At the start of President Barack Obama’s presidency, he announced a “pivot towards Asia” after years of American military and political resources being bogged down in the Middle East.
Obama’s speech Tuesday at the United Nations General Assembly shows how clearly the pendulum has swung back. Although he referred to Iran, Syria Israel, and Palestine a combined 71 times, Obama only mentioned China once. He left out other Asian nations such as India, Japan, and North Korea altogether. This imbalance speaks volumes about Obama’s understanding that in the current era it is nearly impossible to avoid the volatile Middle East.
The speech also highlighted his abandonment of democratization and human rights as supreme values, replaced with a Henry Kissinger-style Realpolitik.
When addressing the Syrian crisis, Obama asked rhetorically how the United Nations and United States have handled this delicate affair. His underwhelming response: “We believe that as a starting point the international community must enforce the ban on chemical weapons.”
Gone was the rhetoric calling for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s immediate removal from power. The stated root for this policy is also illuminating, “I did so (supported intervention) because I believe it is in the national security interests of the United States and in the interest of the world.” His main focus is American security interests and global norms.
Obama continued by outlying his doctrine using American military power: if America’s allies in the region are attacked, oil flow disrupted, terrorist bases built, or weapons of mass destruction utilized. The president pointedly avoided promising that the U.S. would will use force to prevent genocide or to end a human rights massacre like in Syria. Translation: Obama is giving free rein to Assad to continue slaughtering his own people. Just don’t use chemical weapons or stop the flow of oil to Chicago or Los Angeles.
It was right and proper that President Obama address the American public from a simple podium with no special effects or distractions, methodically laying out his reasons for a military strike against Syria and addressing the doubts of so many about the wisdom and efficacy of such a risky move.
But part of me wished that the White House could have replayed the horrifying videos as a backdrop.
Obama mentioned them at the top, the “sickening images” of men, women and especially children frothing and writhing and suffering from the effects of the August 21 chemical weapons attack by the Assad regime against its own people. That’s the reason why I personally believe that the U.S. has a strategic and moral responsibility to respond forcefully to the use of a weapon most of the world wishes to see never used again.
Sure, pictures of dead children are a ploy — a ploy that his administration should have used for greater effect during these last couple weeks of confusing messaging and shifting approaches. I don’t know whether what Obama said tonight was enough to change the minds of those who don’t agree with him. But those images sure stuck with me.
Suddenly everyone is talking about Syria.
Two years of mayhem and murder, confusion and hesitation. 100,000 Syrians killed, a quarter of the population turned refugees, and now hundreds have been gassed to death, a sight which no Jew – no human – can ignore; a sight which once seen, cannot go unanswered.
As we enter Rosh Hashana, the crucial days of mercy and compassion in the Jewish calendar, we must open the door for the story of the Syrian people to enter into our prayers. If books of life and death are opening during this time, how can we not place this burning issue on our praying agenda during these High Holy Days.
Some might decry such prayers as a “bleeding heart liberal” initiative, one which undermines precious “Jewish time” for the plight of those who are otherwise our enemies. Yet praying for other nations is an inimitable feature of Rosh haShana, and praying on behalf of one’s neighbors is something Jews have been doing since the days of Abraham.
Rosh Hashana contains an on-going tension between the personal and the global. On one hand it is our private judgment day, a day where the Jewish people crown God as our King. Yet Rosh Hashana commemorates the creation of the world – not the creation of the Jewish people. It is the judgment day for the entire world – and our prayers must reflect that concern.
This concept is already invoked in many of the prayers of Rosh haShana, and best crystallized in one of the oldest prayers for Rosh haShana, called “Rav’s Tekiya”. Originally quoted in the Talmud, it continues to appear in almost all prayer books:
This day is the commencement of Your deeds, a recollection of that first day. It is a fixture for Israel, a day of judgment for the God of Jacob. And regarding the nations it will be decided: Which to peace and which to the sword; which to hunger and which to prosperity; And creatures will be called up, to be recalled for life or death. (Babylonian Talmud Rosh haShana 27a)
I doubt I’m the only one who noticed the irony of Defense Secretary Hagel affirming Syria’s likely use of chemical weapons, touching off a clamor among congressional hawks and the now familiar gaggle of neocons and liberal interventionists for American intervention in the civil war there, on the very day that President Obama was in Texas dedicating the George W. Bush presidential library. You couldn’t make this stuff up.
The irony is only compounded by the fact that the library officially opens to the public on May 1, 10 years to the day after Bush’s misbegotten “Mission Accomplished” speech on board the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln, declaring that the war in Iraq had ended in victory. Of course, it wasn’t over, and by the time we pulled out eight years later, it was pretty clear that America hadn’t won. Saddam Hussein was gone but the country had descended into years of horrific, violent chaos, and it ain’t over. And for what? Saddam was never shown to have anything to do with 9/11 or Osama bin Laden. There were no weapons of mass destruction. Saddam was toothless.
But it was much worse than pointless. Removing Saddam eliminated neighboring Iran’s worst enemy, allowing the Islamic Republic to emerge as the regional superpower. Indeed, it would be fair to say that Iran was the biggest winner from the U.S. invasion of Iraq. But hey, don’t take my word for it. Listen to U.S. News owner Mortimer Zuckerman, one of the invasion’s most outspoken boosters. Here he is in October 2002, in one of his many get-Saddam editorials in the run-up to the invasion: “We are in a war against terrorism, and we must fight that war in a time and a place of our choosing. The war’s next phase, clearly, is Iraq.” Now, here he is four years later, in December 2006: “Question: What’s the most dangerous geopolitical development in the 21st century? Answer: Iran’s emergence as the Middle East regional superpower.” And here he is again in April 2007: “Ironically, Iran has been the great beneficiary of the war in Iraq.”
In other words, the Iraq invasion, which Zuckerman spent months demanding, resulted in “the most dangerous geopolitical development in the 21st century.” So what’s he up to now? Well, last week, even before the chemical weapons bombshell, he was calling the administration’s cautious approach “feeble” and urging some sort of stepped up involvement—either military engagement or full-scale arming of the rebels.
All this doesn’t make Zuckerman a bad man. But it does make him and his neoconservative allies extremely unreliable guides to the uncertain politics of the Middle East. The crowd that pushed us into Iraq created a disaster. And now they’re calling for firm action in Syria.
We know what they didn’t understand about Iraq. So what are they getting wrong about Syria?
Is Barack Obama’s upcoming visit to Israel going to turn into a Yair Lapid love-in?
The Israeli daily Yedioth Araronoth, suggested in its editorial yesterday that Obama decided to come because Netanyahu is currently weak — because of the staggering success of Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party. The administration is working on the premise that “Netanyahu won, but he really lost, and therefore, he will do what is demanded of him,” Yedioth estimated.
So, as a result of Lapid-the-centrist’s success “Obama is coming to press Netanyahu’s weak point after the Israeli people have had their say and partly disproved the American concern over an Israeli lurch to the right.”
For a further Yair Lapid-related aspect of the trip, some are suggesting that it will compel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to his Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party in his coalition. Take, for example, this Haaretz article which reports:
One [Israeli] source even argued that Obama’s visit, scheduled for late March, is so close on the heels of the Israeli election as to constitute “inappropriate interference” in local politics, and that it would pave the way for Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid into the Israeli coalition.
Israeli news media are citing a London Sunday Times report that claims Israel is considering establishing a security zone along its border with Syria to protect itself against attacks by jihadist forces following the expected fall of the Assad regime. The zone would extend 10 miles into Syria and would have two infantry brigades and a tank battalion patrolling it.
The territory to be protected, the Golan Heights, was seized from Syria in June 1967 and has been declared an essential asset since then because it serves as a security zone to protect Israel from Syrian attacks. The new security zone is apparently intended to protect the old security zone. Israeli military sources told the Times it will be modeled after the security zone Israel maintained in south Lebanon between 1985 and 2000.
The anomalous role of the Golan has been a source of tension since the mid-1970s between Israel’s politicians and military strategists. Politicians from across the map see the heights as inseparable from Israel and promote civilian settlement there. Military planners complain that Golan civilian settlements undercut its value as a security buffer by adding a new vulnerability. This first arose during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when Israel lost valuable time evacuating civilians before it could mount an effective counterattack against Syria’s armored advance into the Golan.
The Assad regime has kept border quiet since the 1975 Israeli-Syrian separation of forces agreement, but the civil war threatens to loosen the regime’s hold.
Newt Gingrich’s December 9 Declaration of Palestinian Inventedness (“we’ve had an invented Palestinian people, who are in fact Arabs”) caused a bit of a stir at the Saturday night GOP debate.
Both Mitt Romney and Ron Paul condemned the remark as, in Paul’s words, “just stirrin’ up trouble.” Interestingly, though, both agreed that Gingrich’s point was historically accurate. No one on stage disagreed.
Responding to the charge of troublemaking, Newt doubled down, adding some historical detail to show that the “Palestinian claim to a right of return is based on a historically false story.”
Somebody ought to have the courage to go all the way back to the 1921 League of Nations mandate for a Jewish homeland, point out the context in which Israel came into existence, and ‘Palestinian’ did not become a common term until after 1977.
Let’s take the professor at his word and go back to the League of Nations mandate. What do we find? First, that it’s from 1922, not 1921. Second, it’s not a “mandate for a Jewish homeland.” It is titled “Mandate for Palestine.” The difference is critical. The purpose of a mandate, as defined in the 1919 Covenant of the League of Nations, Article 22, was to govern territories formerly controlled by other states (mainly meaning the losers in World War I) and prepare them for independence. One of the conditions of the Palestine mandate was to help prepare a Jewish national home in Palestine (nothing about Palestine as a whole being a Jewish home). The mandate defines “all the inhabitants of Palestine, irrespective of race and religion,” as “citizens” (the mandate’s language) of Palestine, which in turn is defined in the league covenant as a state-in-the-making. In other words, from August 12, 1922, Palestine was a political entity in international law, not just a geographic one, and its inhabitants were legally defined — and universally described—as “Palestinians.” Some were known as Palestinian Jews, some as Palestinian Arabs. The term was in general use long before 1977.
Christopher Hitchens, writing in Slate, has a few questions about the Free Gaza flotilla that he wishes the journalists on the scene would find time to ask.
Most of the speculation so far has been to do with methods and intentions, allowing for many avowals about peaceful tactics and so forth, but this is soft-centered coverage. I would like to know a little more about the political ambitions and implications of the enterprise.
For starters, “It seems safe and fair to say that the flotilla and its leadership work in reasonably close harmony with Hamas, which constitutes the Palestinian wing of the Muslim Brotherhood” and would likely be the main beneficiary of any success the flotilla meets. The movement’s military wing is based in Damascus, “where the regime of Bashar Assad is currently at war with increasingly large sections of the long-oppressed Syrian population.” Where do they stand on the uprising against the Baath regime? Do they have a position on the policies of Iran, the main backer of Hamas? How about its ally in Lebanon, Hezbollah? Any of those freedom activists have a comment on the murder of Rafik Hariri?
Only a few weeks ago, the Hamas regime in Gaza became the only governing authority in the world — by my count — to express outrage and sympathy at the death of Osama Bin Laden. As the wavelets lap in the Greek harbors, and the sunshine beats down, doesn’t any journalist want to know whether the “activists” have discussed this element in their partners’ world outlook? Does Alice Walker seriously have no comment?
And what about …
the official programmatic adoption, by Hamas, of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” This disgusting fabrication is a key foundational document of 20th-century racism and totalitarianism, indelibly linked to the Hitler regime in theory and practice. It seems extraordinary to me that any “activist” claiming allegiance to human rights could cooperate at any level with the propagation of such evil material. But I have never seen any of them invited to comment on this matter, either.
The little boats cannot make much difference to the welfare of Gaza either way, since the materials being shipped are in such negligible quantity. The chief significance of the enterprise is therefore symbolic. And the symbolism, when examined even cursorily, doesn’t seem too adorable. The intended beneficiary of the stunt is a ruling group with close ties to two of the most retrograde dictatorships in the Middle East, each of which has recently been up to its elbows in the blood of its own civilians. The same group also manages to maintain warm relations with, or at the very least to make cordial remarks about, both Hezbollah and al-Qaida. Meanwhile, a document that was once accurately described as a “warrant for genocide” forms part of the declared political platform of the aforesaid group. There is something about this that fails to pass a smell test. I wonder whether any reporter on the scene will now take me up on this.