One significant implication of the current fighting in Gaza crystallized for me a few days ago when I read the following post on my fantasy basketball message board: “Cats must think Obama is a %&$$# (rhymes with cushy).”
They must—because the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, the uptick in bombings in Iraq and the Gaza conflagration all signal that a whole assortment of foreign combatants are either getting in their last licks before settling into a protracted stalemate, or they’re very skeptical about Barack Obama’s ability to produce greater stability in those parts of the world.
With less than a week to go before his inauguration, the much-anticipated Obama peace dividend, like a new car that’s been driven just a few miles off the lot, is an asset that is depreciating right before our eyes. And it’s going to get worse before it gets better.
More than one commentator, including me, waxed hopefully during the ’08 campaign that Obama, who opposed the Iraq war at its genesis, was uniquely situated. As a khaki-colored South Side Brahmin, whose name is strikingly similar to that of Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and whose middle name is the Middle Eastern equivalent of Johnson—he could encourage various constituencies in the Arab and Muslim worlds to give the U.S. a fresh look while maintaining our traditional alliance with Israel. But in the last two months, an already vexing task has become that much harder.
Hamas’ breach of a six-month ceasefire, firing rockets across the border into Israel and Israel’s retaliation are playing out more for the benefit of a world audience, including Obama, than for any lasting gains to be made by either side toward resolution of a centuries-old dispute. This command performance of human suffering manages to do several things at once, none of them especially helpful. It is simultaneously:
1. A kiss-off to George W. “Eye-off-the-Ball” Bush.
2. A return on investment for Hamas’ apparent Iranian taskmasters.
3. A security stimulus to an Israeli public still rattled by its inability to effectively fight Hezbollah in 2006.
4. A slap in the face to a feckless, hypocritical E.U.
5. And a violent welcome to the guest of honor, President-elect Obama.
Throughout the transition, Obama has carefully hewed to the convenient proposition that “we only have one president at a time.” But the Gaza situation, inasmuch as it is a proxy for the clash of civilizations between the West and the Muslim world, demands immediate attention.
It’s not just that we have to shift from the ideologically stilted Bush foreign policy to “a marriage of principles and pragmatism” as Secretary of State-designate Hillary Clinton stated in her Senate confirmation hearings, but it has to start ASAP. Vice President-elect Joe Biden had the right idea in making a low-key but high-level visit to Pakistan and Afghanistan two weeks prior to Inauguration Day. It lets the players in the region know that they will be dealing with decision makers, not clerks on ill-conceived errands, as was the regular fate of outgoing Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. In his Jan. 8 speech outlining his economic recovery plan, Obama called on Congress to “act without delay” and warned of dire consequences “if we don’t take dramatic action as soon as possible.” This same sense of urgency should apply to foreign policy.
Israel is our ally—a market-driven, modern, parliament-governed nation-state—and it is this alliance, in tandem with our addiction to oil, and the philosophical intransigence of groups like Hamas, al Qaeda, etc., that keep us engaged in the region. Things might be different if we had not invaded Iraq—we might be regarded as an honest, or at least the most potent peace broker available. But eight years of Bush missteps have hemmed Obama in. All-talk France and Janus-masked Turkey have stepped into the breach with fairly poor results to date. The Obama team can’t afford to take their time getting their sleeves rolled up and putting shoe leather on the ground in the region.
Obama isn’t the cause of, or even an unwitting accessory to any of the intractable problems in the Middle East, and, no doubt, he’ll put his personal charisma and international popularity to use when he takes office. But his global honeymoon—his new car smell—is going to start fading pretty quickly without any decisive initiatives on his part to set the tone, even symbolically, for how he will, if not begin to solve the conflict, at least attempt to move the various combatants toward their respective corners. It might be logical for Obama to wait for things to unfold, but he’d be postponing the inevitable. For the U.S., the Middle East is no longer “you break it, you buy it.” Now the formulation is: “It’s broke, you bought it, you can’t unload it, and it’s just getting worse every day.”
David Swerdlick is a regular contributor to The Root.
David Swerdlick is an associate editor at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.