In his maiden overseas address in Cairo in 2009, President Barack Obama pledged to chart “A New Beginning” in his nation’s foreign relations. The United States, he declared, would henceforth seek “a new way forward based on mutual interest and respect.”
His audience was the world of Islam, but as the administration’s subsequent initiatives made clear, his avowal embraced the entire range of outreach to the international community.
The years since are testimony to the price the US continues to pay for the reset of its historical role as the proactive leader of the free world: the alienation of traditional allies, the resurgence of Russia’s hegemonic ambitions, the waffling reactions to crises in Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Afghanistan and elsewhere and, far from least, the fumbling response to Iran’s unbridled nuclear aspirations. Instead of furthering “mutual interest and respect,” the new doctrine has yielded a perilous decline in American influence abroad. As it has played out, the New Beginning may be more aptly characterized as a retreat from what the late Senator J.W. Fulbright in his 1966 treatise against justification of the Vietnam War described as “the arrogance of power.”
Perversely, the one area in which this new beginning has not been deployed – the intractable Arab-Israeli conflict – may become no less a victim of the Obama administration’s pursuit of its diplomatic objectives. Putting aside the strategy of deliberate geopolitical accommodation, it seems to have concluded that only willful American intervention can untie the Gordian knot of hatred and violence between the antagonists. As the White House, under the aegis of the indefatigable and well-intentioned Secretary of State John Kerry, completes a framework of proposals for a final resolution, there are ominous signs that, notwithstanding Israel’s readiness to go the extra mile, it may be called upon to offer concessions that place its security at risk.
Background leaks and reports as the framework is being drafted resonate with allusions to the dire consequences that may ensue from non-compliance with these concessions, while virtual silence greets the intransigence of an Arab negotiating partner that, amid relentless incitement and threats of further violence, refuses to come to terms with the reality of a Jewish state.
Despite the encouraging assurances that America’s commitment to Israel remains unshaken and that it recognizes the state’s right to self defense, there is a patronizing – almost paternalistic – tone in the approach of the American mediators: it is we, the US, who can best determine what is in your interest.
Israel’s government may be confronted with a Hobson’s choice of acceding to those proposals which pose existential threats, or resisting them and exacerbating tensions with its most important ally.
The president and his spokespersons have more than once hinted at the cost the latter choice might entail in terms of Israel’s international standing. Implicit in these not-so-subtle allusions is that, while the mutually beneficial partnership that links the two democracies will endure – with the overwhelming support of Congress and the American people – there could be a fraying of the bonds. Emanating from the senior member of this partnership, this is a message that conveys, if not the arrogance of power, more than a whiff of the power of arrogance.
In fairness, the point of convergence between the retreat from the mis-perceived power of US arrogance that defines the New Beginning and its contrary application in the Arab-Israeli conflict is the conviction that these polar initiatives hold the promise of nourishing the seeds of good will and understanding among adversaries, leading ultimately to peace. At least as far as the still incorrigible deniers of Israel’s legitimacy are concerned, it is wise to ponder Henry Kissinger’s sage observation in A World Restored (1954): “Whenever peace – conceived as the avoidance of war – has been the primary objective...the international system has been at the mercy of [its] most ruthless member.”
The author, a Jerusalem resident, is a professor emeritus of the City University of New York and author of The Jerusalem Book of Quotations (Gefen).