WASHINGTON – Year after year, in successive speeches before the UN General Assembly, US President Barack Obama struggled to explain his complex worldview in simple terms.
It was a difficult task because our world, in Obama’s view, is a contradictory place. But come September, like clockwork, he treated the UN assembly as an opportunity to carve out a cohesive doctrine – a chance to tie together all of those foreign policy decisions made along the way into one consistent and harmonious vision.
Roughly halfway through his presidency, a doctrine emerged from those texts. Obama was an American globalist. He operated on the belief that international bodies serve to reinforce American power and, in the process, stabilize a tumultuous world.
For one to understand Obama’s legacy in the Middle East – his deference to the UN on Syria, to a consensus of diverse world powers on Iran and to a global democratic consensus on Israel – one must understand this greater doctrine, which drove his presidency and steered it on a collision course with the Jewish state.
Obama believes that the post-World War II global order was created by the United States and in the interests of the United States; that the UN and NATO are, effectively, successful projections of American power.
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That order, in which we live for the time being, was structured to favor democratic systems of government that value human rights and equal protection for all over definitionally illiberal and undemocratic kleptocracies, autocracies and theocracies.
Obama’s argument for the maintenance of this order was liberal in an old-fashioned sense, in that he directed policy based on the belief that people of all faiths, creeds and tribes could ultimately coexist.
Because these international organizations were founded on American values, Obama believes they serve as force multipliers for American power. In other words, the projection of American force is a cheaper endeavor when it is done through institutions that enforce America’s value set on its behalf. Thus he argued that America’s complex architecture of alliances and financial commitments to international bodies actually strengthens the nation more than the nation could ever strengthen itself on its own.
International crises increasingly have become America’s problem – however distant they may occur from her coasts – because of the tests they pose to this very structure that has, for so long, benefited its people.
Toward the end of his presidency, this quickly became the greatest challenge to Obama’s doctrine, which may prove in time a matricidal political philosophy: The structure that first spawned globalization is becoming its victim, as evidenced by the rise of Donald Trump and the movement that fueled him, along with dozens of anti-globalist groups on the march in Europe.
Obama’s elegant case for multilateralism now faces existential tests across the West – but it first ran into trouble in the Middle East, where international institutions proved less an arbiter of peace than an impediment. While nationalism rises in the West, it is precipitously falling across the Middle East, where nation-states erected for stability are crumbling apart. It was at the UN Security Council that prospects for action to protect the Syrian people died dozens of deaths through Russian vetoes. It was at that body that Israel slowly lost its faith in the very idea of a united nations, and it is there that the Palestinians have sought, in the words of Britain’s government, to leverage the tyranny of the majority against an enemy with which it refuses to negotiate.
In sketching his grand vision for the world and his role in it, Obama never came to understand the Israeli people , who in their pursuit of secure nationhood have proudly shunned opinions and dictates coming from the outside. They reject a globalist political philosophy. And thus the Israeli people never came to understand Obama or his hopes for a less tribal yet richly multicultural world.
Israel never adjusted to his vision; the prospects for such a dramatic political realignment were slim from the start. And Obama never adjusted to the reality of what Israel is, as opposed to what he believes Israel should be; to the Jewish state as it appears today, uniquely scarred or resilient, depending on the light.
Obama struggled to understand how the recipients of liberal democratic freedoms – whether in Israel, France or his own homeland – could, through their own rights, deny the rights of others. He found this practice hypocritical, while recognizing that, in America – and even under his own leadership – security concerns have a direct and dramatic impact on the advancement of civil liberties.
Obama approached the Israeli-Palestinian conflict having prejudged the players. He chose early on to treat the Israeli government as a political adversary. Israelis thought Obama viewed them not as a partner in a liberal democratic alliance, but from the perspective of a globalist seeking structure for the Palestinians and credibility with an unstable, fractured and illiberal Arab world.
Obama’s dismissiveness of tribalism comes from an American brand of liberalism that is hard, if not impossible, to find in the Middle East. But despite his literacy on regional history, Obama considered tribalist politics in Israel as somehow less acceptable than in undemocratic nations with fewer platforms for cultural assimilation.
Obama’s belief in the Israeli government’s capacity to change – and in the incapacity of the Palestinian Authority to do so – drove his assignment of blame for the perpetuation of the conflict.
International institutions ultimately codified Obama’s lasting legacy items in the Middle East. It was the permanent five members of the Security Council, alongside the European Union, which lent weight to the nuclear deal that now governs Iran’s nuclear program, despite deep concerns from the nations most directly affected: Iran’s neighbors. It was the Security Council that repeatedly denied the White House any recourse to come to the aid of the Syrian people – or, perhaps, gave it an excuse not to act. It was the Security Council that granted the president permission to follow behind France and Britain into Libya. And it was at the Security Council that Obama chose to warn Israel against continuing its settlement enterprise – where he put the international community “on record” against Israel’s alleged effort to undermine the possibility of a two-state solution.
“Sometimes I’m criticized in my own country for professing a belief in international norms and multilateral institutions, but I am convinced that in the long run, giving up some freedom of action – not giving up our ability to protect ourselves or pursue our core interests, but binding ourselves to international rules over the long term – enhances our security,” Obama said in his final UN address last year. “We are all stakeholders in this international system, and it calls upon all of us to invest in the success of institutions to which we belong.
“Tribes and ethnic groups and nation-states have very often found it most convenient to define themselves by what they hate and not just those ideas that bind them together,” he continued. “My belief that these ideals apply everywhere doesn’t lessen my commitment to help those who look like me, or pray as I do, or pledge allegiance to my flag. But my faith in those principles does force me to expand my moral imagination and to recognize that I can best serve my own people– I can best look after my own daughters – by making sure that my actions seek what is right for all people and all children, and your daughters and your sons.”
Obama expected this altruistic attitude to be shared by the only democracy in the Middle East, but throughout eight years in office, he failed to reconcile those expectations with the realities that face it. In countless interviews over the years, the president’s top aides and confidants described his deep admiration for Israel’s founding mission and his grave concern for its future prospects. But in explaining Obama’s policy decisions, his administration officials always spoke in terms of principle – not in terms of pragmatism which came to define their rhetoric on all other conflicts.
The Obama administration becomes history Friday. So, too, may be the fate of his legacy in the Middle East. But in his fight with Israel for its own sake, Obama recruited allies in the Jewish community and the Democratic Party that were willing, if not eager, to join in his effort. That coalition remains – and Israel may be hearing its calls for years to come.