Thursday, July 15, 2010

Debating Obama Policy Doesn’t Require Screaming But Logic and Honest Discussion

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By Barry Rubin

As I look at the occasional responses to the arguments I’m making by defenders of the Obama Administration, the arguments used to avoid thinking and talking about these issues seriously become increasingly apparent. They generally feature a refusal to discuss the substance of issues and put up instead a barrage of insults, characterizations, and non-logical or non-factual claims.

1. The right-wing argument. This says: you’re basically a right-wing person who is against a two-state solution and wants to do mean things to Arabs or Muslims. Therefore, we can ignore anything you say.

People who are conservative or right-wing have their own answers. For me, though, I need merely cite the following points. In American terms, I am not only a registered and life-long Democrat, but I worked for Democrats in both the Senate and House of Representatives; at one time worked at Democratic National Headquarters as a volunteer; worked on several presidential campaigns, was a consultant for a few Democratic senators, organized a Democratic group of foreign policy experts to prepare for the next presidency one of whose members (Madeleine Albright) became the secretary of state.

In Israel, I have always been active in the Labour Party or one of its offshoots, was an outspoken supporter of the Oslo effort, volunteered to teach courses for Palestinian institutions on the West Bank, was at the peace rally where Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was murdered in November 1995, and have backed a two-state solution—under the right conditions, of course--for about 20 years.

And, believe me, I have a lot of contacts with Arabs, Turks, Iranians, and Muslims whose worries about Obama's policies are just as intense as my own.

The Turks feel the U.S. government is supporting or being very soft on a regime that wants to crush their democracy and turn their society into something else. The Iranians worry that the U.S. government has been playing into the hands of the dictatorship in Tehran and not helping the democratic-oriented opposition. Some Arabs--especially Lebanese--think U.S. policy is delivering their country into the hands of Hizballah, Syria and Iran. Others feel it won't protect them from Iran and domestic Islamist revolutionaries.

I recite this—and I could go on longer—not in a defensive mode but to point out once again the theme that radicals have tried to take over the label of liberalism (or moderate left) and reinterpret it. A key tactic here is to fool the much larger, honest and well-intended public into believing that anyone who disagrees with this political line is a right-wing extremist (or pro-Israel or both, depending on the situation) and hence to be ignored.

There is a parallel attempt to do this to Israel and its supporters: anyone who favors Israel or at least a policy of self-defense and not making dangerous concessions is a right-winger unfit for civilized discourse and thus should be fought against.

It should be a liberal cause to oppose the establishment of radical Islamist regimes that destroy individual rights, create ruthless dictatorships, and oppress women and Christians, among many other things. Moreover, it is very much in the national interest of the United States and of the West—including any liberal interpretation of that interest—to oppose a region dominated by Iran and its allies, the overthrow of relatively moderate Arab regimes, the destruction of Israel, and a situation of increased violence and crisis that would result.

It should be a liberal cause to support a country that is not only democratic and with an open, liberal society but which is also a U.S. ally; a bulwark against aggressive and repressive forces; and a country which had made considerable sacrifices and taken a high risk to achieve peace.

And if you want a graphic picture of that last point, imagine standing at the corner of Dizengoff and King George Streets in Tel Aviv—two blocks from your home and where you do your shopping--looking at the mutilated bodies of Israelis from a terrorist attack carried out by Hamas yet cheered by Arafat, and still support withdrawals, the peace process, and a two-state solution.

2. The “they don’t love Obama” argument. It is no secret that for many people Obama has become an icon above criticism. Thus, if one criticizes Obama or his administration, one is an evil person (hints of racism and xenophobia might be inserted) and should be ignored.

As someone who makes a living by analyzing and critiquing policies, I cannot help but call them as I see them. (An American baseball expression meaning: say what I think.) But, you know what? It isn’t exactly a mystery that the Obama Administration is failing badly in foreign policy. Some might refuse to say so today but they will be admitting it—after suffering, losses, and destruction—in a few years.

After talking to officials and diplomats from country after country and reading many Middle Eastern public opinion polls, the critic finds that he is not alone. I only wish I could give you names and positions of people who talk like this, and repeat some of the anecdotes they have told. And I include career people in the U.S. government, too. In fact, take a look at the American public opinion polls for more proof.

Obama must face the same criterion and analysis, and be judged by the same standards, as his predecessors. Many lives and the freedom of whole countries depend on this.

3. The abandonment of logic: People have always tried to sell their arguments by being unfair, leaving out or distorting what the other side says. One of the main points of academic training is to work against that human tendency. If I make a mistake, or someone points out something I’ve missed, I adjust what I’m saying accordingly. People know, and often remark, that I have no consistent ideological or political line over time. That’s precisely what a scholar, journalist, or academic should do: go where the facts indicate.

What we see lately, however, is a much higher level of non-rational argument. Some attribute it to people being told to give feelings, rather than logic, the higher priority. What a disaster! I won’t take your time here to cite specific examples but I do so frequently. But here’s just one that should settle an issue:

Obama said Israelis were distrustful of him because of his middle name, that is, a Muslim name but also implying to many people the issue of racism.

How to disprove this in one sentence? Simple. The original Israeli reaction to Obama, as shown by polls, was very favorable. But he still had the same face and name. On a celebrity level (as evinced by the kids in my son’s school), there is still something like this going on. Yet the polls and attitudes have shifted sharply. Why? Because of what Obama and his colleagues have done and said.

Everyone knows the story of the emperor who had no clothes. But there are many arguments strutting around today that have no clothes. Here are some of them:

Moderate Hamas or Hizballah? Pull Syria away from Iran? Israel-Palestinian peace is within reach? Engage revolutionary Islamists and even support their getting into power? There’s no real problem with Turkey’s government? Keep apologizing and refusing to take real leadership and believe that you will still have credibility with your friends and be able to deter your foes?

All of these claims are easily refutable, which is why they are surrounded by a bodyguard of shutting up contrary facts and demonizing those who point out that these arguments are quite naked.

4. Israelis are stupid

I admit that when people say they are going to save Israel for its own good it makes me mad. Here are people, by and large, who don’t really know the country well (I realize there are exceptions), make the biggest mistakes in talking about it, and have an image based on fantasy or at least badly out of date.

One specific problem is that many people in the West have forgotten the events of 1993-2000, though Israelis haven’t. We tried a process in which money was poured into the Palestinian Authority, many concessions (mostly unilateral) were made by Israel, territory was handed over and the result was massive violence by the other side and a refusal to make peace.

So tell me, are you going to save this person? Y comes from a left-wing family—his father was a famous leader of the left—and grew up on a kibbutz. In 2001, I asked him how he voted: Usually for Meretz (a left-wing party) but sometimes for the Communists. And who are you voting for this time? I asked. He replied “Ariel Sharon. Only Sharon can save the situation.” I know many people like this. Others have voted for continued to vote for the Labour Party.

Two friends, both Labour supporters, said to me yesterday in separate conversations that on most of the real issues of the day the Labour party leadership—which is part of the coalition—agrees with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The debate in Israel has moved. There is no serious discussion about annexing large amounts of territory or holding onto the West Bank forever. Nobody is proposing taking back the Gaza Strip. Israelis overwhelmingly want a two-state solution that provides long-term peace and security. They are right in being suspicious about taking steps that endanger their lives and correct in reading the Palestinian side skeptically, while accurately understanding the Islamists' intentions.

We are not in the 1990s now, much less the 1970s. Today, Israel’s options are narrower: there is a partner for talks and shorter-term cooperation (the Palestinian Authority) but no partner for full peace. Iran, Syria, Hamas, and Hizballah are not amenable to diplomacy. Israeli leaders are very much aware that this country has parallel interests with most Arab governments and try to figure out how to make use of that fact. Yet the actual cooperation possible is limited. Revolutionary Islamism is advancing and the United States given its current policy isn’t exactly a bulwark battling against it. People here in Israel know we are in 2010; those outside may not fully understand what this means.

Three quick additional examples. First, if you don’t understand Palestinian politics and ideology, you cannot talk about the conflict. I have just read a generally excellent article by a veteran U.S. official admitting—contrary to his previous views--that there isn’t going to be any Israel-Palestinian peace in the near future and that the fault cannot all (or even mainly) be put on Israel. Yet in listing the factors why there isn’t going to be any two-state solution for a long time, it never comes to grips with the factor of Palestinian Authority intransigence and the inability of Palestinian institutions, ideology, and society so far to accept a two-state solution and cease believing they are somehow going to destroy Israel.

Second, a much-discussed and very critical article on Israel recently posited that Israeli society was seeing increasing political polarization between left and right along with growing battles between secular and religious, with religious extremism a major problem. This might describe some aspects of Israel in the 1980s but has little or no relevance to the present. The author purports to give advice but doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

Third, someone saying he wants to save Israel despite itself cites an alleged pro-Obama poll in Israel. It is well-known in Israel that the poll was very critical of Obama but that a newspaper with an ideological agenda (deliberately?) misinterpreted it. Even the man who did the poll protested that was a distortion.

So people who don’t follow the issues, understand the debate, or know the country want to play with our lives. One of the scariest things about Obama on this issue is his repeated statement that Israelis really support him, not their own government. I won’t take the time to talk about respecting the functioning of a democratic state with an elected government but keep that point in mind also. (No, Hamas did not gain power in an election. It won an election, made a coalition deal, then launched a coup and killed several hundred people to create a dictatorship.) For Israelis, though, Obama's argument seems to be a rationale for ignoring Israel's government in future based on the idea that he not only has a superior understanding of the issues and Middle East (he doesn't) but also on the basis that Israelis want him to impose things on them (they don't).

If you want to know about other countries, listen to what people say. BUT don’t go on what they say necessarily when speaking to Western reporters but what they say among themselves or what leaders say to their own people. I have often cited Arab, Iranian, and Turkish, as well as Israeli, sources on these issues. And on Obama, they tell quite a different picture than what Americans think who believe that Obama is very popular and that’s what counts.

5. Ignore criticism rather than use it to adjust your policy and behavior

Indeed, the White House should pay attention to the points I and many others are making because there are real problems with its policy. Aluf Benn pointed this out in a New York Times op-ed some months ago but little seems to have changed, except on the basis of short-term needs. Of course, people are naturally defensive, don’t want to be criticized, and reject it. But after that phase—and more quietly—they should assess whether there is something wrong in what they are doing. (And, yes, Israel does this on a daily basis though it must also take into account other factors. But note, for example, the recent adjustment of policy toward Gaza.)

Consider, for example, the need to get a proper system for containing Iran when (yes, I did not say “if”) it gets nuclear weapons. It is clear that the White House does not understand what is going to be required. Isn't it rather important for them to rethink their strategy? The same applies to the acceptance of a repressive revolutionary Islamist dictatorship in the Gaza Strip, a client of Iran and an advocate of genocide on the Mediterranean Sea.

The lives of millions of people and the world's future hang in the balance. That deserves a rather clear-headed discussion on the issues.

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). The website of the GLORIA Center is at and of his blog, Rubin Reports, at

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