his stop.

The Obama administration released a statement hailing “Egypt’s role as a pillar of regional peace, security and stability,” and said that the US “will stand with the Egyptian people as they pursue their aspirations for democracy, dignity, and opportunity, and fulfill the promise of their revolution.”

This was the first crack in my devotion. Still, though, I told myself, the president of the United States of America could not possibly believe that political Islam, as practiced by the Brotherhood, was a necessary stage on the path to true democracy.

In November, with no fanfare and no letters, with dwindling conviction, I voted for him again. I believed Obama when he told Goldberg that, insofar as the military option against Iran in concerned, “as president of the United States, I don’t bluff.”

Netanyahu, I thought then, is haunted by history. Obama was bold in ordering the raid that took out Osama bin Laden deep in Pakistan. He’d do the same, if push came to shove, with Iran.

From ‘Eretz Nehederet’ to Lausanne

I smiled hopefully when he sashayed into town, tossed his suit jacket over his shoulder, and told us, in March 2013, shortly after reelection, that “any drama between me and my friend Bibi over the years was just a plot to create material for [the satire show] ‘Eretz Nehederet.’ That’s the only thing that was going on. We just wanted to make sure the writers had good material.”

And then, within the span of a few months, a flurry of events turned my waning and rather lonely support of the president into a clammy and bewildering sense of betrayal.

US President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu go informal at Ben Gurion Airport, March 22, 2013 (photo credit: Avi Ohayon/GPO/Flash90)
US President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu go informal at Ben Gurion Airport, March 22, 2013. (photo credit: Avi Ohayon/GPO/Flash90)

First, in April, I listened live to Israel’s top intelligence analyst, Brig. Gen. Itai Brun, tell an audience at a security conference in Tel Aviv that “the [Assad] regime has used and is using chemical weapons.” He described a specific date — March 19 — and said that the evidence pointed to a nerve gas called sarin. The ensuing acrobatics, performed in order to avoid the fact that Syrian dictator Bashar Assad had brazenly crossed Obama’s red line, drove home the fact that the main part of Obama’s Syria policy was conflict avoidance. In the Middle East, everyone from Riyadh to Tehran to Jerusalem took note. For the first time in my adult life, I felt like those Israelis I had met in my youth, the ones who tell you that you don’t understand because you don’t live in the region.

Then, in June 2013, millions of Egyptians came back to Tahrir Square and other public spots across Egypt; Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, the head of the Egyptian armed forces at the time, rose to power. Obama, who had not canceled military aid during Morsi’s year in power, shut down the aid to el-Sissi’s Egypt, halting the arrival of Apache attack helicopters and doling out the money piecemeal as a reward for good behavior. Never mind that el-Sissi, for the first time in years, had launched a true war on the mini-Afghanistan that had developed in the high desert of the Sinai Peninsula; never mind that he viewed Hamas as an enemy of the state and that he, for the first time in years, shut down the tunnels into and out of Rafah, cutting the Islamist organization’s military supply route. Nonetheless, the White House urged him “to move quickly and responsibly to return full authority back to a democratically elected civilian government,” knowing full well what that meant. Obama, I began to fear during that first year of his second term, viewed the Muslim Brotherhood as the authentic will of the people in the region, and, therefore, as part of “the long arc of the moral universe,” which, his hero Martin Luther King Jr. said, “bends toward justice.”

For the first time in my adult life, I felt like those Israelis I had met in my youth, the ones who tell you that you don’t understand because you don’t live in the region

I like the quote. I love the sentiment. It seems wholly American to me. Filled with a wonderful optimism. And noble, especially, when spoken by a man who represented people so unjustly treated. But as a member of a people who managed to found a state after a very long and depressing arc of history, which only took an abrupt bend away from injustice after the dark years of genocide, I did not subscribe to the this-too-is-for-the-best attitude. It seemed a risky gamble, coolly, nonchalantly, unsentimentally taken by the leader of a distant country, who, I would soon learn, was in the process of balancing out the powers in the Middle East and departing the region.

Finally the Iran deal began to take shape. And with it several truths started to poke through the soil: The US did not view Iran’s Islamic revolution as a disaster that needed to be curtailed and combated globally, tirelessly, like communism. It saw Iran, under the regime of the ayatollahs, as a legitimate actor in the region, despite its annihilationist rhetoric. It did not believe former Israeli Military Intelligence chief Amos Yadlin when he said that a US strike against Iran would be, on the spectrum between the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the 1981 strike against the Osirak nuclear reactor, far more similar to the latter. “It’s one night’s work,” Yadlin said on several occasions, noting that the regime would not risk all-out war with the US, imperiling its very survival. Instead, the Obama administration viewed the military option as a disaster, one it had no fortitude to pursue.

And so, after the sanctions brought the regime to the table, the lack of a credible military option brought the world the framework deal reached last week in Lausanne. From an isolationist American perspective, the deal makes a great deal of sense. This week, President Obama explained his rationale to The New York Times’ Friedman. He said that America’s size and strength enabled it to take chances, to engage with Castro’s Cuba and Khamenei’s Iran. “We are powerful enough to be able to test these propositions without putting ourselves at risk,” he said. Iran’s military spending is $30 billion; the US’s is $600 billion. “Iran understands that they cannot fight us.”

President Barack Obama (right) speaks to NPR's Steve Inskeep, April 6, 2015. (screen capture: NPR)
President Barack Obama (right) speaks to NPR’s Steve Inskeep, April 6, 2015. (screen capture: NPR)

The deal, he told NPR, is better than no deal because even if engagement produces no shift in the attitude of the people and the leadership toward western democracy, it rolls back the nuclear program and places it under a verification regime for 10-15 years. If 13 years down the line, Iran turns its back on the agreement and employs modern centrifuges, though, the president conceded, “the breakout time [to a nuclear weapon] would have shrunk almost down to zero.”

This is, from my vantage point in Jerusalem, America’s May 2000 moment: At the time, prime minister Ehud Barak, after only several months in office, pulled Israel out of South Lebanon and got the UN Security Council to authorize that Israel had acted in “accordance with Security Council resolution 425 (1978),” fulfilling the international community’s demands to the letter. IDF generals were against the move. As someone who had fought there and lost friends there, I was resolutely in favor. The move stripped Hezbollah of ammunition — it could no longer claim to be the force that fought to keep Israel out of Lebanon — and Israel was far more powerful than the Shiite militia: If Hezbollah violated Israel’s sovereignty, Barak assured Israelis, there would be hell to pay.

This is not to say that any deal with Iran is, by definition, mistaken. But simply that it rests too firmly on optimism, is rooted too deeply in a sort of defeatism vis-à-vis the Islamic Republic of Iran

But Hezbollah, after years of a bloody war against Israel within the Security Zone of South Lebanon, saw the withdrawal as a capitulation; its appetite was increased. Five months later, when the time was right — the West Bank was in flames from the Second Intifada — Hezbollah struck, crossing the border, killing three soldiers and abducting them from Israeli soil. There was no hell to pay.

This is not to say that there should have been no withdrawal from Lebanon or, later, from Gaza. Nor is it to say that any deal with Iran is, by definition, mistaken. But simply that it rests too firmly on optimism, is rooted too deeply in a sort of defeatism vis-à-vis the Islamic Republic of Iran, and is not backed up with muscle and a demonstrable willingness to use it.

The framework agreement with Iran, like Barak’s unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon, is transparently devoid of that willingness. Moreover, it comes after the public belittling of Israel’s (problematic, but that’s another story) prime minister, who has read the winds of change with distressing accuracy, and his subsequent handcuffing in terms of military action. Nor does it come with a credible guarantee from the president that he will be willing, or Israel will be welcome, to use military action in the event of a transgression. Instead, Obama told Friedman, “what I’m willing to do is to make the kinds of commitments that would give everybody in the neighborhood, including Iran, a clarity that if Israel were to be attacked by any state, that we would stand by them.”

And do what? Nurse us back to health from our nuclear-induced wounds?

The deal is not yet signed. Obama’s legacy could still include the defanging of the regime in Tehran, if, in fact, his soft power approach prevails before the regime pushes toward the bomb. But come October 2016, one thing my dear sister and her kind husband can count on, unless they start leaning toward Rand Paul, is that they shan’t be receiving any more imploring mail from me.

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