Missing From Obama’s Foreign Policy Speech: The Peace Process and the Fire in His Belly

The critics that Obama confronted at West Point are also Israel’s strongest allies: Those who see international diplomacy as weakness and military intervention as the only sign of strength.

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

To say that the Israeli-Palestinian peace process was conspicuously absent from U.S. President Barack Obama’s speech at West Point on Wednesday is an understatement. Administration officials tried to downplay the significance of the omission, but the facts speak for themselves: Obama devoted almost 5000 words to outlining America’s foreign policy in the coming years, none of them touching on what was described until recently as one of its primary, strategic objectives. And the Palestinians? Nothing. Gurnischt. Not a peep.

“This was a speech focused primarily on security issues. It was not our intent to discuss every aspect of our foreign policy,” the officials said. That’s one explanation. The others are that Obama saw no reason to include such an abject failure in the list of successes that he detailed; that he actually has no intention of doing anything about the peace process under any circumstances; and – most importantly – that he’s truly fed up. Yes, yes, fed up with both sides, but not equally, because it is on the Israeli side that one finds most of the critics and detractors that he tried to confront in his speech.

These are the same people who “are either misreading history or engaged in partisan politics” when they claim that America is in decline; those who think “military intervention is the only way for America to avoid looking weak”; those who perceive international collaboration and legitimacy as a sign of timidity; those who still haven’t understood that “tough talk draws headlines, but war rarely conforms to slogans.”

Obama set up his speech in order to reverse the spiraling depletion of public support for his handling of foreign policy, previously considered his strong suit. He knows that the criticism is no longer limited to the hostile right but is growing among moderates and in the media as well. Nonetheless, he views the bulk of the complaints levelled at him as unfair and ill-conceived: he has fulfilled his main election promise, after all, of withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq, and on Tuesday he announced a timetable to get them out of Afghanistan as well.

America, he says, is as strong as ever: foreign powers are no threat, terror groups are on the run and the international community is eager to collaborate and be led. Obama is said to be perplexed by what he views as childish admiration for Vladimir Putin, who “blinked first” in Ukraine, as Thomas Friedman wrote in the New York Times on Wednesday, following a press briefing with Obama at the White House on Tuesday. And Obama is pushing ahead to achieve a nuclear agreement with Iran, notwithstanding the opposition of Prime Minister Netanyahu and his allies on Capitol Hill.

Syria, as always, is the bane of Obama’s life, his Achilles’ heel. It was the retreat last year from his clear-cut commitment to punish Syria for using chemical weapons that placed support for his foreign policy on such a slippery slope; it was his failure to intervene in the ongoing mass murder of Syrians that distanced him from his interventionist liberal wing, and it is in Syria, as he said Wednesday, where the next great threat of anti-American terror is breeding. But it was Syria that was the undoing of the speech as well, when Obama failed to live up to the hype that he would proclaim American training and arms for anti-Assad rebels.

Obama tried to set down a third way between isolationists at any costs and interventionists no matter what, though by the standards of his critics he was simply pulling back and surrendering. Obama knows that the public supports his views in principle, which only makes his personal frustration grow in practice. He is a whiz at campaigning and getting elected, it seems, but a dismal failure in projecting his successes and spinning his failures once he’s in office.

Even on Wednesday, in a speech aimed at displaying leadership and reviving confidence, Obama was curiously lackluster, showing no signs of the soaring rhetoric that catapulted him twice to the White House. He was “cerebral,” as some like to say of him, distant, seemingly boring himself at times, reminding some viewers of his uninspiring and nearly disastrous faceoff against Mitt Romney in the first presidential debate last year. Obama is without a doubt one of the most intelligent occupiers of the White House ever – especially when compared to his predecessor – but he often seems to lack the “fire in his belly” that voters look for in their leaders, even when those are withdrawing.

This of course doesn’t help Obama and the Democrats in the upcoming midterm elections. Voters don’t cast ballots for their local representatives based on the president’s foreign policy record, of course, but his lowly overall approval ratings make the Democratic effort to maintain control of the Senate an uphill battle at best. If Republicans seize control of both houses of Congress, it will be much harder to secure the sanctions relief needed for a deal with Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process will probably be dead, buried and given last rites. In Jerusalem they will hold victory celebrations, a tradition in such circumstances since 279 B.C.E., when the Tarantenes were jumping for joy after Pyrrhus defeated the Romans at Asculum.

U.S. President Barack Obama delivers the commencement address to the 2014 graduating class at the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York, May 28, 2014.Credit: AFP

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