Late last night, I came across four insightful essays, all in Tablet magazine. They’re painful to read, but they struck me as worthy of thought and discussion. Reading them all takes about a half hour.
The first is by Lee Smith, who attempts to define the difference between Obama’s and Netanyahu’s view of America. In my view there’s no reason to focus on Netanyahu; many of us find Obama’s view of America’s role in the world puzzling–and it’s not to our credit that the prime minister of Israel has become a better-known and more articulate exponent of the opposing case than any American leader. Smith’s understanding of Obama strikes me as more intuitively plausible than a view of Obama as deeply unpatriotic or actively hostile to America. For Smith, Obama is a Gladstone figure–a proponent of what Smith calls “Small America.”
Rudy Giuliani recently made headlines when he said that Obama doesn’t love America, a formulation that unsurprisingly won him much praise from the far right. It’s an absurd charge, of course—or rather, it’s wrong by omission. Obama loves America very much, but it’s the Small America he loves, not Big America. …
If you’re Netanyahu, your experience as an Israeli tells you that Big America is a very good thing—political and diplomatic support across the board and of course American arms and military aid that helps you protect your country from lunatics intent on slaughtering you. However, if you grew up during the Cold War in one of those distant new countries in Asia and Africa where America played one side and then the other, and where U.S. diplomacy and U.S. weapons were destined to be used by one part of the country or community against the other side, then you’d have to be a sociopath to love Big America.
What Obama loves is the promise that America extends to the world, regardless of color or creed—you’re welcome here, dream big, you can make it, our arms are open, we’ll help you. This is why the Affordable Care Act was so important to the president, to make good on that promise and provide the dreamers with a safety net. It’s also why the Iran deal is so important to Obama. He understands that it means the end of Big America—which, as he sees it, is an albatross around our necks, and hardly a blessing to the rest of the world.
This sounds to me an accurate diagnosis. I think it’s a useful and honest way for conservatives to think about Obama. To say that he hates America is to trivialize the real, underlying debate, which is fundamentally about what America is and should be: Should it be a global and imperial power? Or is the American empire is a failed or untenable project? The undercurrent of what little national debate we have about foreign policy is largely unvoiced, but it shouldn’t be: What we’re debating, ultimately, are the costs of keeping that empire–and the costs of abandoning it.
As for the costs, consider the next essay by Hanin Ghadar. He writes about the message of the pact with Iran to Arab liberals. No one will help you:
Democracy, freedom, self-determination, human and individual rights are values that Arab liberals like myself thought we shared with the United States. That’s what you told us. For years, we’ve received training and attended workshops on democracy and freedom of expression sponsored by international NGOs and NGOs funded by the United States and the Europeans. We’ve been preached to by visiting American diplomats and think-tankers and journalists about the virtues of citizenship and democracy. We took plenty of notes. We’ve been told that if we speak out to defend our rights, we will be supported by America. And now we’ve been betrayed.
For many liberal Arab citizens like me, it looks like the United States is now taking sides in a sectarian conflict and turning a deliberate blind eye to violations of rights and values which are supposedly the core of what the United States represents. The United States is siding with the Shiites against the Sunnis. It is helping Assad, Hezbollah, and other allies of Iran stay in power. The United States has picked the Resistance axis over helping potential democracies to grow. …
Abandoning Arab liberals and civil society to sectarian warfare seems to now be a valid compromise to make to Iran in return for the deal. Is this what the United States wants the region to become? A battleground for mad extremists? Is the nuclear deal worth that much blood? Are we that insignificant?
The next essay, by Paul Berman, is titled The Reign of Terror, Year XX: The state of jihad and counter-jihad, in the middle of a long war:
Back in 1996 the wider world had never heard of Bin Laden. But look at the jihad now—at the sundry Islamist insurgencies around the world, each of them marked by local peculiarities, and all of them emitting the same medieval fragrance of paranoia, millenarianism, and superstition. The jihad in Afghanistan: evidently undefeatable, regardless of NATO, the world’s most powerful military alliance. In various provinces of Pakistan: thriving, despite the CIA’s drones, the world’s most sophisticated weapon. In the Caucasus: clinging to life, regardless of Vladimir Putin, the world’s most powerful dictator. In Yemen: a stubborn base for al-Qaida, regardless of still more American drones. And thence to the Gaza Strip (where jihad presides), the Sinai Peninsula, Libya (where the jihad is contending for power), Mali and the Sahel, Somalia, and onward to amazing successes in northern Nigeria and beyond—a geographical sprawl indicating levels of energy astronomically beyond what anyone would have imagined 20 years ago. Or look in Shiite directions, where the news is dismaying from still another standpoint. …
Berman then describes the four phases of the counter-jihad–each, he says, a failure, and I cannot argue. I encourage you to read his whole essay before the final one, the most painful of all.
David Samuels writes what I suspect we all think deep down. Bin Laden won.
It is proof of Bin Laden’s mastery of the unexpected logic that animates strategic thought, and of the glaring inability of America’s political leaders to think strategically, that not one but two American presidents have faithfully acted their roles in his geo-political script: George W. Bush, the hawk, with his open-ended and heavy-handed occupation of Iraq; and Barack Obama, the dove, with his precipitous and wholesale withdrawal of American military forces and influence from the Middle East. Both men—and their many advisers—should have known better.
Even more worrying is that Bin Laden easily imagined that they wouldn’t know better—not because of what political party they belonged to, but because they were Americans. While it is generally a blessing to have political leaders who graduate from places like Harvard Business School and Harvard Law School, rather than from underground revolutionary organizations or the blood-drenched security structures of authoritarian states, it is also clear that foreign policy is not an area where clever sound-bites or even good intentions count for much. When it comes to strategic thinking, America might have been better off with leaders who lived in mud huts in Afghanistan and spent their spare time reading the Quran: By applying the linear logic of peacetime to a war-time situation that demanded the dialectical approach that animates strategic thought, Messrs. Bush and Obama each did their part to create a disaster whose consequences for both America and the Arab world will continue to unfold in horrifying ways for decades to come.
It’s not cheerful reading, but I think you’ll find it thought-provoking.
I wish I looked forward to a presidential election in which the candidates openly debated these issues and the questions to which they give rise. Unfortunately, I don’t. It would be much healthier if we did–of what use is self-determination if we don’t?–but we allow our politicians to avoid discussing these questions. Probably, I suspect, because we don’t like thinking about them.