Reasonable men in an unreasonable world

Obama's appointments reflect realism and pragmatism, not ideology.

Obama waves during his second presidential inauguration 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Obama waves during his second presidential inauguration 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In a slightly adapted version of a very old joke, experts on the elephant gathered for an international conference. The Italian delegate read a paper entitled “Eating habits of the elephant”; a Frenchman contributed, “The love life of the elephant”; the American lectured on “The elephant and the dollar” and the Israeli spoke about “The elephant and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
Listening to the anguished commentary in both Washington and Jerusalem that has attended US President Barack Obama’s nomination of John Kerry to be his Secretary of State, and more especially his nomination of Chuck Hagel to be Defense Secretary, one might be excused for thinking that these appointments were exclusively about Israel and the Middle East.
The impending US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan; the prospect of Islamic militants running wild in Africa and taking over in Syria; the continued chronic instability in Pakistan; global warming; the European economic meltdown; the prospect of change in Venezuela; the growing global challenge to US power presented by China – all these pale into insignificance in the minds of navel-gazing Israelis and many American Jews compared to the state of what they regard as the relationship, meaning the close and sometimes suffocating embrace, between Israel and the United States.
And so we wonder aloud whether Kerry is cold toward Israel or whether he’s just cold by nature; we ask ourselves whether Hagel is indifferent to our charms. And we speculate on whether the cold relations between Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will translate into cold relations between the US and Israel and whether Obama will seek payback for past slights by, heaven forbid, “forcing” some kind of peace deal with the Palestinians down the throat of a reluctant Israeli government.
The truth is that Kerry and Hagel’s personal feelings toward Israel will not carry much weight. Israel-US military cooperation will go on and probably deepen since it is in the security and economic interests of both countries. Israel will continue to enhance and improve its missile defenses and the US will continue to foot much of the bill because it makes both nations safer.
Likewise, the US will probably continue to defend Israel in the United Nations and other international organizations because failure to do so would set off a crisis with the American Jewish community and Israel’s backers in Congress. Not since the Carter administration has the US failed to use its veto to block UN Security Council resolutions condemning Israeli settlements. If Obama allowed such a resolution to pass, it would signal a major policy change and rupture in the relations.
In the US, the president sets foreign policy and cabinet secretaries carry it out. That’s especially true of this president, who has centralized control and taken command of every key decision to an almost unprecedented degree.
In the past, control has been looser, although the final word always resides in the Oval Office. Still, Secretaries of State like Henry Kissinger and James Baker enjoyed considerable autonomy to pursue their own agenda. In some cases, such as with President George W. Bush, much power resided in the office of the vice president who was then Dick Cheney. But under Obama, it’s the president himself guiding every major and many minor decisions.
It’s said that Hagel is skeptical about embarking on military adventures and will be reluctant to authorize a US strike on Iran if sanctions and negotiations fail to halt Tehran’s nuclear program. But so is Obama, which is probably why he chose Hagel in the first place. The president has not ruled out military actions but he will be extremely reluctant to authorize it knowing that it would probably be quite unpopular in the country, and especially among Democrats, and that it would very likely stop the fragile US economic recovery in its tracks.
It’s said that Kerry wants to have a try at getting the Israelis and Palestinians back into negotiations – but that won’t work unless Obama personally buys into it and then puts his personal prestige on the line and devotes many hours of his precious time to the effort.
The most salient points about Kerry and Hagel is that both men are pragmatists and realists rather than ideologues, again much like the president himself and in stark contrast to the previous administration of George W. Bush. Their lack of ideology means an approach of tackling each problem that arises on its own merits rather than looking at them all through ideological lenses.
In terms of Mideast policy, Obama has clearly signaled his belief that Netanyahu’s settlement policy is damaging Israel itself and leaving it increasingly isolated in the international community. Kerry certainly shares that view. There is also the worry that the window of opportunity to establish a Palestinian state is fast closing and that inaction for the next four years could close it forever, which would bring more conflict and instability to the region.
This is a president who has tended to weigh risks and rewards extremely carefully – but in his second term we may see a different Obama. Now he’s building his legacy, his place in history. Obama would surely rather be remembered as the president who finally brought peace to Israel and the Palestinians rather than a man who hesitated, prevaricated and fiddled while the Middle East burned.
Like delegates to the conference on the elephant, there are many issues this Administration must attend to at home and abroad.
But the Israeli-Palestinian issue may end up grabbing center stage whether the president likes it or not.
The writer, a veteran journalist, is communications director of the left-leaning Jewish American J Street advocacy group.