It is not actually his region. Still, with the arrogance that is so characteristic of his behavior in matters he knows little about (which is a lot of matters), he entered the region as if in a triumphal march. But it wasn’t the power and sway of America that he was representing in Turkey and in Egypt. For the fact is that he has not much respect for these representations of the United States. In the mind of President Obama, in fact, these are what have wreaked havoc with our country’s standing in the world. So what—or, rather, who—does he exemplify in his contacts with foreign countries and their leaders? His exultancy gives the answer away. It is he himself, lui-mème. Alas, he is a president disconnected from his nation, without enthusiasts for his style, without loyalists to his policies, without a true friend unless that’s what you can call his top aide de camp,Valerie Jarrett, which probably you can. Obama is lucky, but it’s the only luck he has, that there are nutsy Republican enemies who aspire to his job. Maybe Rick Perry can save him from … well, yes, himself. I wouldn’t take bets on that, though.
Obama’s first personal excursions into the Middle East as president were to Turkey and Egypt. Recep Tayyip Erdogan welcomed his visit. Indeed, the president’s journey set the framework for the Ottomanization of modern Turkey’s foreign policy. The 1923 Treaty of Lausanne formally abrogated the empire’s previous rights in North Africa, these being the rights it had lost in the First World War. From then on, the country was content to make trouble only for the Kurds across its borders and for Greece. A member of NATO, with more than 600,000 troops under arms (omitting more than half a million reservists and paramilitary), it certainly played a role in deflecting Soviet ambitions in the Mediterranean. Now, with the Russian threat (temporarily?) deferred, the military still faces minor annoyance from Georgia, Armenia, Iraq. But since Obama communed with Erdogan—by all accounts, it was love at first sight—the prime minister has been taking on new projects. Only in the last days has he made what can reasonably be called a conqueror’s march through Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia, evoking the old empire’s rule in North Africa not so long ago.
After all, let’s face it: Egypt is simply spent. Erdogan can seduce it with a speech or two. Yet it does have up-to-date military equipment. But, if it were tempted by war with Israel, Jerusalem would not give it the respectful pity that it gave Cairo’s Third Army 38 years ago. The Egyptian military has lost control of the Sinai to the Bedouins, even though Israel has already permitted thousands of Egyptian regulars, contravening specific prohibitions of the bilateral 1979 peace treaty, to re-enter the peninsula with heavy military equipment. For far into the future, I would assume. So what about the construction of Egypt in political, judicial, and economic terms? I’d give you heavy odds that in a decade or even two the political system will still be as undemocratic and corrupt as it has been since the comic and corpulent King Farouk reigned. By the way, it was the CIA’s Middle East head spook who initiated the coup that dispatched the monarch and his family to Italy and then to Monaco where he joined other deposed royals in the sedentary life. After Farouk came the reign of the colonels, a model favored by Allen Dulles whose wisdom spooked the region ever since. The courts will be fair when hell freezes over which, given global warning, is not at all likely. And the economy? My, my: With the desertification of the land, the high birth rate, and the functional illiteracy of most of the population, do not believe that anything will change quickly or, for that matter, anything much will change at all.
Were it not for Libyan oil, no country would have been tempted to intervene on “the shores of Tripoli” again. Even with its oil and with NATO intervention, the outcome of the civil war will not be as clear as folks like me had hoped or as decisive as the huge claque of always optimistic Arabisants have already concluded. Tout va bien. (Speaking of other Arabisants—without Arabic, incidentally—I wonder what my sort-of Harvard colleagues Stephen Walt and Joseph Nye now have to say about their notable protege Saif al-Qaddafi. Indeed, Walt has written against targeted killing by the alliance in Libya, doubtless making a pitch to save Saif’s ass. Yet the Kennedy School professor doesn’t seem nearly as interested in the random killings of Jews by Palestinians and other Arabs.) Under Qaddafi, Libya set its sights southward, trying to become a major force in sub-Saharan Africa. African leaders took the country’s petrodollars and gave Qaddafi the preposterous titles he required for his self-respect. He did become a comrade of Robert Mugabe and other gangster politicians, and even Nelson Mandela, yes, the sainted Nelson Mandela, has stood by him through thick and thin. But this augurs nothing special for the future of Libya. On the other hand, Erdogan’s stage show in Tripoli does put Turkey at the top of the list to dominate the crazy tyrant’s family business in oil.
Frankly, Tunisia doesn’t matter much in high politics. History was mostly made on its people rather than by them. When, for example, Israel drove the leadership of Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization out of Lebanon, the Arab League forced the organization onto Habib Bourguiba’s calm country from which it continued its elevated work. Bourguiba tried nonetheless to pacify the Israeli conflict with the Palestinians, to no avail, of course. Jews settled in this region long ago, after the destruction of the First Temple. So Tunisia was the home of one of Jewry’s earliest and most significant settlements outside its promised land. What with the “return,” however, and the emergence of Palestinian terror, there are fewer than 1,800 Jews in the country, a rough thousand in the legendary island of Djerba and the rest in Tunis. The Berber presence has played a role in both the Libyan and Tunisian revolt. But since journalists have barely heard of the Berbers they will not get their due in the media. This will soon change. Of course, Erdogan has now more or less placed the Turkish flag on this turf and he will extract whatever he can from the country. Good news: Small though it is, Tunisia is the most advanced country in the Maghreb, not a huge or intimidating comparative pool. Still.
All of this is in no way real big potatoes for Erdogan. But he surely required a build-up by someone at the top to pull off even this relatively modest adventure. That top guy was Barack Obama. And I suspect that the president is not surprised by the malevolently cranky despot’s success in l’Afrique du nord. The real query is whether Obama is at all startled by Erdogan’s seriously consequential mischief against Israel. I am not reporting. But I can well imagine the president of the U.S. and the prime minister of Turkey having a good chat about the troubles the Netanyahu government brings to the area where Islam is the dominant mode of thought, the dominant way of life, and the dominant religion. If such a conversation took place it was surely at Obama’s initiative. He was the one whose conscience burned for the question of Palestine.
As it happens, Erdogan had never shown much empathy for the trials of his Palestinian fellow-faithful. The contrary is true. The posture of his country for decades was that it and Israel would through their dominance on the military scene pacify the neighborhood. Israel considered Turkey a buffer against Muslim millenarianism. To Turkey, Israel was a vital trade partner, a technocratic mentor, an ace in the hole against Islamic fanaticism which surged all around it, most significantly in Iraq and Iran. But Erdogan had raised the passions of Turkey’s own ummah in his movement’s political conflict with both of his enemies, civil society and the military. Trying to use religious extremism also made him captive of its fanatics.
The instrument of this mobilization was mounting a campaign against the Jewish state. There were gradual lead-ups to the confrontation between the Israeli military and a noxious combo of the Free Gaza Movement (a Hamas affiliate) and the International Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief. But the IHH, shorthand for this flatulently named and militantly hostile agit-prop group, had no other object than to get the IDF to fire on its flotilla. As it happens, even an independent UN investigation found this spring that Israel’s intercession was entirely legal, if a bit too eager. Still, Erdogan has clutched on to the cause and he won’t let it go. He gave a hardline speech to the Arab League in support of the Palestinian campaign to get the UN to recognize and give credentials to the phantom state. Ankara is now fully enlisted in the PA’s effort to substitute an insubstantial resolution sanctioning a “state” for a real transaction setting one up with the intricate and, indeed, cumbersome provisions that alone might end a century-old war.
Now, even the Obama administration is hostile to this effort. Some of the team, especially Dennis Ross and our ambassador in Israel, Daniel Shapiro, have followed this saga for decades. It realizes that this is not the first time that the Palestinians have declared statehood. In fact, 124 of the 193 governments represented at the United Nations already have recognized the State of Palestine. Presumably, the Palestinian Authority has dispatched ambassadors to some of these countries, although I don’t know with what activities they fill their time. No doubt, also, a good number of these recognizing states send their ambassadors to wherever the State of Palestine really is. Which actually is nowhere. Or maybe Ramallah where it would be quite an adventure for a young diplomat to serve. Jeffrey Goldberg has just published a piece in Bloomberg Businessweek arguing that “Palestine May Win a Vote, But Won’t Be a State.” That’s the way I see it too.
I wish there would be a Palestinian state, not because there is actually a real Palestinian people. I’m not persuaded of that. And, of course, I don’t think that there is a Nigerian people which is why, when younger, I was an active supporter of Biafra, the would-be Ibo state, squashed by an indifferent world in behalf of the territorial integrity of, yes, Nigeria which is breaking apart before our eyes, in part because of the machinations of Muslim extremism. The world will some day have to come to grips with the fact that most governments are not really representative of their peoples. The whole notion of a country’s UN membership being a certificate of legitimacy is morally corrupt. UN membership is an admission ticket to the expensive blandishments of New York.
So I want a Palestine because I want Israelis not to have to burden themselves with an internal population that has neither the coherence of a nation nor a tradition of democratic norms. President Obama is enamored of the current Palestinian narrative, as false as it is self-pitying. This is a simple narrative and an over-simple projection into the future. It assumes that a 1949 map of the cease-fire lines—yes, of course, with appropriate but tiny land exchanges—will assure the peace. I do not think it assures anything except that Israel would be deflected from the art and science of building an ever freer society, a chore—if you’ll forgive me—it has shown some talents in doing. I do not know Obama’s head. Maybe nobody does. But his fervent and fervid clamoring for a simple Israeli route to an independent Palestine misled no people so much as the Palestinians. When he retreated from his formulae, which the PA assumed he could impose on Israel, they were already on an independence high. His somber entreaties could not bring them back to any semblance of reality.
This conundrum of a non-negotiated state for the Palestinians appeals to the ardent déclarateurs. It ignores the fact that free and responsible politics has never been a habit in the Arab world. Read me right: never. There is nothing in Palestinian history to have made the Arabs of Palestine an exception to this stubborn commonplace now being played out again in virtually every country in the region. A commitment is never a commitment. A border is never a border. A peace is never long-lasting. Turkey has now added its serious mischief to the scenario. Erdogan himself will now unravel Cairo’s peace with Jerusalem, as Erdogan has already locked the PA into phantom international politics.
Poor Barack Obama. His adoring view of Erdogan has stimulated the Turkish regime to be a force not for stability in Cairo or reason in Ramallah. What’s more, Obama’s Palestinian initiatives have all collapsed. But the most striking collapse of his Arab politics has been in Syria where he posited that there were sensible and dependable men with whom Israel could make peace. Of course, that would entail giving up the Golan Heights (which are not the Great Plains) to Dr. Assad. The administration courted the family tyranny and its epigones. Responsible, reasonable, reserved. Two smart-assed Jewish boys were dispatched to play computer games with the Damascus elite. They were also enthused by the possibilities. I know that none of these people pulled the triggers on any of the thousands who are now dead. They just encouraged the clan to think they will get away with murder forever.
The fact that Obama so thoroughly misunderstands the Middle East, so thoroughly also misunderstands militant Islam, has blotted out for both the Arabs and the Israelis the bona fides of the official American intermediaries. It is not simply that some of them are biased, a bit to Israel, a much larger cohort to the victim mentality of the Palestinians and to the oil deposits of other Arabs. It is that this administration has been stupid about the whole region and entranced with the Palestinian narrative which is, to be utterly brash but candid, nearly wholly false.
Martin Peretz is editor-in-chief emeritus of The New Republic.