Posturing, Policy and Jerusalem

Paul Pillar

U.S. Embassy in Tel AvivRestoration to the Democratic Party's platform of language declaring Jerusalem to be the capital of Israel provides several reasons to shake one's head, out of either bemusement or disgust. We all know, of course, what this move is about: AIPAC lobbying and the Republicans' belief that they can win votes by out-Israeling the Democrats led to a Democratic decision, evidently by President Obama himself, not to take a chance on losing votes by not having that language in the platform. There is nothing unusual about this, with regard to how anything related to Israel customarily plays in American politics. But this particular move has other odd aspects.

One is that although restoration of the language may have been ordered by the president, it directly contradicts the administration's policy on Jerusalem, which is that the city's status should ultimately be determined through direct negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. But the disconnect is true not only of the Democrats or the Obama administration; this has been the policy of the last several administrations, notwithstanding what has appeared in their respective parties' platforms. This is not to say that an election outcome would definitely make no difference regarding this issue. Any difference, however, would be chiefly a difference between a first-term president who would be running for re-election and has demonstrated an inclination to shape his positions in whatever way is needed to win elections, and a second-term president who would not be running for anything and thus would have more flexibility.

Another odd aspect arises when reflecting on comments by a spokeswoman for the Romney campaign, as that campaign tried to capitalize on the fact that the Democrats had ever wavered on the issue at all. “Now is the time,” she said, “for President Obama to state in unequivocal terms whether or not he believes Jerusalem is Israel's capital.” “Believe”? That makes it sound as if the question is one of accepting some transcendental truth, rather than fashioning a diplomatic position. If one were to deal in policies rather than posturing, her demand should be rephrased to one of the president stating in unequivocal terms whether he believes that the longstanding U.S. stance of being an honest broker should be abandoned in favor of fully taking Israel's position on a major matter in dispute between Israel and the Palestinians, notwithstanding the legitimacy of the conflicting positions or how such a change in U.S. policy would affect U.S. interests in the Middle East.

The political posturing on this topic is reprehensible, mainly because it ignores the fact that U.S. interests differ from Israeli interests, not only on the salient issue of the moment regarding Iran but on other things as well. U.S. interests differ even more from a particular Israeli government's conception of U.S. interests.

The disconnect between the politics of an issue and sound policy on the issue is especially marked on matters involving Israel because the Israel lobby is exceptionally strong in American politics. But one could also look on this as an extreme example of a broader phenomenon, which is that some of the sharpest tensions in the making of foreign policy are not between political elements such as Republicans and Democrats (on Israel-related issues, look at how much supporters of President Obama can point to in response to the Republicans' effort to pose as greater lovers of Israel) but instead between the realm of public politics—with all of its posturing—on one hand, and the realm of careful, real-world policy-making on the other hand.

Much foreign policy is constructed in the latter realm (mostly in many inter-agency deliberations involving bureaucrats and political appointees alike) with little interference from the former because it does not happen to involve salient issues in domestic politics or powerful domestic interests. But sometimes the political realm intrudes. And when it does, it often does so in primitive and inconsistent ways that have more to do with posturing and pandering than with sound strategy, or with anything that makes the construction of sound strategy possible.

In an ideal system, democratic politics would yield broad principles and objectives that would serve as terms of reference for strategists inside government to construct policies. But unfortunately American democratic politics do not work that way. The matter involving Jerusalem isn't even one of the worst examples, because on this issue a policy has continued despite contrary posturing. It is a sad fact that to the extent U.S. foreign policy has exhibited wisdom and consistency, this is in spite of, not because of, the workings of the political system to which policymakers are ultimately answerable.

TopicsBureaucracyDomestic PoliticsElectionsThe PresidencyPost-Conflict RegionsIsraelUnited StatesPalestinian territories

Obama's Wilsonian Pedigree

The Buzz

George Will has been churning out columns for nearly four decades, and still he’s capable of cutting through the dross of political argument to produce a defining nugget of civic analysis. He did so on Thursday with a column in the Washington Post headlined “Obama the transformer.”

It’s true the column was somewhat derivative of a recent book by Claremont McKenna College’s Charles Kesler. Entitled I Am the Change: Barack Obama and the Crisis of Liberalism, the book argues that America has had four transformative progressive presidents bent on untethering the government from what Will calls “the Constitution’s constricting anachronisms.” But Will offers abundant political philosophy of his own in exploring Kesler’s thesis. 

The first three transformative progressives were Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson—all bent on expanding the federal government’s prerogative to take power from the people, to whom it then doles out “certain rights,” as FDR put it. This is the inverse of the Founders’ concept that rights are inherent in human existence, and governments are instituted to protect them, not bestow them.

Wilson, writes Will, essentially rejected the Founders’ formulation because he thought it was an impediment to progress. Here’s where the fourth transformative progressive enters the picture. Writes Will: “The pedigree of Obama’s thought runs straight to Wilson.”

Wilson’s concept was extended by FDR, who saw government as “an instrument of unimagined power” for social improvement. He talked about the “rulers” (a word anathema to the Founders) giving the people “certain rights.” Will quotes Kesler as saying this represents “the First Law of Big Government: the more power we give the government, the more rights it will give us.”

Kesler adds: “Since our rights are dependent on government, why shouldn’t we be?” Indeed, says Will, that pretty much sums up Obama’s view of government and citizen. It comes from FDR’s vision of “an unlimited civilization capable of infinite progress.”

But what Americans want now, says Will, is “not flights of fancy but…a mature understanding of the limits of government’s proper scope and actual competence.” This is a smart analysis by a premier commentator.


Flash in the Bedpan

The Buzz

Many journalists have reacted to Ann Romney’s RNC speech. But few have done so with the shocking insensitivity of the Daily Beast’s Judith Grey in a piece yesterday titled “Ann Romney’s Big Boo Boo.” Grey derides Ann Romney for omitting the minutiae of MS from her speech:

She failed to play the best card in her hand—the MS card ... If [Mitt] stayed up with her through the night, she should have mentioned it. If he had to carry her upstairs, she should have said so. If he emptied her bedpans, she should have shared that too. … Instead, [Ann] chose to gloss over the subject and speak in generalities. She challenged the notion that she’d had a perfect life given that she’d had five sons, MS, and breast cancer. ‘A storybook marriage?’ she asked rhetorically. ‘No, not at all.’ That was it. That was all she thought to say about the topic.

What a survivor Ann Romney is. Not only has she had to battle against MS, but now she has to endure unwarranted attacks from people like Judith Grey. Sure, the Romneys were lucky to have access to the best care money could buy, but MS couldn’t have been an easy fight. The incurable disease undoubtedly continues to affect Ann’s mental and physical health in private ways that she’d rather not share with the American public. Grey’s bashing of Ann Romney for withholding the contents of her bedpans seems to venture into the unthinkable.

As any caretaker can attest, lifelong illnesses like MS often have deeply unglamorous moments. To suggest that Ann Romney has failed as a spouse and, in this case, a political tool by insufficiently exploiting her own suffering for the benefit her husband (something I can’t imagine he would want) is more than ridiculous—it crosses a line of civility.

Whatever your political leanings, the family of a presidential candidate should not be maimed by the media for keeping its most private moments private, no less the ones that have attended a major personal struggle. A writer who views an illness of this magnitude as a political trump card—rather than an enormous obstacle—undoubtedly needs to reassess the lens through which she views the campaign.


Is Barack Obama Lazy?

Jacob Heilbrunn

The Democratic National Convention is making it clear what the Obama campaign is against. It dislikes Mitt Romney because he had it too easy. It opposes lowering taxes. It's against Republican efforts against abortion. And so on.

There is nothing surprising about these stances. To be sure, they have obtained an added vehemence in an unusually partisan election year, one in which the candidates are serially running phony, if not outright deceptive, campaign ads, prompting each candidate piously to accuse the other of engaging in deception. But what does President Obama want America to look like over the next four years? Forget whether we're better off than we were four years ago. The answer is obvious: a marginal yes. But will we be truly better off in the next four, or will the country simply continue to tread water during an Obama presidency?

This is the question that Maureen Dowd, Richard Cohen and Dan Balz ponder today. Obama gets a pretty rough pounding from what, by most standards, would seem to be a fairly sympathetic board of examiners. To judge by Dowd's and Cohen's op-eds, the real problem is that Obama is lazy or, to put it another way, something of an intellectual square. He doesn't like to mix it up with the hoi polloi.

In contrasting Obama with the gladhanding Bill Clinton, Cohen says,

The president who will lay out his reasons for seeking a second term is an odd political duck, a politician who does not appear to like people. Among the people he seems to like the least are his fellow politicians, including members of the Senate with whom he once served. The other day I talked with one of them—a Democrat—who rarely hears from Obama. This senator has zero respect for the president’s political abilities. The commander in chief is not—pardon the cloying term—a people person.

This is the very complaint sounded by Dowd. She says that Obama's habitual pattern of behavior is to

Avoid sound bites and visceral connections because political games are beneath you. Instead of surfing the magic and using it to cow the opposition, Obama would retreat inside himself at crucial moments, climbing back to his contemplative mountaintop.

He rationed his smile, his eloquence and his electricity, playing the dispassionate observer, delegating, dithering and rushing in at the last moment to try to save the day. A cold shower to Bill’s warm bath. While Clinton aides had to act like sheepdogs, herding the boss offstage as he tried to linger and schmooze issues with crowds, Obama needs to be alone and decompress even after meeting with a few people.

Here, however, we have wandered into the arena of psychoanalysis. Can Obama's problems—if they are really that problematic—be diagnosed as a symptom of an aloof personality? Or might broader trends be at work? Could Obama be grappling with an American political system that has itself become dysfunctional and that he does not understand how to repair?

From this latter perspective, Dan Balz's column today seems to be the most trenchant. Balz suggests that Obama could turn things around with a convention speech that actually lays out a program for the second term, something that Obama has notably failed to offer. Perhaps Obama can perform a U-turn during his convention speech. Obama, after all, has the best pipes of any president since Ronald Reagan. But as Balz says, "Talking about the past may not do enough to win over voters who might be prepared to vote for him but aren't confident that he has a plan for the next four years." It's an amazing testament to how far Obama has fallen since he ran as the candidate of change four years ago. So far, he has been the candidate of the status quo.

TopicsThe Presidency RegionsUnited States

Why Morsi Went to Tehran

The Buzz

Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi made waves last week at the Nonaligned Movement Summit in Tehran, insulting his hosts and their allies by calling the Syrian civil war a “struggle . . . against an oppressive regime that has lost its legitimacy.” Together with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon’s sharp words about Iran’s nuclear program and condemnation of its anti-Israeli rhetoric, it is becoming clear that the summit is turning into a public embarrassment for the Islamic Republic.

This is a pleasant surprise. Morsi’s trip to Tehran had caused severe indigestion in Washington, where there were fears that he intended to restore long-dormant relations. That would have been foolish on many levels. Another fear was that Morsi would legitimize Iran by his presence, as exemplified in Thomas Friedman’s recent New York Times column “Morsi’s Wrong Turn.” Friedman argues that Morsi must remember that he rose to power in a peaceful uprising that led to a fair election, and that accordingly he should be “ashamed of himself. . . [for] lending his legitimacy to an Iranian regime that brutally crushed just such a movement in Tehran.” 

Friedman has a point—even though Morsi’s speech angered Iran, it might be aired (as happened with Ban Ki-Moon) with a false translation. Fars News, a hardline Iranian outlet, once published an interview with Morsi that he claimed had been completely fabricated. Tehran has a limited but real ability to turn its rivals into sock puppets, and Iranians who do not have access to international media—more than there should be, but fewer than you’d think—might be duped and think Morsi backs the regime, even though his speech condemned their ally.

But Friedman’s broader message—that Morsi should not go to Iran because it is a dictatorship—is flawed. Morsi serves Egyptian interests when he pushes Cairo back into the international arena after years of being overshadowed by Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and even tiny Qatar. He has wisely attempted to make Egypt a key player on Syria by proposing a new contact group of the relevant Middle Eastern powers, including Iran. An understanding with Tehran is a necessary component of a Syrian peace. Morsi’s initiative will probably fail, but even one meeting of an Egyptian-backed contact group would be a key step back into the international spotlight that any self-respecting Egyptian leader—Islamist, secularist, leftist, Copt, or liberal—must seek for such a pivotal state.

TopicsGrand StrategyRising PowersRogue States RegionsEgypt