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Obama’s View of International Conflict

There are two major factors that explain President Obama’s approach and why it is going so seriously wrong (see Explaining Obama’s Mishandling of Iran, the Middle East and Israel #1 ).

The first factor is that Obama is guided by a distinctive understanding of international conflicts and their resolution. The origins of this view lay in his earlier years as a political activist which were largely spent in communal, religious and labour circles. The main issues involved were with various leftish/liberal/radical activists over causes such as poverty, racism, injustice, lack of opportunities and so on. There’s nothing essentially wrong with that, of course. And in so far as he considers the blame for social ills to originate within the capitalist system and/or with US imperialism and its racism, inequalities, arrogance, this goes a long way towards explaining his radicalism and his associations in Chicago politics.

When applied to an international context this perspective locates the major causes of international injustice and conflict with US capitalism and US hegemony. In this view, the heart of international conflict is the legacy of colonialism, the Cold war, and US culture – all of which Obama highlighted in his Cairo super-speech in 2009. That is, in common with left-leaning liberals and radicals, this perspective sees the US as the major culprit in international affairs.

Consequently, Obama supports fighting the social evils of US capitalism by means of radical change at home and by reducing the use of US power abroad. This is why he is reluctant to play the strong-arm role of what he considers to be a US bully against the victims of colonialism and imperialism. In other words, his weakness internationally is not simply the product of inexperience or attempts to abandon the ‘cowboy’ image of the previous president as many have claimed. It is the deliberate product of a view of the world in which the power of US capitalism at home and abroad is a central problem.

Political postures & political reality

As long as views such as these were confined to left/liberal/radical circles in local and regional affairs, the chief requirements on the international scene largely consisted of the expression of various left/liberal/radical attitudes and the occasional solidarity campaign. Unfortunately, for the president of the US these are hopelessly inadequate.

The reason is that while many will agree that this new non-assertive approach is nice and refreshing, the nasty and dangerous regimes will simply ignore soft-power requests to reciprocate with equal lovableness. Instead, they will grasp with both hands the golden opportunity to obtain advantage created by such weakness (see The Weakness of Obama’s International Leadership #1 ).

Obama’s stance towards Israel and the Palestinians

The second major explanatory factor lies in the dominant view that Obama and his team have towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Typically, as with many who share left/liberal/radical sentiments, they have adopted hugely significant elements of the Palestinian narrative. In essence, they believe that the cause of the conflict is that Israel occupies territory belonging to someone else. In this view, Israel is seen as the imperialist bully and the Palestinian Arabs are the victims.

In other words, Israel is blamed for the violence because the Israeli ‘occupation’ is seen as its source. From this belief it is logical to see that a solution is impossible unless the occupation is ended.

As a result, Obama more or less immediately attacked Israel over the settlements and distanced himself from previous US governments considered to have been too supportive of Israel in its supposed imperialistic domination and control of the Arabs.

As well as accounting for his overall view of the Israel-Palestinian conflict, this also explains the extraordinary outburst against Israel over the issue of the plans for building in Jerusalem – announced when Vice-President Biden was in Jerusalem. Given the background views of the Obama team to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the Obama/Clinton/Biden bombardment against Netanyahu over the planning announcement was probably an explosion waiting to happen.

Apart from the triviality of the issue that triggered the storm, two obvious features stand-out. The first was the entirely one-sided demands directed by the US at Israel. The calculating deliberateness of this was breathtaking. Settlements and Jerusalem are considered ‘final status’ issues by Oslo, the Interim Agreement and the ‘Road Map’. Yet, as requested by the US but without any reciprocal request to the PA, the government of Israel agreed to a temporary period of restraint of settlement construction. In line with government policy for over 40 years, this did not include Jerusalem. All parties were aware of this. Indeed, it was publicly recognized by Secretary of State Clinton in Jerusalem only a few months earlier.

Palestinian provocations

The second outstanding feature was the extraordinary laid-back and forgiving attitude of Obama for the lack of any equivalent ‘peace gestures’ from the Palestinian leadership or other Arab leaders – despite a whole series of continued provocations:

  • the barrage of anti-Semitic propaganda from Palestinian political circles, the mosques, education system and the media;
  • a series of PA events glorifying the ‘martyrs’ (murderers or attempted murderers of Jews);
  • the constant stream of incitement against Israel and propaganda for its overthrow;
  • the continued existence of armed militias;
  • the continued association of PA leaders with states committed to the destruction of Israel;
  • the continued refusal of all Palestinian parties, leaders and militias to recognize the existence of Israel as a Jewish state.

Yet there were no reprimands from Obama. Nor were there any threats of action against the PA; nor even demands for attitude changes and peace gestures from the PA towards Israel. This amazing tolerance effectively tells the PA that the US will be soft towards the Arabs and hard on Israel. It tells them that they can do as they wish without fear of adverse repercussions. Similarly, in the wake of his Cairo super-speech, personal requests by Obama to Egypt and Saudi Arabia for peace gestures towards Israel were rejected out of hand – all without generating any excitement or adverse reaction from Obama. For all intents and purposes, the Obama team was not interested in obstacles presented by Arab or Palestinian to a peace agreement. Their real focus was on Israel.

The real obstacles to a sustainable peace agreement

In reality, the fundamental causes of the Palestinian-Israeli stalemate are quite different to this naïve picture. Yet in its stance towards the Palestinians, the Obama administration has adopted a forgiving and one-sided view that in practical terms disregards the Palestinian refusal to recognize Jewish national rights and the rights of Israel to exist as a Jewish state within secure and recognized borders. This is compounded by a dispassionate and placid approach that for all practical purposes chooses to ignore Palestinian and Arab intentions to destroy Israel.

Further, by placing the key element of blame on Israel as the basic cause of the conflict, the Obama view entirely disregards the legal claims of Israel to Judea-Samaria/West Bank derived from the Palestinian Mandate of the League of Nations and the United Nations. It also completely ignores that Israel captured Judea-Samaria/West Bank from Jordan, which illegally occupied the territory that didn’t belong to it, in a defensive war to preserve its own existence. Such blindness to context and the reality of the conflict demonstrates the complete misunderstanding of this view towards the dynamics of the conflict.

Why the 2-state solution cannot work

As a result, when Obama claims that the 2-State Solution will satisfy the justifiable national aspirations of the Palestinians and the justifiable security aspirations of Israel, he is completely wrong.

The reasons are simple:

  • the satisfaction of Palestinian aspirations will deny Israel’s security needs;
  • the satisfaction of Israeli security needs will deny Palestinian aspirations.

For as long as the dominant Palestinian narrative retains its lethal intentions towards Israel and refuses to acknowledge the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state, neither Palestinian nor Israeli aspirations can possibly be satisfied and the conflict will continue.

In reality, the liberal preference for the apparently reasonable compromise of the 2-State Solution completely disregards the deadly intentions that Hamas, Syria, Hizbollah, the PA and its constituent organizations have towards Israel. Likewise, the liberal perspective ignores the fact that these organizations are not in any sense liberal. Nor are they the slightest bit interested in a liberal solution. In other words, it misses the real core issue that for these organizations the main problem is not the behavior of Israel but the existence of Israel.

To be concise, the critical obstacle to any permanent agreement for the 2-State Solution is the dominance of non-western, non-liberal and non-democratic attitudes among the Arab/Palestinians that rejects all Jewish national rights and claims. This transforms what the advocates of the 2-State solution believe ought to be a win-win conflict into a zero-sum/winner-takes-all conflict.

Conflict resolution

This is very difficult for many western liberal-minded thinkers to comprehend. It is extraordinarily difficult for minds that are free of fanaticism to understand that a desire for an amicable compromise in which the interests of all parties are considered is not ‘natural’ for everyone. As a result, they find it impossible to comprehend the mind-set of such fanaticism and intransigence.

They find it unbelievable.

There are many reasons for this liberal lack of comprehension. For example, in the ‘west’ there is a well-established and widely accepted method for resolving disputes through negotiation, finding common ground, compromise and so on. The preference for peaceful negotiations and solutions, based on the recognition of mutual rights and interests, has produced the concept of ‘win-win’ solutions to problems. Many centuries of conflict have meant that this lesson has been learned the hard way and it has now become the dominant frame of mind in the west.

This has produced a powerful inclination not to abandon a method that, without being perfect, is generally seen as the best model around. This conviction is so strong that by extension it is widely seen as best for everyone. But the key requirement for its success is that the conflicting parties agree to it. The reason this works so well in the west is because it has become a generally accepted assumption based on a shared background of common cultural and legal values. That is, all parties more or less believe it. They think within its framework.

Shared & conflicting values

By contrast, without this shared belief not all conflicts have the potential for win-win solutions. In order to produce a win-win solution in these circumstances, one or more of the parties would need to take on an entirely different frame of mind. For example, Hamas would have to be something other than Hamas. But the reality is that Hamas remains a fanatical, genocidal terrorist organization intent on destroying Israel and establishing a religious dictatorship. In other words, the accommodating concept of a win-win solution is not within its frame of mind. Nor is it within the frame of mind of the PA, Hizbollah, Syria or Iran.

Yet historically speaking, the search for answers to conflicts where win-win solutions were impossible is not a new problem for liberalism or democracy. For example, finding a win-win compromise between a Europe dominated by Nazism and a Europe free from Nazi domination was also impossible. The question is: was there any liberal or democratic solution to that conflict other than the total defeat of the Nazis?

The way forward

In practical terms, any assessment of the chances for a lasting peace absolutely must deal with the real obstacles. These are formidable and fundamental. The failure to deal with them explains why all previous peace attempts have failed. Obama’s attempts will also fail. The only real issue is how dangerous and damaging the failure will be. Chief among the obstacles that are downplayed or avoided are:

  • the outright refusal of the Palestinians to recognize the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state with recognized and secure borders as the basis for an end to the conflict;
  • the continued existence and activity of terrorist organizations committed to the destruction of Israel;
  • the flood of the crudest anti-Semitism throughout Palestinian society: politics, media, mosques and education system;
  • the glorification of the so-called ‘martyrs’;
  • the non-stop promotion of the idea of the ‘liberation’ of all Palestine;
  • the association of Palestinian leaders and organizations with non-Palestinian organizations and states committed to the destruction of Israel.

The way backward

With a US administration that fails to address these obstacles and prefers to pressurize Israel, Israel is not reassured. As a result, it is impossible for Israel to believe in the so-called ‘partner-for-peace’ preferred by the US, UN and EU. Without solving these issues there is no basis for Israeli trust or confidence in PA or that any agreement really will be an end to the conflict. The constant fear is that no matter how solemnly any agreement is presented or how massive the diplomatic support for it from other states, it will not be an end to the conflict at all; it will be a new stage of it with Israel in a severely disadvantaged position.

Yet acceptance of the naïve, left/liberal version of the Palestinian narrative by the Obama administration results in these issues being consistently ignored or downplayed. Apart from revealing a one-sided ideological view of the conflict, this is a dangerous misreading of its driving forces. As a result, with neither understanding of these issues nor solutions in sight, it will be a miracle if meaningful rather than even show negotiations begin.

Furthermore, any supposed settlement, imposed or otherwise, that leaves the conditions for the conflict in place cannot be either peaceful or sustainable. Without a resolution of these obstacles, the chances for the desired happy-ending of a lasting peace are entirely non-existent. The misguided approach of President Obama shows absolutely no signs of appreciating this. Instead, it shows every sign of making matters worse.

The Winston Churchill process

Of course, if Obama were to focus on the face-saving appearance of ‘looking good’ by the achievement of at least some kind of negotiation between Israel and the Palestinians, he would do far less damage. Naturally, such negotiations would lead nowhere in any fundamental sense. As long as the PA, along with its constituent parts, and Hamas refuse to recognize Israel as a Jewish state with secure and recognized borders, all negotiations will remain confined to mini-maneuvering for political position and various small matters well away from any possible agreement on the core issues. Unfortunately, it looks as if Obama is too ideologically motivated to recognize this or be satisfied with it.

Winston Churchill said something along the lines that the Americans could always be trusted to do the right thing – after they’ve first tried the alternatives. Currently, it’s impossible to have high confidence in this. To have Churchill’s confidence in the US isn’t necessarily the same thing as having confidence in a particular government or its policies. But these can be changed. This gives us hope that at some stage the US administration will move beyond the first stage of Churchill’s process onto the second.

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