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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.



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.

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