Obama’s Counter-terrorism Speech May Alarm Israeli Policy Makers

After 12 years in the trenches of the 'war on terror', the American president tells Israel the U.S. is pulling out, symbolically at least. And that he intends to pursue peace with the Palestinians.

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

1. Israeli intelligence experts, defense mavens and foreign policy gurus should be poring over President Barack Obama’s address to the National Defense University by now. Many of them, one can safely posit, won’t like what they’re reading, in the text and between the lines.

And it’s not only because Obama, contrary to conventional wisdom in Israel, included the Israeli-Palestinian conflict among “the underlying grievances and conflicts that feed extremism from North Africa to South Asia.” Israelis have fought long and hard to counter the assertion that the conflict fuels or sustains Islamic extremism and the Arab Spring has only cemented their conviction.

But it will come as no surprise to most mavens that Obama, along with his vice president and secretaries of state and defense, is convinced that resolving Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians will go a long a way towards soothing Arab and Muslim resentment of, and enmity towards, the U.S. in particular and the West in general.

Rather it is Obama’s declaration of intent to bring the American “war on terror” to an end that may be a source of greater concern for Israeli policy makers, on a philosophical level at least. Obama’s view that there is no single global jihadist campaign that is being waged against America contradicts the prevailing outlook of most Israelis, inside the government and out. His conception that terrorists from Boston to Beirut to Baghdad to Benghazi, even if they are jihadi-inspired, are separate entities, rather than manifestations or even tentacles of a singular ideological central command, flies In the face of most Israelis’ view of the world. As it does for many U.S. Republicans.

“The battlefield is anywhere the enemy chooses to make it,” Senator Lindsey Graham said in a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing last week. That is the way most Israelis would see it. But for Obama, the enemy was clearly defined and the battlefield was distinctly limited from the outset to Afghanistan, Somalia, Pakistan and Yemen and other countries in which “al-Qaeda and its associates” flourished. And the war on those specific battlefields, according to Obama, is about to be won.

2. But it was only last week that in the same Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Congress’ post 9/11 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) that Assistant Secretary of Defense Michael Sheehan was asked how long he thinks the bill would need to stay in force.

“For at least 10-20 years”, he said, “Until al-Qaida has been consigned to the ash heap of history.”

A short few days later - in statements that his critics will surely associate with Bush’s infamous May 1, 2003 “Mission Accomplished” in Iraq declaration - Obama asserted that al-Qaeda is already “a shell of its former self” and “on a path to defeat.” And that he was willing to start talks with Congress now – and not in 10-20 years – about repealing the AUMF.

This is not simply a matter of U.S. constitutional law, but one of basic weltanschauung. For Israelis, the “war on terror” is the one declared by George Bush on September 20, 2001, in which he said that “Our war on terror begins with al-Qaida, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated.” That is the kind of war, possibly without end, that Israelis believe should be waged, with the U.S. in front and in command. But that is the kind of campaign that Obama told his listeners the U.S. cannot afford to wage very much longer.

Israelis are less interested in the intricacies of the authorization needed to approve targeted drone assassinations or in the pros and cons of closing down Guantanamo. For the past 12 years, Israel and the U.S. have been united by a common enemy and a common purpose. They have served in the trenches together, on the same battlefield. That’s not going to end in practice, of course, but in formal and symbolic terms, at least, Obama has put Israel and the rest of the world on notice that the US was pulling out.

3. Obama’s exchange with his nemesis heckler, Medea Benjamin of Code Pink, was no less revealing than the rest of his speech. It clearly flustered him, not only because of the shockingly long time that it took security personnel to remove her from the crowd but also, it seemed, because Benjamin’s Guantanamo heckling appeared to echo Obama’s own misgivings. “The voice of that woman is worth paying attention to,” he said, possibly because that is exactly what he has been hearing inside his own head.

Of course, one cannot ignore the fact that the same Code Pink was also responsible for organizing the heckling and disruptions during Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s speech in New Orleans at the Jewish Federation’s General Assembly in 2010. Netanyahu, understandably, did not call on his listeners to appreciate what his hecklers were saying, given that most of them belong to groups that are staunch critics of Israeli policies towards the Palestinians and who advocate a boycott of Israel.

The more worrisome question for Netanyahu supporters, of course, is whether the groups’ position on Israelis and Palestinians is also one of the voices that are being given a fair hearing inside Obama’s head.

4. A direct line connects Obama’s 2009 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech and his address to the National Defense University on Thursday. In his Oslo speech, Obama laid out the foundations of his view of the “just war”, a concept expounded by Christian Realist theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, whose name was much in vogue in the 2008 election campaign. In Washington on Thursday, Obama said that even a “just war”, such as the one against al-Qaeda, needs to be ended.

In 2009, the then-untested Obama set out to move his image from the far left to the center, to correct the impression that he is a war-averse liberal who is ideologically opposed to the use of force under any and all circumstances. In Washington on Thursday, he reversed course and tried to recapture the moral high ground that he feels he may have lost – not only in the eyes of his supporters but when he looks in the mirror as well.

Thus, the speech may mark the beginning of Obama’s efforts to forge his own legacy on national security. He wants to make good on his promise to “bring the troops home” not only from Iraq and Afghanistan but from the war on al-Qaida as well. He does not want to be remembered as the founder of drone assassination warfare or as the politician who repeatedly promised to close down Guantanamo “immediately”, but failed to make good on his promise five years later.

Thus, in the coming three years, Obama will strive to reconcile the inherent contradictions that were so glaringly obvious during his tenure, between rhetoric and practice, between theory and reality, between ideals and imperatives - between “what you see from here,” as Ariel Sharon used to say, to “what you see from there.”.

5. One other campaign promise that Obama has failed to keep was the pledge he made during his visit to Israel in July, 2008, to “not waste a minute in brokering Middle East peace.” According to most observers, he has wasted many minutes – more than four years’ worth, to be exact.

Nonetheless, Obama found it appropriate to include the search for an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a significant element in America’s counter-terrorism policy. By doing so, Obama showed his support for Secretary of State John Kerry’s indefatigable efforts to rekindle peace talks, because any omission would have been viewed as a snub.

But it may also signal that Obama views progress on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as yet another element of his legacy that he still intends to fulfill. That, of course, would also worry many Israelis, especially in the government, but it would also encourage many others, including this one.

Follow me on Twitter @ChemiShalev

President Barack Obama spaeking the National Defense UniversityCredit: AP

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