Frontpage Interview’s guest today is Victor Davis Hanson, a classicist and historian at Stanford University"s Hoover Institution.
FP: Victor Davis Hanson, welcome to Frontpage Interview.
I’d like to talk to you today about the Obama administration’s Middle East policy.
A recent piece in the Washington Post noted that the only country in the world with which the U.S. has worse relations since Obama took office is Israel.
An American administration is soft on butchers that rule Iran and desperately seeks dialogue with them, yet it is giving our friend and ally, and the only democracy in the Middle East, a hard time.
What gives here?
Hanson: Two thoughts cross my mind:
(1) In general, for a variety of complicated reasons, Obama sees those who dislike the United States—an Ahmadinejad, Assad, Castro, Chavez, Ortega, etc.—as somehow more authentic and representative of their own "people." In turn, reaching out to the 'real' leadership of the disadvantaged and oppressed requires special post-colonial, post-imperial skills of a postracial, post-American leader such as himself.
In a sort of messianic role, he thinks he's our bridge to the revolutionary leadership of formerly Third World peoples. But the Iranian democrats in the street, the Honduran Supreme Court, a Uribe, a Maliki government, or the Israelis, all these pro-American friends for some strange reason like the United States, and, most likely, like us for what Obama would call reactionary reasons; so there is nothing sexy about them for Obama really.
(2) Israel--democratic, capitalist, Western, pro-American--is emblematic of all the things that Obama in the past has been skeptical about, since Israel appreciates our values, history, and what we stand for. Again, this is passé for Obama--as if one in a Columbia University seminar on post-imperialism were to raise his hand and declare, "Isn't it great that Israel is a beacon of democracy and Western values in the region?"
Imagine the reaction of the professor and students to that poor fellow, and, presto, there is what bothers Obama about Israel. In domestic policy terms, Israel is like the present health care system, Wall Street, the 5% who need their taxes raised, "they" who raised the bar, the insurance companies, etc., the Palestinians more like the victimized, poor American middle and under classes.
FP: It would be fair to say that there is a strain of anti-Semitism in the Obama administration, yes? A black pastor recently reflected on the problem of anti-Semitism in the black community and noted that it has definitely influenced Obama. Your thoughts?
Hanson: I don't know the answer to that. But I do know that any 20-year devotee of Rev. Wright would have been bombarded with thousands of anti-Semitic tropes and asides, all reinforced by current 'inner-city' hip-hop propaganda and blame-gaming.
I think it was Prof. Henry Louis Gates himself who once warned of the new anti-Semitism of the black inner-city. So Obama as a Chicago organizer and contributor to Trinity Church would have been surrounded by anti-Semitic types.
And we know the writ: at home Jews are supposed blood-suckers whose stores profited off the ghetto, whether the old Pawnbroker type or the new record exec that takes the lion share of profits from black rapping geniuses, to abroad where Israel--small, Western, without oil, without terrorists, without third-world romance--simply either is nothing to be afraid of, or represents the collective rich, overachieving and exploiting Jew.
Rev. Wright said even worse about Jews, and many of Obama's former associates reflect such stereotyped views as well. I suppose in one sense of being objective and disinterested, it speaks well of American Jewish voters that the majority of them voted their generic liberal principles that trumped concern for Israel, since Obama clearly will prove to be far more anti-Israeli than Jimmy Carter.
FP: Obama is being hard on Israel and yet doesn’t appear to be cracking down on Palestinians for their terrorism against Israel, let alone their refusal to accept Israel’s right to exist. Your take on this?
Hanson: Our historically challenged President seems to think not only did the Muslim world invent the printing press and supposedly showed tolerance during the Inquisition in Cordoba, but that there were no Israeli-Arab wars before the 1967 "occupation" of the West Bank.
In his mindset, Jewish exploitation explains West Bank and Gazan poverty and failure, not any intrinsic pernicious ideologies, much less aggressive acts by the people who live there.
So go back to 1967 borders, with proper affirmative action remedies for past exploitation like the right of return, and there is no longer grievance, just perpetual peace and shared thanks for the messianic conciliator. In Chicago terms, Israel is the exploitive landlord, Palestinians the oppressed tenants--and Obama the superior, all-knowing organizer-mediator who will give pep talks to the Palestinians on "responsibility" and "self-help" while drawing material concessions from the too wealthy Israeli building owner.
FP: What do you make of Netanyahu's disposition toward Palestinian statehood, settlements etc? How does this factor into what Obama is trying to do?
Hanson: Netanyahu has outlined a world in which there is a Palestinian state side-by-side a Jewish state, a gradual evolution to a two-state solution in which, just as one million Arabs own land and are often citizens of Israel (many of them immigrants to, rather than original residents of, Israel), so too Jews could likewise purchase land and live in safety in the West Bank or other areas beyond 1967 Israel under future Palestinian governments with all the protections that Arabs receive in Israel.
But that would be impossible to Obama since it leaves out grievance, past exploitation, mitigating circumstances, corrective and affirmative action, and all the other asymmetrical mechanisms that are to be extended to the oppressed "other." Israel as the powerful and rich must offer concessions, Palestine as the weak, poor and oppressed should receive them--that is called in the U.S. these days equality of result, spread the wealth, targeted positive invention, etc.
So, again, Netanyahu is talking logic and reason to those for whom such things are now relative constructs and competing narratives predicated on power, not absolute truths.
FP: What must Israelis do in the face of Obama’s pressure? Is there a chance they might have to go it alone during an Obama administration?
Hanson: Quietly they must assume during the Obama tenure that the United States is no any longer an ally in the same special sense as in the past, and thus not depend on American support for any of its initiatives. E.g., if Israelis feel that a strike against Iran is necessary for their very survival, they had better have a stockpile of spare military parts and supplies beforehand, and a sophisticated diplomatic and public relations reactive team ready. (You see I fear some in this administration want Israel to bomb Iran to at last give it the long-desired excuse to cut Israel loose entirely).
Two, the United States is now Europeanized: privately we would hope that some day Israel "solves" the Iran nuclear danger, but does so on its own and in a blatant way that we can distance from and deplore--in a fashion not much differently by the way from a Saudi Arabia or Egypt on this issue. Closer to home, their best hope is to decide what territory is not essential for their security on the West Bank, cede it, and then bank the approximate square mileage with territory around Jerusalem or its environs, and then readjust the wall and security border accordingly, and ride things out in hopes that the continue economic improvement on the West Bank, Palestinian Authority rivalry with Gaza, and general pan-Arabic fear of Iran will combine to create some sort of uneasy peace. The problem has always not been so much "land for peace" as dialoguing with and trusting illiberal tribes and regimes. There will be no real peace until the Palestinians have some sort of consensual legitimate government--and that may take decades more (if in our lifetimes). Israel's problem is that it has no margin of error, and cannot afford the sort of Obama concessions that are necessary to our President's own self-image, Carter-style, as the global messianic healer.
FP: What do you think of Hillary as Secretary of State and her ability to understand Israeli security needs and concerns?
On the one hand, she was Senator from New York with tutorials on her constituents' interests, and in one of her many prior incarnations saw in her husband's administration in 2000 the Arafat way. On the other, she is Obama's Secretary of State, so parrots the now well known party line that Israel's "true" security is found in a lasting peace predicated on concessions to non-democratic players on the West Bank and in Gaza.
In other words, we have two operative theses at work and neither is positive for Israel:
1) the therapeutic--Israelis must concede, dialogue and construct Palestinians into something like the grumpy University Dean that a testy professor has issues with;
2) the practical--the Arabs have the people, oil, the greater claim on identity politics--and the terrorists.
FP: How concerned should we be about the Obama administration and the damage it could do to Israel?
I think those in Israel are far more experienced in both diplomatic and military affairs than those now in Washington, and so far better than I have made, as they say, "the necessary adjustments" akin to those one must make, say, with the Jimmy Carter diplomacy. Israelis read the Al Arabiya interview, deconstructed the Cairo speech, and have seen the sort of people who have been nominated or appointed to Middle Eastern slots in this administration. They know that the mentality in Washington is like that in a graduate school seminar in which one for cheap psychological reasons, and petty guilt ingratiates oneself with the pro-Palestinian, post-colonial, on-the-barricades mentality.
Again, Israel is simply the foreign manifestation of how this administration feels about the small businessman, a general object of disdain by reason of its success, faith in Western values, and appreciation of American exceptionalism. How odd that Israel's success, and past pro-Americanism prove liabilities with this administration. Perhaps Netanyahu needs to grow a three-day-old beard, wear fatigues, spout anti-Western nonsense, and talk about "narratives" and "discourse" and he would do much better in Washington. Damage? It depends now on Israelis' ingenuity to survive Obama. They must neither fall into the trap of earning US public ire that will allow us the preferred tilt to the Arab world nor go along with American pressure to the point of endangering Israel's survival. One of the tragedies of all this is the need to posture leftward to be liked in order to survive by rightward thinking.
FP: What do you think of how the administration has handled Iran so far?
Obama sees himself, by schooling, lineage, and temperament, as postnational. He's a post-Western envoy to the oppressed, whose unique talents "bridge" the once insurmountable gaps, and so delivers "peace"--due to his transcendence of supposedly obsolescent paradigms such as the theocracy in Iran is thuggish, illegitimate, scary, and, well, mostly nuts. So when a genuinely authentic and democratic resistance arises, Obama's paradigm cannot account for it. For the Iranians who are risking their lives for freedom, Obama's third-world fides is irrelevant. All they seek are hearts and minds; they seek support from democratic peoples confident in the West--and so, of course find no such empathy from Obama. In the realist sense, he's sort of like Bush I sticking by Gorbachev as Yeltsin emerges, or, in the psychological sense, the guilty white liberal who always finds the race monger, the anti-American activist, or Che-like impostor more authentic than those who genuinely appreciate Western-inspired values and freedoms. So yes, the theocracy accordingly earns more deference than the brave in the streets.
FP: What do you see ahead in terms of Obama and the Middle East in general?
Hanson: Carter redux. He will accomplish very little, but no matter. As we have seen, he bumper-stickers his father's Muslim connections, his middle name, and his racial ancestry (in a way that were taboo during the campaign of last year) to champion the notion that he is uniquely sympathetic to the Other's writs against the West, Israel, and America, inasmuch as they dovetail with his own supposedly legitimate grievances.
Now, some of his naive, but well-intentioned supporters see all of this as a clever con game (e.g., our guy now publicly out third-worlds a Chavez or Ahmadinejad but (inter nos) for our own strategic interests); his more looney colleagues believe, albeit privately, that Obama has "flipped" the United States, and now we are to be part of revolutionary global forces rather than as previously their oppressors.
Time will tell who is correct. But as we saw in the Professor Gates case, the Sotomayor appointment, the Holder "cowards" outburst, and the Rev. Wright subsidization, the first impulse is always the most authentic with this President —and often the most scary.
Practically? Obama is simply not up to pressuring Europe, China, and Russia to stop Iran's bomb. Nor his administration up to doing anything much on its own that will earn criticism from our allies and enemies alike. Nor ironically is it up to dramatically chastising Israel in public fashion about much either. It will react, however, in predictably anti-Israeli fashion once events take on a life of their own. We are Europe now, not just in our wannabe transformation into their socialist culture, but also their non-aligned, but very self-interested foreign policy that is designed to further our economic interests as we seek to be liked by those who will never like us for what we used to stand for.
FP: Victor Davis Hanson, thank you for joining Frontpage Interview.