Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Decline of the Obama Administration: Massachusetts and the Middle East

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By Barry Rubin

There is an iron rule in modern democratic politics that parties periodically ignore to their peril: if a party goes too far to an extreme--to the left, the right, or any other far-out viewpoint--the voters reject it. This is what’s now happening in the United States. One wonders whether, or when, it will happen in a number of European countries.

In the United States, the most obvious examples is when the Democrats went too far to the left with George McGovern and the Republicans went too far to the right with Barry Goldwater they suffered tremendous defeats. Many other examples can be cited from Europe, Israel, and other countries.

Another point that should be kept in mind is that when political and media-cultural elites in democratic countries become too arrogant and detached from their people they are in for a reminder of how that system works. One of the most disturbing features of contemporary life is that those who dissent from the Politically Correct, multicultural dogmas are quickly labelled as evil, stupid, or crazy. By denying the rationality of different viewpoints, the possibility of useful dialogue, compromise, and course modifications is lost.

As an example, the European political elite seems to view its own citizenry as a bunch of potential fanatics on the verge of being incited into forming murderous Islamophobic mobs. This cripples governments, intellectuals, and institutions from dealing with the threat of Islamism at home and abroad.

For reasons which are well-known, Barack Obama was elected president of the United States despite being the most leftist chief executive in American history. One of those factors was that the electorate did not get complete information on this matter from a mass media largely intent on his victory.

The leading mainstream Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton, was pushed aside and the party, not only due to Obama's being president but in the belief that he was overwhelmingly popular and a political magician, followed his lead on most issues. Within six months, however, congressional Democrats, at least on foreign policy issues, showed considerable discontent with the administration's policies and reverted to more traditional liberal positions.

Leaving aside domestic issues, the administration broke with virtually all its predecessors—except on a few issues—regarding foreign policy. Indeed, it followed a philosophy which in effect sought to repeal the most basic principles of international affairs. The result has not been catastrophic—largely due to the lack of any huge crisis in its first year—but has been damaging. The administration has not achieved the smallest success in foreign policy, even by very generous standards.

Now the Democratic Party has suffered three humiliating defeats—in New Jersey, Virginia, and in what might be its single biggest stronghold, Massachusetts. Almost one-fourth of Obama voters cast their ballots against a candidate whose election he had proclaimed a necessity.

These elections did not turn on foreign policy, and yet what the international aspect did contribute was, first, the lack of successes which might raise support for the administration and, second, a feeling of retreat, apology, and ineptness which added to the negative judgment of so much of the public.

The Obama administration is at a critical moment in foreign policy. It must decide whether to turn the corner, reevaluate its experience, and change gears. So far there is zero evidence that this is happening. The same day as the Massachusetts election, Iran officially and finally rejected the U.S. and European proposal. Will the U.S. government react strongly, announcing that it devoted more than a year to engagement and is now moving immediately to higher sanctions? No.

On Arab-Israeli issues, the administration may choose to pretend activity while putting the peace process—which has no future at present given Palestinian Authority intransigence and weakness—on the back burner. Or it might make some disastrous proposal in trying to impose a comprehensive solution, an effort that will end in failure, humiliation, and damage to the situation.

[A digression: Israel's Haaretz newspaper, which is itself a prime example of ideological extremism infiltrating coverage, says the Massachusetts election is good for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu because it is a victory for Republicans, who like him. That's misleading. It is also a victory for the overwhelming majority of Congressional Democrats who understand Israel's situation and are supportive, increasing their leverage with the White House.] 

As for the great issue of our time in the region—the attempt of revolutionary Islamists to seize power—the administration is still narrowly focused on al-Qaida, whose ideology cannot even be mentioned under the president’s parameters. American popularity is claimed but American credibility continues to decline. There is no campaign to rally a grand alignment of the forces opposing Islamism.

The situation in Turkey goes on unrecognized with a neo-Islamist government there acting to flout U.S. interests because it knows the Obama administration will never criticize or pressure it. As for Afghanistan, a half-and-half approach, so obviously motivated by politics rather than military strategy, is doomed to waste lives without achieving the level of success possible in Iraq.

In the collapse of the Obama administration’s tremendous support on taking office a mere year ago, it is of course the jobs and economy that plays the main role. But foreign policy is also bringing down the president and his team. There, the administration’s mistakes will eventually inflict enormous damage unless it either changes its ways or is voted out of office.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

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