It would be timely for Barack Obama, Thomas Friedman, and their chorus mates to leave the Middle East to those who know more about it. Friedman''s own newspaper, The New York Times, calls Saudi Arabia America''s most important Arab ally, and indicates that leaders of that country "have made no secret of their deep displeasure with how President Obama handled the ouster of the Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, charging Washington with abandoning a longtime ally. They show little patience with American messages about embracing what Mr. Obama calls ''universal values,'' including peaceful protests."
The democratic revolution is in trouble, despite its blessing by the American president and the New York Times commentator. Muammar el-Gaddafi has the upper hand in Libya, the Saudis are sending troops to help their Sunni allies of Bahrain deal with the uprising of Shi’ites, and government ministers are shuffling around in Tunis and Egypt for who knows what purpose. It''s a tough region that is not responding to the pleadings of the lecturer in law currently sitting in the White House with a human rights agenda, or his colleague in the New York Times who wants everything to be decent, including the exit of Jewish settlers from the West Bank.
No sign that Muslim countries will govern themselves anytime soon like Friedman''s home town of Minneapolis, or even Obama''s town of lesser governing quality, Chicago. The people may protest, officials may turn against the rulers and give the keys to some armories to the opposition as in Libya, but the odds are on the side of a determined ruler.
Politically correct westerners may be inclined to see all opponents of Middle Eastern regimes as decent aspirants for democracy, but that ain''t the way it is. The decent people of Washington don''t know what will emerge if the mob actually unseats the regime. A shift in power to anti-democratic Islamic enthusiasts? A shift to another tribal warlord who will kill his rivals in the name of reform? Musical chairs among military and economic elites who take advantage of the commotion to oust an autocrat who is no longer topple-proof? Whatever happens, Roberts Rules of Order or the Marquis of Queensbury will not govern the transition.
Barack Obama is intelligent and decent. He is neither a Muslim nor anti-Semitic. But he isn''t cut out to govern, or even direct the Middle East. Not only he, but senior advisors and his media friends appear to be profoundly ignorant of the region. There is also a trap within their sense of political decency about intervening in a region with unhappy memories of outsiders meddling for their own purposes. The United States has a long history of ambivalence about colonialism, imperialism, or foreign rule. It appears in the iconic memories of the American revolution against British rule, and surfaced against American government policies toward Mexico, Spain, the Philippines, and Vietnam, as well as lesser events in Central America and the Caribbean. After 1812 the feelings may never have been powerful enough to overcome stronger interests that held sway in the White House. Again in the administration of George W. Bush, the voices were not strong enough to keep the United States out of Iraq and Afghanistan. Obama himself campaigned to undo his predecessor''s follies. Actually, he may have gone deeper into Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan. It is not clear that he will avoid the Libyan civil war, but somewhere in the back of his mind there may be thoughts about foreign interference, and its clash with the ideals he speaks about so often and so forcefully.
And Israel? It is also in the Middle East, and is beyond the Obama-Friedman capacity to deal with complexities. A prevailing Israeli view that the settlements are not the issue does not ring clearly in much of Washington and New York. There are Israelis who share the liberal western view. But they have had a small slice of recent governments. A current question asked on the news site Walla is "What should be Israel''s response to the killings in Itamar?" Only 7 percent of more than 3,500 respondents answered that Israelis should be satisfied with a sharp denunciation of violence. A total of 93 percent chose "stop all dealings with the Palestinian Authority," "extensive military action against terror," or "expand construction in Judea and Samaria."
The White House has expressed grave reservations about Israel''s decision to approve the construction of 400 homes over the 1967 border. Israeli sources say that the comment was acceptably modest, and was agreed beforehand between Jerusalem and Washington. Bibi''s fib? Obama''s recognition of his own limitations?
There are also Saudis, Libyans, Egyptians, Tunisians and others who would cheer what Barack Obama says he wants for the region, but they are just as far from power as Meretz and what remains of the Israeli Labor Party.
There are Palestinian voices saying that Itamar was the product of Israeli officials wanting an excuse to build more houses; others claim that it was the work of a foreign worker unhappy with his treatment by Israelis. Soon to be heard will be charges of piracy against the Israeli navy for seizing a ship in international water carrying arms from Syria to Turkey and then to Gaza, apparently originating in Iran.
Israel''s right of self-defense or neo-colonialism? The latter may be the view of westerners who want to impose themselves--not as colonialists, but as protectors--on one side of Middle Eastern quarrels.
We''d all be better off if a miracle happens and a cloud of realism descends on the White House and the op-ed page of the New York Times. Imperialism is something from the last century and the one before that, even if it is dressed up in the most decent of sentiments.
In these days of early spring, blue skies, and clear evenings, I saw from our balcony a sunset coloring the nearby Arab town on the other side of the security barrier. Sunset on Palestine? Literally to be sure, and perhaps metaphorically as well.