Americans don’t always know everything
In a recently published interview, U.S. President Barack Obama recounted a meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House in which he cut off his Israeli guest, who had been trying to convey the complexities of the reality in the Middle East, to tell him: “I’m the African-American son of a single mother, and I live here, in this house. I live in the White House. I managed to get elected president of the United States.”
Obama, who felt Netanyahu was lecturing him condescendingly, added that he was familiar with and understood the situation in the Middle East. Obama is essentially arguing that any person who reaches the White House should be taken seriously, because their very success in winning the U.S. elections proves their political sophistication and expertise.
But with all due respect to Obama, and to his predecessor, American conduct in the Middle East over the years has not necessarily indicated that a strong grasp of the American political system and an ability to win over American voters translates to a deep understanding of the Middle East and how to deal with its intricacies.
The root of the problem for many American administrations, including the current one, is the American tendency to assess the Middle East through the prism of American concepts, as if the people living in the region are American citizens who adhere to an American logic, worldview and political culture. It turns out, however, that protestors in the streets of Arab cities are not necessarily social activists; Islamic movements don’t exactly champion equality and human rights; and local tyrants, like Bashar Assad and the spiritual leader of Iran, neither resemble American political adversaries on the campaign trail nor common street thugs acting violently on the streets of American cities.
It comes as no surprise that an administration that views the crime-filled streets of Chicago and violence in the Middle East through the same lenses has sought to appease the region’s thugs through restraint and patience, not to mention weakness, and has responded in similar fashion to the world’s current mafioso-of-the-moment, Vladimir Putin. In actuality, however, Obama has not secured the goodwill of his adversaries and enemies in the region. Quite the opposite — from the moment they smelled weakness they rose up in a manner of defiance they had never before dreamed possible. At the same time, the Americans squandered the trust of their allies, who felt abandoned and under threat.
Obama’s approach to the Middle East has included two crucial aspects that together had far-reaching and disastrous consequences, not only for America’s status in the region but for its inhabitants. On the one hand, Obama naively sees the Middle East through rose-tinted glasses, befitting his belief that the region and its people seek modernity and democracy, and that the basis for tensions between them and the U.S. is America’s belligerent behavior, highlighted by George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq. On the other hand, Obama’s approach also comes with the cynicism of a cold and calculating businessman trying to cut his losses by selling depreciating stock. In other words, when the reality of the region blew up in his face, he chose to disengage from it while leaving Washington’s friends and allies to fend for themselves.
One cannot deny that a policy of inaction can be beneficial on occasion and can prevent volatile situations from escalating. But the result of Obama’s policies — or lack thereof to be more precise — is that on his watch the Middle East has not only become far less stable but is now a more dangerous place where far more lives have been lost to war than at any time during Bush’s presidency, when American soldiers were sent to fight in the region.
If Obama would have listened to Israel, he could have learned from its firsthand experiences — that while you can disengage from Gaza and Lebanon, those places will not disengage from you and will continue chasing you to your doorstep.