Friday, July 9, 2010

What's In a Name: Obama Can't Figure Out (Or Pretends He Can't) Why He Worries Israelis

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By Barry Rubin

President Barack Obama insulted Israelis by saying they might distrust him because his middle name is Hussein. It's a small detail but one that shows far more than even critical observers understand.

One reason why all of this is so important is that what a leader or politician says today is only for today. To explain behavior, to understand what's likely to happen in future, you have to go beyond the words and posturing. (By the way, here's a serious analysis of the Obama-Netanyahu meeting.)

First, let's remember that Obama's first name is Barack, which is as much of Semitic language derivation as Hussein. Of course, that first name is found in Hebrew as well as Arabic. After all, Israel's defense minister is Ehud Barak and my Hebrew name sound the same, though there are two different roots involved, while Hussein is more distinctively Arabic. But still, Obama's lack of awareness about the implications of his own name doesn't indicate a great depth of knowledge about the Middle East.

Second, Obama was initially--when he had the same name as he does now--quite popular in Israel as polls show. Only when he evinced hostility did the attitude of Israelis change sharply.

Third, that same name belies the impliction that Israelis are biased against him because of his middle name. Israelis, after all, have dealt with two famous Husseins: King Hussein of Jordan and Saddam Hussein of Iraq. The former was a good friend, the most popular Arab leader in Israeli history. (Note 1)

So one can be a good Hussein or a bad Hussein. Of course the issue with this third Hussein is his policies. And that's why I find his saying this thing far more upsetting.

I'd respect Obama more, and perhaps trust him a little more, if he had said something like this:

We've had our differences and we don't see everything the same way. But we are so fundamentally on the same side that our friendship and alliance will overcome these smaller issues. And, of course, we know that our mutual enemies are out to destroy us and favor totalitarian dictatorship rather than democracy.

By denying there were ever some problems and underplaying the reality of what I'll call for brevity's sake the "bad guys", Obama shows an ability to rewrite history in his own mind and forget what has happened. This may signal that in six months he will forget all of Israel's cooperation and concessions, which is precisely what happened last time, between October 2009 and March 2010.

(The amnesia of its friends is a real problem for Israel which, for example, made huge concessions and took big risks for the 1990s' peace process only to find that forgotten, withdrew from southern Lebanon and from the Gaza Strip only to have that forgotten, etc., etc. Makes me think of Charles Chaplin's film, "City Lights," for those who know that epic work of cinema.)

Equally, the problem is not that he's reached out to Muslims but both the way he has done it and the fact that he has done a lot of reaching out to radical Muslims. A number of U.S. presidents have maintained strong relationships with post-Camp David Egypt, with Jordan, with Saudi Arabia and other countries (take Bill Clinton as an example) yet never stirred hostility or distrust from Israel.

Obama has reached out a lot to Muslims in the Iranian and Syrian government, with specific gestures toward Hizballah and Hamas, among others. He has made speeches in Cairo and elsewhere that have negative implications for Israel's security and the U.S.-Israel relationship. Apologists may do verbal gymnastics on the text but this isn't going to fool Israelis.

And by making himself the victim and implying that any misunderstanding is Israel's fault, there's a hint of continued animosity toward Israel. Would he say, for example, that Iran doesn't like him because it views him as an apostate, or that European Christians might not like him for his background? Or, how's this one, he might suggest that Muslims don't like him because he has White House aides named Emanuel (whose middle name is Israel, he reminds us) and Axelrod. How likely is that?

By the way, note that the Los Angeles Times has still not released the video of Obama speaking at a Palestinian meeting. Why not? Surely if his speech was so banal there would be no reason to withhold that evidence. We know about Reverend Wright and a lot more as well. But if the policy in the White House had been different, no one would be dwelling on that now.

Does Obama really think we don't know what happened on Netanyahu's previous visit? Here, Obama could merely have said that it wasn't an official state visit at his invitation, which is a real--if perhaps not full--explanation of the cold treatment Netanyahu received. But to pretend that all was buddy-buddy, thats chilling, as if the president has some difficult in distinguishing between reality and fantasy or--perhaps more accurately--doubts his audience's ability to tell them apart.

Another distressing thing is how Obama simply cannot seem to make an accurate statement. He claimed:

"But if you look at our actions-- and Prime Minister Netanyahu will confirm this, and even critics I think will have to confirm that the United States under my administration has provided more security assistance to Israel than any administration in history. And we’ve got greater security cooperation between our two countries than at any time in our history."

What! Yes, it is true that military cooperation has continued steadily--despite rumors to the contrary--and he could have claimed credit for that. But more security assistance? There are some presidents whose administration stretched out eight years compared to Obama's 18 months so far and they gave far more. In addition, U.S. aid, by mutual agreement, has shrunk from previous years. This is supplemented by assistance for Israel's missile defense program but Obama didn't initiate that.

So this claim is not just false, it is obviously and ridiculously false. Imagine if Obama turned to Netanyahu and said, "Right?" Netanyahu would nod, smile, and say, "Oh, sure." And he'd be right to do so.

Of course, it is in Israel's interest to pretend that everything is great. People have tried very hard to make the relationship work. The day after the U.S. elections, in November 2008, I organized and hosted a large meeting on the results in which every speaker--including myself--was full of praise for Obama and insisted that the U.S.-Israel alliance would remain strong. That was part of an effort to make that happen.

Here's a note to Jewish Obama supporters: Have no illusion. Among Israelis, and among Israelis who want a two-state solution and peace, concern over Obama is very high. Relatively few would accept the extreme right-wing claims that he hates Israel and wants to destroy it. The problem is rather that Obama basically has no warm feeling for Israel, does not understand its strategic importance, does not grasp the nature of the country and its people, does not comprehend the nature and goals of its enemies, and is just too unreliable and not tough enough.

And guess what? The Egyptians, Saudis, Jordanians, and a lot of other relatively moderate Arabs think precisely the same thing.

To repent in Jewish tradition, not unlike several other religions and cultures, the first step is admitting one has transgressed. Obama's denial that there has been anything wrong, much less that he did anything wrong, is not a good start. Why did he do it? Part November elections; part because he needs Netanyahu's cooperation to make the "peace process" seem successful.

Note 1: You might prefer Anwar al-Sadat but remember that he started out as a Nazi sympathizer and played a dovish role for a much shorter time than the Jordanian king. That's not to show a lack of appreciation for Sadat's role in the 1977-1981 period but the king was definitely the more popular figure in Israel.

Note 3: A personal confession. In one article I cutely referred to George W. Bush as "W" and Barack H. Obama as "H," contrasting W and H. For a while after that I sometimes wrote Barack H. Obama, which thoroughly horrified a friend of mine as some sort of anti-foreigner or anti-Muslim slur. The reason I did it was that, after all, it is his name, no one else had done it that way so I thought it distinctive and amusing, and I don't believe in shutting up because some true fact is declared inconvenient. However, rather than get involved in this side issue I've dropped it. My problem with Obama is definitely not his middle name. Nothing would make me happer than to see him alter his policies and be able to write how wonderfully the U.S. government is doing in the Middle East. If that ever happens, I will not hesitate to change my view.

Note 4: Let's see how many months this period of good feeling lasts. I give it to February or March 2011, an issue I will write about soon.

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 books include Paved with Good Intentions: The American Experience and Iran; The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East; and The Truth About Syria. To see and subscribe to his blog go here; for GLORIA Center publications go here.

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