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By Ira Sharkansky
Letter from Israel 

Musings on America

 


It is too early to comment with any certainty about the policy of the United States, or any other country with respect to Syria’s chemical weapons or its civil war. There are likely to be twists and turns before us heavy thinkers can pass on to other topics. 

Nonetheless, there are hints of interesting developments. 

My concern is with the United States and Barack Obama more than with the morass of Syria. 

His waffling was not impressive. Sending Kerry to make an impassioned speech, then making a very forceful half speech of his own before turning away from his own assertions in the second half of his speech begs however we think a strong leader—or the leader of a strong nation—should act in public. 

Ambivalence and hesitation is fine. It is a mark of intelligent probing. But done in public it invites the ridicule that came from many places in the U.S. and elsewhere. 

Yet there is something in what Obama has done that may portend a seismic and positive shift in the performance of the United States. 

His comment that the United States is not the world’s policeman, coming after the disastrous adventures of George W. Bush, is a welcome sign of ratcheting down from a high moral posture—often taken in ignorance—to a thoughtful consideration of national interests. 

It is more European than traditionally American, and deserves praise accordingly. 

The U.S. has been preaching to the world since one of its slaveholders wrote that iconic passage:  

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” 

No doubt about the quality of the idea, but the domestic and foreign achievements of the United States have not been anything close.  

Iraq is the most damning recent testimony to the shallowness of how the preacher to the world acted as the policeman to the world. U.S. activities in Afghanistan differ from its blundering in Iraq only in the number of casualties. The overall impact of the Monroe Doctrine has not been positive below the Rio Grande. U.S. wars with Mexico and Spain were problematic for many Americans. The war in Korea was more a success than that in Vietnam, but the presence of nuclear weapons in North Korea bodes ill for those wondering about what the U.S. might do with respect to Iran. 

There have been good moments. U.S. contributions to Europe and Japan are in first place, and Israelis appreciate what it has done for us.

A positive assessment of Obama is that he finally concluded that it was not worth risking involvement in another Middle East war for the sake of chemical weapons that had killed at most a few thousand people—regrettable be those deaths—while a hundred thousand or more have died in an ongoing civil war with no cadre of fighters deserving all-out support. 

One result to date of Obama’s waffling is the strengthening of Russia as a regional and possibly world player.  

A positive view is that a power balance has advantages. Russia is far from ideal. It falls short of moral perfection even more than the United States. However, its leverage may be useful to moderate problems, as shown in Syria, and maybe in Iran.  

It will not be easy for the United States to abandon its posture as preacher to the world. Americans’ sense of their moral superiority, city on the hill, new Jerusalem, or whatever its label is deeply embedded in the society, along with profound ignorance of what other cultures offer. 

It is possible to read Obama’s ambivalence, willingness to deal, and apparent tolerance of imperfection in what to expect from Russia and Syria, as signs of political maturity. However, the antipathy to Obama that is widespread in his own country makes us worry about how the next president will carry on. 

Among the reasons for pessimism are the politicians who reject so forcefully Obama’s small steps taken in the direction of what all other well-to-do countries provide with respect to medical care.  

The record of turnovers in the presidency, along with the commotion surrounding Obama in both domestic and international issues, make it a good bet that the politicians taking extreme positions against public assurances of medical care will be running the country for at least four years from January 2017. 

The scent of political morality is heavy throughout the United States. Currently vocal are isolationists and well as libertarians and the Christian Right. Those of us whose principal stakes are outside of the United States can only wonder what will bubble to the top of presidential primaries, and how much inexperience we will see in the next occupant of the Oval Office. 

We’ll take what we get, and hope for the best. We’ll be putting up with the economic, military, and political influence of the United States as far into the future as is possible to see.  

It takes considerable intelligence to reach the American presidency, but information about the world is something else. Many paid greatly, with all they had by way of life and property, for the follies of George W. Bush and the learning of Barack Obama. 

The most appropriate lesson for Israel appears in that phrase of the sage Hillel recently quoted by Benyamin Netanyahu.  

If I am not for myself, who am I? 

Political calculations will lead Israel to continue with its choice of a primary patron, but on individual items it is likely to depart. At times the quarrels will be minor and passing. But currently in the air is the possibility of a game changing attack on Iran. 

Note the choice of “possibility” rather than “probability.” In the complexities of international politics, ambiguity is an asset that a small country like Israel must preserve in its arsenal. The possibility of Israel acting alone may be essential for continued concern by Barack Obama and European leaders for a political solution or something else. 

Ira Sharkansky is professor (Emeritus), Department of Political Science, Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

 

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