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Obama in the Abstract

Spokesman for the ‘international community.’

Jun 6, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 36 • By TOD LINDBERG
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Let’s assume that it was not President Obama’s intention for the final section of his big Mideast speech, in which he took up the subject of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, to entirely overwhelm everything he had just said in support of democratization and the “universal rights” of those living in the region.

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Of course, that’s exactly what happened when the fateful words “1967 lines” passed his lips. Nor is it inconceivable that Obama​—​after taking a large (if unacknowledged) step in the direction of the “freedom agenda” of George W. Bush in the rest of the speech​—​wanted to end on a somewhat emphatic note of vive la différence.

But the more likely explanation is simply that Obama sees the Israeli occupation of the West Bank in the context of the full panoply of repression in the Middle East—that is, as contrary to “the broader aspirations of ordinary people” throughout the region. In this light, one can’t really talk about what has been happening in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, and elsewhere without also mentioning the plight of the Palestinians, who have been “suffering the humiliation of occupation, and never living in a nation of their own.”

If he had to do it all over again, the president might have expressed the sentiment differently, so as not to require his own State Department to walk back any implication of a major change in policy in the magic words “1967 lines”​—​or to require the deployment of squadrons of apologists insisting, “With swaps”! He said,“1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps”!

In a certain sense, Obama did do it all over again. His speech a few days later at the Washington conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee became an exercise in damage control, in which he adopted a posture of calming reassurance rather than the tough love of the previous Thursday (“precisely because of our friendship, it’s important that we tell the truth”).

In Obama’s original speech, the “1967 lines” got all the attention, but the intellectual heart of his analysis came a few sentences before. “The international community,” he said, “is tired of an endless process that never produces an outcome. The dream of a Jewish and democratic state cannot be fulfilled with permanent occupation.” Those two gnomic statements do a remarkable job of opening the curtains to reveal the liberal internationalist window through which Obama sees the world.

Let’s begin with the partisan element: It is hard to imagine a Republican president (or a serious aspirant for the job) affecting a posture of solidarity with the “international community” in order to reproach a U.S. ally, Israel above all. When Obama speaks of the “international community,” he is at one with it. In fact, whether “the international community is tired” may be subject to debate, but that Barack Obama himself has grown weary “of an endless process that never produces an outcome” seems beyond dispute.

And what is this “international community”? The phrase, of course, is one many conservatives shun, on the putative grounds that there is no such thing​—​that the nation-states of the world can in no meaningful sense be described as a “community.” All you have to do to see the problem is to ask why the members of the international community happen to be tired of this “endless process that never produces an outcome” (if indeed they are). Some are tired because they have long supported a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. -Others, however, may be tired because 63 years after its creation, Israel has not yet been swept into the Mediterranean, its territory not yet deeded to an independent Palestine​—​or a satrapy of Iran, or a new Wahhabist caliphate. Some in Israel and on the West Bank are no doubt tired because they have failed to vindicate their claim to the lands of the biblical Israelites. I know that the South Pacific island republic of Vanuatu maintains a consul in Tel Aviv, but I don’t offhand know whether he or she is tired or why.

I don’t share the view that the term “international community” is meaningless. It seems to me the phrase is useful shorthand for those who want to uphold, for example, the principles articulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In that context, one may meaningfully say that this or that atrocity deserves the condemnation of the international community. But the term is an abstraction, and it is aspirational. It would be a big mistake to conclude from the proposition that the world would be a better place if everyone shared the values of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that the “international community” of actual states does share those values.

Obama surely knows this. But he thinks he is furthering the cause of international community by speaking in the name of “the international community.” Those who share his liberal internationalist outlook tend to agree​—​they tend to think of themselves as spokespersons for the international community, construed as right-thinking, Enlightenment-friendly people everywhere. Barack Obama and those who share his outlook know exactly why they are “tired of an endless process that never produces an outcome.” But “the international community” in any actual sense​—​involving states and international organizations and nongovernmental organizations and influential individuals such as the late Osama bin Laden​—​if it is tired, is tired for many different and conflicting reasons. And it is misleading if not arrogant to impute to this collectivity of wearinesses a liberal internationalist rationale. The “international community” is an abstract normative concept born of liberal internationalist aspiration. It is not an actor.

Although much unites the neoconservative-influenced “freedom agenda” of George W. Bush and the newly assertive liberal internationalist view in support of freedom and democracy of Barack Obama, the question of the “international community” divides them and drives most of their respective partisans somewhat crazy. Liberal internationalists view Bush as arrogant for speaking up for universal values that he grounds only in American, indeed Bushian, exceptionalism. Conservatives view Obama as arrogant because he presumes to speak for the “international community.”

Obama’s next statement was similarly revelatory. Let’s grant the trivial truth that a democratic state, whether Jewish or not, cannot presume to rule in perpetuity over the territory of people to whom it affords no say in government. Viewed from the perspective of eternity, such an everlasting state would by definition have to be construed as undemocratic.

What, one wonders, does that have to do with Israel? Israel is an occupying power, as it has been since the end of the 1967 war. The occupation is ongoing. Obama’s reference to an occupation that is “permanent” is presumably something other than a description of the current status of the West Bank: What will leave the “dream of a Jewish and democratic state” unfulfilled is the current status projected indefinitely into the future.

“Permanent occupation” in the Obama sense might be an apt description if, say, a government of Israel ever decided to adopt the view of the extremist voices of its right-wing nationalist parties to the effect that the lands of the “Greater Israel” of biblical times must never be surrendered. But apparently, the policy need not be adopted and declared to run afoul of Obama’s formulation; indeed, it need not even be a policy.

Once again, Obama is moving back and forth rather casually between actuality and aspirational abstraction. After all, there is a pretty good prima facie case that the “dream of a Jewish and democratic state” was in fact fulfilled in 1948, with the creation of the state of Israel.

Israel today is no less Jewish or democratic than it was in the years after its declaration of independence. So the “dream” to which Obama refers obviously has some other content to it. That seems to be nothing other than an Israel not only Jewish and democratic but also untainted by the fact of occupation. It is, to borrow a phrase, a “more perfect” Israel.

But does the inability to attain this more perfect Israel through an end to the occupation make Israel any less “a Jewish and democratic state”? I would say no. I don’t know if Obama would say “yes” or “it depends.”

If Obama’s answer is yes, then we have another case of an aspirational abstraction, in this case Obama’s idealized notion of what “a Jewish and democratic state” should be, as opposed to the one that actually exists. The problem is that there is no Jewish and democratic state apart from the real Israel, including the totality of its history, including the 1967 war and the occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, and the Golan Heights. Obama’s standard of judgment is a facile one.

In fact, there is no liberal democracy in the absence of actual liberal democracies. There is an idea or ideal of liberal democracy. But judged against this ideal, whose content is subject to considerable contention, any actual liberal democracy is going to be found wanting. What would Obama think of the proposition that “the dream of a democratic state cannot be fulfilled with permanent detention at Guantánamo”? Before he took office, people around him used to say things like that all the time. Now, not so much, but still: Even if Obama would agree with that proposition, he would surely not deny that the United States is a democratic country.

So maybe “it depends” on how hard you try to close Guantánamo, or to end the occupation. And maybe, in Obama’s view, Israel isn’t trying hard enough. I happen to think this is a classic case in which reasonable people might differ. Again, though, one gets the impression that for Obama, the only acceptable demonstration of sufficient effort would be the end of the Israeli occupation. An aspirational abstraction inherent in liberal internationalism​—​democratic states don’t occupy the territory of others​—​trumps all facts on the ground: History, politics, culture be damned.

But unlike Guantánamo, one of the things “it depends” on for Israel is the view of the political authority of the territory Israel is occupying. (Actually, that’s “authorities,” Fatah and Hamas both, which is another problem.) Can it really be the case that Palestinian political leaders, by holding out​—​indefinitely? permanently?​—​for demands Israel cannot meet (the “right of return” above all), can cause the American president and the weary “international community” for whom he presumes to speak to conclude that Israel, while still a Jewish state, is no longer a democratic one?

Maybe so. And it’s but a short step from there to a bigger problem of liberal internationalism arising from liberalism writ large. That’s the tendency to reject all particular and exclusive claims in favor of universal standards for judgment of right conduct​—​a tendency that also, by the way, constitutes liberalism’s greatest strength and most important contribution to the betterment of the human condition.

In this case, however, that short step can lead to the conclusion that “Jewish” is the real problem.

Tod Lindberg, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and editor of Policy Review, is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.

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