President Obama’s interview with al-Arabiya television is remarkable in several ways, but what strikes me the most is that it coincided with the first air strikes on Pakistan under his administration: 22 people were killed, including between four and seven Taliban/al-Qaeda bad guys.
In the Arabiya interview, Obama was at his charming best, and the easily charmed were bowled over. Andrew Sullivan, for example, fairly swooned, and announced it’s "about the same thing as inviting Rick Warren or supping with George Will: it’s about R-E-S-P-E-C-T."
What would you say if the police came into your neighborhood to confront reported criminals, killed a few and also managed to knock off 18 or so bystanders? Would you say this shows the police respect the neighborhood?
All the sweet talk won’t drown out the protests of the elected president of Afghanistan, who wants us to stop bombing his people too. Yet, truth be told, Obama’s honeyed words are alluring:
"My job is to communicate the fact that the United States has a stake in the well-being of the Muslim world, that the language we use has to be a language of respect. I have Muslim members of my family. I have lived in Muslim countries."
"Al-Arabiya: The largest one."
"Obama: The largest one, Indonesia. And so what I want to communicate is the fact that in all my travels throughout the Muslim world, what I’ve come to understand is that regardless of your faith and America is a country of Muslims, Jews, Christians, non-believers regardless of your faith, people all have certain common hopes and common dreams."
Even as he was speaking, American drones were snuffing out lives and his generals were planning a wider war. That seems to be the signature Obama style: cool, calm, and collected as he talks out of one side of his mouth, while he’s giving the order to kill out of the other. If that doesn’t scare you, then you’ve probably had a little too much of that sweet-tasting Obama-brand Kool-Aid.
Yes, these issues are all "interrelated," as the current Washington buzzword would have it, albeit not in the way Obama imagines. Many Muslims worldwide watched his interview on the same day perhaps in the same newscast they heard of the Pakistani air strike. It’s a short walk, in this instance, from cognitive dissonance to hypocrisy.
The Arabiya interview had some troubling aspects, an undercurrent of hardness running through the feel-good rhetoric, the mailed fist beneath the velvet glove:
"Now, Israel is a strong ally of the United States. They will not stop being a strong ally of the United States. And I will continue to believe that Israel’s security is paramount. But I also believe that there are Israelis who recognize that it is important to achieve peace. They will be willing to make sacrifices if the time is appropriate and if there is serious partnership on the other side."
"Paramount," according to Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, means "superior to all others." This is what President Obama is telling the peoples of the region: Israel comes first, over and above the Palestinians, the security interests of Israel’s neighbors, and maybe even above any moral concerns one might have. (You’ll note he didn’t condemn Israel’s brutality in Gaza, even though the interviewer gave him ample scope to do so.)
But there’s a message in there for us Americans, too: Israel’s alleged security also trumps U.S. interests in the region, an odd situation that, as Professors John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt pointed out in their book, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, has distorted and in many ways poisoned our relations with the Arab world.
Those who criticize our new president on these grounds are bound to be attacked by the party-liners, as Professor Juan Cole has been if you can take this empty razzing seriously — by the talk-radio lefty Taylor Marsh. Cole’s answer to her is priceless:
"The notion that we should not say something critical of the policy of a Democratic president because it might give aid and comfort to the right-wing enemy is completely unacceptable. It is a form of regimentation, and equivalent to making dissent a sort of treason. We had enough of that the last eight years (it used to be from different quarters that I was accused of traitorously succoring the enemy).
"I am an analyst, and a truth-teller. I don’t work for anyone except, in a vague way, the people of Michigan, who took it into their heads to hire me to tell them about the Middle East, and their charge to me is to call it as I see it. I serve no interest. I am a member of the Democratic Party, but I don’t accept everything in the party platform, and I am not so partisan that I cannot admire politicians and principles of other parties, whether the Greens or (some) Republicans. I didn’t agree to join the Communist Party, such that no dissent is allowed lest it benefit the reactionaries and revanchists."
The occasion for the Obama-ite assault on the respected Professor Cole was "Obama’s War," a Salon.com piece that questioned the president’s announced plan to launch a major escalation of the Afghan war by extending it into Pakistan. As Obama begins to implement this vastly ambitious military campaign, a mindless "you’re giving aid and comfort to the ‘enemy’" mindset will increasingly dominate the pro-Obama airwaves yet on the Internet it’s a different story, and this is the real playing field on which the future of American politics is being contested.
Don’t let the Iraq "drawdown" if and when it occurs fool you. Those troops, for the most part, will be transferred to Afghanistan and environs. Bring the troops home? Not a chance.
Aside from signing on to the "war on terrorism" concept, a generational conflict comparable to the Hundred Years War or both World Wars, Obama has also inherited the Bush doctrine, the central canon of which is military preemption of potential threats. He is now acting on that principle: that’s what the Pakistan air strikes and the Afghan "surge" are all about.
What rationale is there now for continued U.S. military operations in Afghanistan? Osama bin Laden and his crew have long since vanished into obscurity, and there is no real evidence he’s hiding in the wilds of Waziristan, as is constantly inferred. U.S. military operations in Pakistan are a blatant violation of international law, and the potential blowback is frightening to think about. If we destabilize the government of Pakistan, and radical Islamists take possession of the country’s nuclear weapons I don’t even want to think about it. Yet this is a very real danger.
If we are really in for an extended military occupation of Afghanistan, and even parts of Pakistan, let’s hear it from the chief: how long, and at what cost? I’m very much afraid, however, that, like a president he increasingly resembles, he’s apt to say we must pay any price, bear any burden. How many will follow him into that abyss?