The Magazine

Obama in the Abstract

Spokesman for the ‘international community.’

Jun 6, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 36 • By TOD LINDBERG
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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.

Recent Blog Posts

The Weekly Standard Archives

Browse 20 Years of the Weekly Standard

Old covers