As too many totalitarians gather in New York, again turning the UN’s General Assembly into the Third World Dictators’ Debating Society, Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani is preparing his international debut. In the US, too many administration officials and leading media outlets, especially the New York Times, are toasting Rouhani’s supposed moderation. The swooning over Tehran’s masquerading moderate, shortly after the Times devoted prime journalistic real estate to an article predicting Israel’s demise, raises a critical question: why, in the age of Obama, do totalitarian hooligans like Iran’s Rouhani so frequently get the benefit of the doubt, while loyal, democratically-elected friends like Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu are so frequently doubted?
The “new era of engagement with the world” which Barack Obama envisioned during his first address to the UN General Assembly has too frequently dissed democratic allies and trusted totalitarian enemies, defined as it was by his confession “that America has too often been selective in its promotion of democracy.” Obama began by slighting England, Canada, Poland and the Czech Republic. And he treated Israel not Palestinian terror as the major obstacle to peace – an approach John Kerry continues despite Obama’s recent warmth.
Meanwhile, leading administration officials were initially soft on Syria just as they now are indulging Iran. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton praised Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian slaughterer, as a “reformer” in 2011.
In that spirit – both reflecting the Obama Zeitgeist and shaping it – the New York Times repeatedly exaggerates evidence of Islamist goodwill and Arab reform while frequently demonizing Israel. The gushing welcome to the “Arab Spring” – and the anger at Israeli skepticism when America abandoned Hosni Mubarak and trusted the Muslim brotherhood – is a classic example of Western democrats’ delusions, ranking with the 1930s’ pro-Stalin idiocy. Meanwhile, the Times’ normally eagle-eyed op-ed editors have overlooked stupid – a word I rarely use – comments regarding Iran and Israel. In February 23, 2009, after quoting two seemingly happy Iranian Jews without mentioning the penalty for honesty under the Iranian dictatorship, Roger Cohen wrote: “the reality of Iranian civility toward Jews tells us more about Iran — its sophistication and culture — than all the inflammatory rhetoric.” Rather than being mocked and exiled to the Dictators’ Enablers’ Hall of Fame, Cohen started appearing regularly as an expert on, of all things, foreign affairs.
More recently, the political scientist Ian Lustick speculated that once what he considers the two-state delusion ends, “Anti-nationalist ultra-Orthodox Jews might find common cause with Muslim traditionalists” and “Israelis whose families came from Arab countries might find new reasons to think of themselves not as ‘Eastern,’ but as Arab.” Such fantasizing belongs on “fiction” pages not opinion columns. “Muslim traditionalists,” ie Hamasniks, Jihadists, and other Islamist extremists, frequently murder Christians and fellow Muslims, let alone the Jews they denounce so regularly. And many Israeli Sephardic Jews resent being called “Arab.” Had Lustick at least predicted an alliance linking Palestinians with Israel’s WASPs – wealthy Ashkenazi Sabras with protektzia (connections) – he could have made a case based on the far left myopia he shares.
The most benign explanation is that Obama and his enablers view diplomacy as the art of making friends with your enemies – as well as sometimes forcing your friends to make friends with their enemies. That approach justifies going soft on Rouhani and getting tough with Bibi. But that understanding confuses diplomacy with appeasement.
As Obama himself demonstrated when he threatened Syria, effective diplomacy must be more than cocktail parties and bon mots. Moral indignation, confrontation, self-righteousness, and power belong in the diplomat’s toolbox. Winston Churchill called diplomacy “the art of telling people to go to hell in such a way that they ask for directions,” while Harry Truman defined tact as “the ability to step on a man’s toes without messing up the shine on his shoes.” Both insights reflected democratic confidence – appreciating your nation’s virtue and seeking your opponent’s concessions, rather than accommodating your enemy because you feel morally compromised.
While all countries, including America and Israel, stumble, this perpetual American guilt trip has distorted too much of Obama’s foreign policy. Obama and his enabling army often equate perfectly awful totalitarians and imperfect democrats. The Blame Israel First crowd often also Blames America First too. The apparent humility actually demonstrates liberal arrogance – taking too much responsibility upon yourself and your allies – while absolving others. Ultimately, it makes American look weak, apologetic, and needy not strong, proud, and commanding.
Israel’s character as a democracy with a thick, traditional, Jewish identity is out of step with the Times’ faux cosmopolitanism, with elites worshiping the false god of sameness. Similarly, Rouhani’s clever distancing from Ahmadinejad’s boorishness makes him look more reasonable than most patsies for the oppressive Mullahs are. The posturing plays on Obama’s PWTSD – post-George W. Bush traumatic stress disorder; the ubiquity of identity politics which further indict Westerners while absolving Third Worlders, and the Marxist dismissal of cultural or political differences because economics, meaning class divisions, count above all.
Considering these ideological blinders, Obama’s foreign policy has been tougher than promised. He has pressured Iran, squeezed Syria, supported Israel, and hunted down terrorists. But this nagging naysaying about American goodness explains why the good guys often get brutalized while the bad guys get schmoozed. America’s guiltfest leads to an instinct to avoid labeling terrorist acts terror, exemplified by the US government’s obscene behavior in characterizing the Fort Hood massacre as “workplace violence.
Obama should trust Western virtue and American power. He should remember Theodore Roosevelt’s lesson – speak softly and carry a big stick – updated by the great diplomat George Kennan, who said: “You have no idea how much it contributes to the general politeness and pleasantness of diplomacy when you have a little quiet armed force in the background.”
Gil Troy is a Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Engaging Israel Research Fellow in Jerusalem. His latest book, Moynihan''s Moment: America''s Fight Against Zionism as Racism, was recently published by Oxford University Press. Watch the new Moynihan''s Moment video!