Obama’s UN Gambit For a Legacy
I have been wanting to write a retrospective of the Obama presidency for months (anyway Bret Stephens did a better job today than I could ever do) but decided to wait until he left office in January because of exactly what happened on Friday at the UN. And, Obama is not done yet. He is no lame duck. He will not content himself with Facebook pictures of golf in the oval office, dancing with the elderly and awarding medals to Ellen. Nor is this UN resolution the end of his efforts on Israel or anywhere else. He is in desperate search of a real legacy.
Greater minds can argue as to whether the economic performance of the United States over the last 8 years was excellent as Obama contends or simply the result of massive money printing and ballooning national debt during his tenure. We can sit and debate ad nauseam whether Obamacare was a moral imperative or a burden that will crush many US businesses. Donald Trump’s unlikely election as the next President probably says more about what Americans think about these topics than anything I would write, but as I said, greater minds can debate it.
However, I think it is almost obvious to state that his Foreign Policy has been an unmitigated disaster. To be fair, he did not inherit a great situation from President Bush. Iraq and Afghanistan were a mess and radical Islam was already ascendant. However, Obama’s job as President was and is to reverse that. His job as a world leader is to reduce violence on the global stage and increase chances for peace. I think it is fair to say that since he has assumed office, more troubled fronts have been opened and nowhere in the world is safer today than 8 years ago other than Iran. I plan to dive into his missteps with Russia, Syria, China, Venezuela (remember that handshake?), Israel, the Palestinians and others in a later post. Let’s just say that peace is farther away than ever in those places and even the US is in more danger. In fact, t this point even Obama has woken up to the threat from Russia that Mitt Romney articulated so well, but only after his named successor lost an election and he perceived Russian intervention. In this post, I want to focus on his decision to abstain in Friday’s UN vote on Israel.
Most of my friends in Israel are horrified, calling Obama all sorts of derogatory names and citing his ongoing animus toward Israel. The Israeli government has lashed out at the outgoing President saying he stabbed Israel in the back. Actually, I think none of these claims are relevant or, at a minimum, they are beside the point.
This resolution is nasty and as Dershowitz has called it, somewhat of a bait and switch with really negative language. However, Obama has a worldview that he clearly articulated early in his presidency beginning with his speech in Cairo and on other occasions. He believes that Israel is a colonialist power and that this is true at least since 1967. Samantha Power said as much in her remarks at the UN when she admitted that “settlements” are not the cause of the conflict. However, they are a useful narrative to someone who is trying to describe Israel as a colonialist power. It also explains why Obama fixated on a total “settlement” freeze so early in his presidency.
Obama also believes that much of the Muslim world is oppressed and, in his frame of reference, like under-privileged Chicago youth, if you just give them a chance, it will be OK. Much like those under-privileged youth, his progressive liberal approach is to make few demands and just give ’em a chance. I am not justifying this world view. I am explaining it.
As a liberal, he prefers handouts to demands. Let’s give out healthcare and money and get people in a more positive frame of mind (Samantha Power said that too). Give up Jerusalem and uproot hundreds of thousands of people, so that we can get the Palestinians to a more productive place. Giving handouts without demands always ends badly, increasing demands and intransigence while feeding the fear and anger of those on the giving side.
Therefore, in the case of the Palestinians, as the one “oppressed” by colonialists he makes no demands of the underdog, choosing instead to put the entire onus on the “favorite.” Just give ‘em a chance. Building homes becomes the equivalent of taking away all hope. And when you stop building homes for 10 months as Netanyahu did and the underdog does not pull themselves up by the bootstraps, you just say “not their fault. whaddya expect? give ‘em another chance.” Similarly, he avers that if we just stop the name-calling of Islamic terror, it will go away. It is born from this same worldview: Islamic terror is like a school yard bully or a “JV Team” version of that inner-city thug.
People chose to ignore Obama’s worldview out of their liberal sensitivities, excitement that an African American could win the presidency or a hope that the presidency would moderate him or make him more pliable on these heavy issues. But this was always who he was and how he saw the world. Alternatively, like the NY Times crowd that cheered him on, they agreed with Obama’s perspective and no facts (Ehud Barak’s offer in Camp David, 10 month settlement freeze etc.) to the contrary could convince them that Israel was neither a colonialist nor could they do much about Palestinian intransigence. This, worldview coupled with the NY Times, J-Street echo chamber has led Obama astray in his search for legacy.
As an academic, Obama prefers speech giving and “diplomacy” to actually wielding a stick. Ask the hundreds of thousands of Syrians murdered since Obama’s invisible line was crossed. I actually think he does not care about those dead. In his view, they are caught up in a civil war. Civil wars happen so you don’t do stupid $%&* and intervene. You can contrast this with the genuine tears he shed after school shootings in America. Those reminded him of his Chicago roots and brought him to tears. Those were murders of the strong against the weak and in places where it should not happen. Ironically, the dead in Syria are a Syrian issue even while he considers the lack of progress on the Obama mideast peace train to be the responsibility of the democratically elected “colonialist power” and an integral part of his legacy. But you know what Emerson said about “Foolish Consistencies…”
Moreover, he is quite similar to Bibi Netanyahu. They are both ruthlessly political. Obama ran roughshod over congress on Iran and other executive orders in much the same way Bibi manipulates his government and ministers to get his way. They both are political-media artisans, employing and deploying the media (read Jeffrey Goldberg and Sheldon Adelson respectively) and now social media very effectively to get their way. They are both brilliant orators. And, I would argue, they both prefer behind-your-back moves to direct, collegial engagement. It is not hard to see how personal animosity developed between them.
Obama moved to censure Israel at the UN by deploying Senegal and New Zealand Christmas Eve and after Shabbat had started in Jerusalem. Remember, this is the same guy who called Bibi a chicken$%&* using an “advisor” as a cover. Bibi, of course, operated behind Obama’s back to secure himself a speech at the US congress to denounce the “bad deal” on Iran. The cat and the kettle are both black.
Just like Obama likes to lecture, Bibi decided to lecture Obama, in the Oval Office. Lecturing the President of the United States in the Oval Office is even a bigger affront than repudiating his signature foreign policy move in Congress. Obama disrespected Bibi from the start, viewing him as a republican and colonialist, curse words in his lexicon. Obama in my opinion lacked sophistication on understanding Jewish connection to Israel and the history of Israel’s wars and I think Bibi tried to educate him on this matter. And, while I actually understand Bibi in this regard and think he is right, there is a time and place for everything.
Politicians, especially those from Chicago, have long memories. 18 months ago I argued in the Huffington Post that Israel and American Jews should not lobby against the Iran deal. This helps explain why American Jews (even Obama supporters) and Jewish groups lost the small clout they had in this administration (Obama does not care about them). Obama is still seething about the speech in Congress and the Lobbying effort; he knows that his Iran deal is in trouble with President Trump on the way and the Iranians breaching the deal. So he decided to leave a different signature, a UN resolution against Israel and Israelis, whom he sees as drifting right — read colonialist in his view. Of course, his failures are responsible in a large measure for this drift right. Because you see, reality in this case is more complex than the streets of Chicago and when you do not understand people’s fears and motivations properly, you make mistakes. Big nasty mistakes.
Now, Obama, having failed to unseat Bibi using State Department funds in the last Israeli election, wanted to inflict a final blow, one that could chase Bibi and the entire Israeli government and military establishment all over the world. With the spite and myopia of a Chicago politician, he succeeded…for now.
But it is important to point out that this one move in a larger Obama inititive. This is not all and this is not all about Israel. Obama knows that Trump is about to reverse the even minor accomplishments of his Presidency. He is therefore quickly putting as many people, edicts and processes in place as possible before he turns over the oval office to Trump. Like on the issue of energy where he is putting facts on the ground, on the issue of Israel, he knows what Trump thinks: just look at the ambassador he appointed and Bibi’s ear to ear smile after the election. Hence, he knew exactly what to do to tie Trump’s hands on the issue of Israel. This also hurts Trump’s Jewish family, led by one of the election’s masterminds Jared Kushner.
Obama needed to leave a “legacy” behind and knew he could not do it in Congress. He is leaving office with no real successful legacy in foreign policy so he did the next best thing. He turned to his old ally in internationalism, the UN. It is the perfect plan of Chicago political revenge and it is the perfect legacy, given the cards he had. When the consequences from this UN gambit play out, his two nemeses will catch the %$&@ in their face: Bibi Netanyahu and Donald Trump. Obama will have scratched his anti-colonialist itch, passed on responsibility for the mess and fly away from the White House with his Nobel Peace Prize.
Obama is nobody’s fool. He knew that the vast majority of Israel’s public would revolt against this move as would Congress, many democrats and the Jewish community in the United States. So I think there is an additional reason. Presidential libraries are expensive. The foundations of former Presidents like Carter and Clinton have successfully garnered billions of dollars. Obama wants that too. Presidents gain future pulpits and relevance through these libraries and foundations. I think there are probably a number of donors who thought this anti-Israel resolution was a good idea in the wake of Hillary’s defeat and we would not be surprised to find them on the list of donors to the Obama Presidential Library in Chicago.
Unfortunately for us, as he flies off with his Nobel Prize, Obama, I believe, has hastened a military confrontation. I believe his last minute heavy-handed moves have and will hurt both Israelis and Palestinians. He is to blame for this. There is no way a Palestinian leadership can now agree to anything less than the “borders” that the UN resolution articulates and that includes much of Jerusalem and the Israeli public and government will not agree to it either. In his petulance and naïveté, he has set the terms for armed conflict.
This move will likely negatively impact the UN’s standing as well (that might be a blessing). As I said above, his consistent success in muffing foreign policy played out here as well. For a President whose mantra was “don’t do stupid #$%&,” his final foreign policy legacy will be slinging stupid #$%& that will hit our collective fan while he sits in his Presidential Library and lectures from his pulpit for the next many decades. Did someone say Jimmy Carter? Nah, at least Carter had Camp David for a legacy.