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Tel Aviv Journal: Obama’s Scandalous Approach to the Middle East

What is now clear is that the only help Barack Obama was willing to give to the Arabs was his coldness to the Jewish nation. Or, and I want to be frank, his hostile indifference to Israel. It has been a not quite sub rosa sub-theme of his presidency since the beginning. He had not the slightest idea or maybe couldn’t care less that Zion and Zionism meant the retrieval of the Jews from a harrowing if remarkable history. The president is of the generation—or perhaps the temperament—that knows not the “long is the road” Hebrew story of national philosophical rebirth in the context of 1848, the saga of the pogroms, the disenchantment with bourgeois liberalism, the stubborn persistence of blood libels and its cumulative consequence in the unrivaled catastrophe of the Nazi ghettoes and concentration camps after which, not miraculously but conscientiously, a dispersed community was reborn as a commonwealth and as a state. Unlike the Palestinian pretense, it did not have even to be reimagined, save for its old scriptural language which is now at once practical and poetic. (The literate high Arabic language cutting across cultures, as prosaic Arabic does not, also has its own beauties, both tranquil and heroic, even to someone who reads it only in translation.)

Now, please do not be troubled by my insistent questioning of the authenticity of “the Palestinian nation.” It doesn’t mean that Israel should continue to hold much of the West Bank, and it does not mean that the present voices of the Palestinians are inauthentic either. But they happen to reach for different ends. Most states in the world (and in the United Nations) are not properly nation states, by which I mean that they are mostly accretions of tribal groups—which does not, of course, necessarily translate into “primitive”—or clans, the loyalties of which are to their specific own rather than to the wider rhetorical assemblages that are represented in world politics. Perhaps it is pointless to cavil against an international system when what strains it most is the hostility within rather than among its constituent parts. Zimbabwe and “Democratic” Congo, for example. Algeria, Libya, Egypt, Iraq, Bahrain, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, Sudan, even Jordan: Antagonistic visions animate each of these polities. Like Palestine. Give it a decade or two, and the same will be said for Saudi Arabia. Already the tiny wealthy but all less-wealthy-than-they-were-two-years-ago emirates cannot count their own native-born as a majority and that is because they are in most of them a small minority. It’s a curious point: But the 22-member Arab League and the 57-member Organization of the Islamic Conference usually vote as one. It’s within the individual states and statelets where the rancor expressed is truly felt.

What is curious about Obama’s infatuation with Arab societies (and with non-Arab Muslim societies, too) is that he knows just about nothing about them. And I don’t just mean their histories or theology. What’s clear is that the president grasps pretty close to zero about the actualities of these states, their economic and social realities, the stratifications by tribe and sex, the race between literacy and population growth, the synchrony of tradition with bureaucracy, the stultification of education, the militarization of these polities, their abhorrence of liberal ideas. And the fact is that Obama is neither fast-spirited nor supple. He certainly was blindsided by the turbulence and torment that has wracked the region over more than two months now. Why could he not see the new amidst the crumbling old? And why was he also not liberated a bit from the old order to which he had mysteriously attached himself?

The fact is that Obama is a victim of a certain sort of “orientalism” transmitted to him by his friend Rashid Khalidi carrying the message of Edward Said. Except that this form of the dogma, now hopefully on its last legs in the academy, does not idealize the vision of the imperials. It idealizes whatever Arab reality happens to have survived Western imperialism. Among them is the standing of the hijab or burqa. This is part of the civilizational conflict in the world of Islam and, as I have pointed out at least twice, Obama has spoken up for the looking-backwards end of the dispute. Why should he not, in Cairo and at the White House, have defended the modernizers instead? This would have put him on the side of the future, though if he didn’t want to intrude on an internal Muslim struggle he could have simply shut up. But no. This president thinks he speaks with authority on any topics he chooses to address.

Alright, so Obama patters on about Koranic theology or whispers arcane words, throaty or mellifluous, in Arabic. Wow! He is a vernacular panderer to one group and then another, including the Jews. As anybody current with the conflicts in Arab and Islamic culture understands, the place of memorization in the education of the young is right there at the top. Anybody who has read the various volumes of the United Nations Arab Development Report also understands why this is so. Well, the horrendous prevalence of illiteracy in these countries, where the Prophet’s scripture is hammered into the heads of boys (and now sometimes girls, too), testifies to the deformity of the entire system. Being “progressives,” Barack and Michelle are more than likely to disapprove of rote learning in American schools. But since the president takes each and every opportunity he can to fawn over antiquarian Islam he has also made himself heard on this vexing issue of teaching and knowing.

We now know from many scholars, and especially Dan Diner in his book Lost in the Sacred: Why the Muslim World Stood Still, about which I’ve written several times, that it is not Islam per se but the very restraints on print and the idolization of language, among other factors, that are responsible for the benighted state of intellectual achievement in that orbit. A brand new book by Duke economic historian Timor Kuran, The Long Divergence: How Islamic Law Held Back the Middle East, which I half-read when I was home in Cambridge a fortnight ago, argues that the rules of the religious structure inhibited virtually to a standstill the development of economic and social forces in the region. Kuran ends on an optimistic note and it is based on the near-collapse of the societies without oil and the distorted growth of those with oil. The thesis (and I mean no disrespect): It’s so bad that it has to get better. Of course, it is now mostly about education, which means openness to the new. Society must sign the pledge.

Actually, then, the most shocking thing Obama ever said in my view had little intrinsic or concrete implications for U.S. foreign policy. But it was an endorsement of the awful vocation of memorization of text. He was announcing the appointment of Rashad Hussain, an apparently quite talented student of Middle Eastern affairs, to be the president’s envoy to the Organization of the Islamic Conference. Now, the truth is that the Conference ain’t really much of anything. But it is, by the administration’s own admission, an instrument of its blah-blah diplomacy.

Here is the beginning of the “White House Blog” item of March 7, 2010, posted by Pradeep Ramamurthy, senior director for Global Engagement at the National Security Council:

During his speech in Cairo on June 4, 2009, the President articulated a vision for a New Beginning with Muslims around the world -- one based on mutual respect and the pursuit of partnerships in areas of mutual interest.  Around the world, from Rabat to Jakarta, the United States is engaging Muslim communities around the world and building mutually beneficial partnerships that expand opportunity.  As part of our commitment to dialogue, our embassies have held roundtables with thousands of students, civil society leaders and entrepreneurs, among others, and senior officials like Secretary Clinton have held televised townhalls. 
Over the past nine months, the Administration has been delivering on the specific commitments the President made in his speech – from appointing science envoys, creating a Technology and Innovation Fund, and expanding exchanges to hosting a Summit on Entrepreneurship in April.  But, the U.S. Government has done far more than deliver the specific commitments from President Obama's speech.  For example, while we have partnered with the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) to eradicate polio, we also worked with Saudi Arabia to prevent the spread of H1N1 influenza during hajj. 
The speech in Cairo expressed an overarching vision for our engagement.  To help pursue that vision, the President recently appointed Rashad Hussain to be his Special Envoy to the OIC.  Rashad has played an important role in developing the New Beginning we seek with Muslim communities around the world.  In his new position, he will continue to play a key role in expanding our engagement with Muslims around the world.

And the president added to Hussain’s credentials in his own statement by announcing that his designee was also “a hafiz (memorization student) of the Quaran,” as if this were a high distinction rather than a commonplace. After all, millions and millions of clever boys, many of them actually illiterate and without understanding any of the Arabic in which the holy book is written, have committed the text to their heads. Maybe I am being persnickety in pointing out these small details of Obama’s presentation. But they are telling.

Especially in contrast with his palsied response to the historic revolution of the Arabs that for a few weeks seemed unstoppable. Let’s face it: Obama is petrified by the unprecedented newness emerging in the desert. In Tunisia and Egypt, the crowd moved quickly against the regime, which meant at least that the old regime would be gone. What will happen next is anyone’s guess, except for American intelligence, which has finally lost its credentials for both analysis and prophecy. It was probably the CIA that put us on the side of Hosni Mubarak in the early days of the Tahrir Square manifestations. The president was quiet and then was just sheer bluster, not decisive and not imaginative either. He was not a man of history. Except to move it backwards. 

If any power has allowed Muammar Qaddafi, tyrant and psychotic, to remain in power, it is the clinical allergy to power of our president. He is weak-willed and weak-kneed. Here, after all, was a brave people who’d been brutalized for more than four decades, been run by gangsters and still had the clarity of the lure of liberty. They’d also been unlucky in their northern neighbors across the Mediterranean, Italy and France, who had maintained the vocation of imperials for many decades. Despite this and perhaps because of it Paris and Rome have now dumped their longtime partner in crimes against humanity. Of course, Washington has finally proclaimed Tripoli an illegitimate government. As if a statement without practical action would have any real resonance.

Qaddafi possesses the power of any dictator, men in arms who will follow him and behave brutally. They are waging a war against the rebels but also against the innocent. Bombing from the air without targets, to create chaos and dread. Pace Robert Gates, a no-fly zone would have imperiled nothing except the colonel’s air force.

But the American refusal to recognize the provisional government in Benghazi is the true betrayal of the Arab revolution, of an Arab people and of Arab hope. For were the president to announce that the United States sees the revolutionaries and rebels as the legitimate representatives of their long betrayed people, some $30 billion in assets in our country would be theirs. Perhaps more. This added to the other enormous holdings of the Libyan people in French, Italian, and British banks could make that people free.

Martin Peretz is the editor-in-chief emeritus of The New Republic.

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