Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Understanding the Middle East: Me, You, The Scorpion, The Frog, and Barack Obama

By Barry Rubin

There’s a little fable that’s often used to explain the Middle East. You’ve probably heard it but for those of you who haven’t I’ll tell it briefly and then analyze it in detail to explain better about this most perplexing yet highly important part of the world.

First, the story:

One day, a frog and a scorpion are standing by the river bank. They both want to get across to the other side. The frog can swim; the scorpion can’t. So the scorpion asks the frog to carry him across.

“But,” protests the frog, “if I let you on my back you’ll sting me!”

“Don’t worry,” answers the scorpion. “Why would I do that since if I sting you I’ll drown?”

This makes sense to the frog. He lets the scorpion climb aboard, jumps into the water, and starts swimming. In the middle of the river the scorpion does indeed sting the frog, paralyzing him. And as they sink down into the depth, the frog speaks his last words: “Why did you do that! Now we’ll both die!”

The scorpion shrugs his carapace and says, “Oh well, after all this is the Middle East. Glub. Glub. Gl….”

What I’ve never liked about this story is that the scorpion’s action seems to be irrational and is clearly suicidal. But what if the scorpion has good reason for acting as he does and isn’t just committing suicide? I’ll come back to this point in a few sentences.

Before that, though, let’s consider some scenarios.

Scenario One: The nice, pragmatic scorpion.

Assume a rational Western policymaker who thinks that everyone in the world thinks and acts pretty much the same because they have the same goals. In his other experiences handling domestic issues or with friendly foreign powers, he knows that if you make concessions to reach a deal, the other side will do so as well. Everybody seeks to arrive at a mutually beneficial solution.

Or, in Obama’s words: "I'm not interested in victory. I'm interested in resolving the problem."
So in that sense, the frog is dealing with a ”scorpion” he can trust—say Canada, Britain, Israel, Colombia, Botswana, or Japan.

Scorpion and frog want to get to other side, scorpion and frog cooperate (the scorpion will even put his claws into the water and paddle since he’s interested in success), problem solved.

Scenario Two: The nasty but rational scorpion.

But the policymaker isn’t so naïve. He knows there are some real differences, but he chalks these down to misunderstandings. Perhaps previous frogs haven’t treated the scorpion properly. If he apologizes and shows he’s a different kind of frog than the scorpion won’t sting him but will be one over by his charm and willingness to compromise.

So he makes a speech: Scorpions have a long and proud history. Frogs have often been arrogant in their treatment of scorpions. Let’s be friends.

To make this mistake, you don’t have to assume blindly good will on the scorpion’s side. You will give more than the scorpion in terms of concessions but in the end the scorpion will give something because it has an interest in making the arrangement work.

So the frog jumps in with the scorpion on its back, the scorpion lets the frog do all the work, demands refreshments, and doesn’t say “thank you” at the end. But at least it doesn’t sting the scorpion. The other bank is reached; peace and quiet is achieved.

Perhaps this can be said to characterize places like Egypt, Pakistan, Russia and Saudi Arabia. They put a higher value on getting along but will give the absolute minimum in exchange no matter how much they get from America and Europe.

Scenario Three: The Radical Frog-Hating Scorpion That Wants to Rule the Habitat

Here is where our problem is today. Briefly, the radical scorpions of the world—which include in alphabetical order: Cuba, Hamas, Hizballah, Iran, North Korea, the Palestinian Authority, Sudan, Syria, Venezuela, Zimbabwe, and some others that could be mentioned don’t want to compromise and be friends.

Unlike the pragmatic scorpion, they won’t give a lot; unlike the nasty but pragmatic scorpion, they won’t give a little. They will take everything they can get and give nothing in return.

Does this make them irrational? No, because if they believe they can win by this strategy then it is quite a rational one to follow. And if you give them reason to think you are weak, stupid, naïve, or sympathetic enough to give them everything in exchange for nothing then you have persuaded them of that fact.

But now I have to redeem my promise about explaining why the scorpion isn’t committing suicide. In effect, answering this question has been one of my main efforts for 30 years now.
Briefly, the scorpion has good reason to think he is more likely to die if he doesn’t sting the frog.

Let’s put it this way: the scorpion stings the frog, the frog dies but becomes like a boat that the scorpion can use to stay afloat and to paddle wherever he wants. By using his stinger, the scorpion improves his situation.

Or to elucidate:
--Radical regimes use anti-American, anti-Western, and anti-Israel doctrine and conflicts as rationales for their many failures. Support your dictator; don’t complain about low living standards or lack of freedom because I’m saving you from the imperialist-Zionist-infidel plots against you.

--By stinging, radical regimes show how tough they are, thus pleasing and intimidating their own people and outdoing their rivals at home and competitors abroad.

--Not stinging is more dangerous than stinging. After all, if radical dictators had good relations with the Western democracies they could more easily influence the dictatorship’s society by opening up its economy and society more. The dictator will forego benefits in order to sustain his rule.

--They believe in their ideology. The scorpion must sting or he isn’t a scorpion. Iran’s leaders really believe what they say, as did Saddam Hussein or Yasir Arafat or Fidel Castro. Down with the frogs! Long live the scorpions!

--Finally, these regimes are ambitious. They want to rule their region and know that the West truly is an adversary. It isn’t a friend to be hugged or a limited rival with which you make a deal after tough bargaining, but rather an enemy to be defeated.

So it doesn’t matter whether Obama wears an “I love Scorpions” T-shirt, or speaks at the Scorpions’ Club (I mean the UN), or apologizes for previous frogs croaking too loud.

To the scorpions of the world, though, he's making America look like a plate of frogs’ legs.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

The Obama Administration Finds Another Dictatorship to Appease; Makes Friends with Sudan

By Barry Rubin

Good news for bad guys. The Obama Administration has found another dictatorship to appease.
Thanks to a superb article in the Washington Post, we can see what’s happening with U.S. policy toward Sudan. That country’s government, once accused of genocide in the south, is now said to have been doing the same thing in the west. While these claims may be exaggerated, we at least have here a case of mass murder and ferocious repression.

Where’s the UN issuing reports, the human rights’ groups condemning these actions, the front-page daily articles, mass demonstrations, protests by intellectuals?

Oh, sorry, I was thinking of Israel.

And far from being a semi-pariah Sudan was recently elected head of the non-aligned group, the largest voting bloc in the UN.

Thanks to an excellent Washington Post article—a newspaper increasingly superior to the crackpot tendencies of the New York Times and Los Angeles Times--we have a detailed report on a usually neglected country. According to the article, Sudan:

“is becoming a test of how President Obama will reconcile a policy of engagement with earlier statements blasting a government he said had `offended the standards of our common humanity.’"

Hmm….I wonder which of these two aspects will win out? It tells you a lot about this administration that no one can doubt it will be engagement.

In the Sudan case, “U.S. diplomacy has remained mostly in the hands of Obama's special envoy to Sudan, retired Air Force Maj. Gen. J. Scott Gration, who is pushing toward normalized relations with the only country in the world led by a president indicted on war-crimes charges.”

Gration’s critics in Sudan and the United States say the Administration’s approach on the Sudan “ is dangerously, perhaps willfully, naïve,” being manipulated “by government officials who talk peace even as they undermine it.”

In fact, Gration has ingratiated himself with dictator President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, a radical Islamist, and declares he sees signs of goodwill from Bashir who he pronounces ready to change.
Well, that fits in with everything else we’re hearing about the administration world view.

"`We've got to think about giving out cookies,’ said Gration. `Kids, countries--they react to gold stars, smiley faces, handshakes, agreements, talk, engagement.’"

Wow, what a great summary of the American president’s world view!

Incidentally, if Obama was not a liberal Democrat, liberals would be fiercely attacking him for cozying up to reactionary, repressive dictators in total contradiction to historic liberal positions on such issues.

The ultimate problem, however, is what could the United States get out of the Sudan even if relations improve? The killing in west Sudan might be stopping, but that’s because the region has been pacified by earlier killings. The war in the south might well restart. Khartoum will continue to be friendly to Iran and house some terrorist training camps. It will certainly continue to be repressive and anti-American. As one Sudanese observer put it, he fears U.S. rapprochement with the regime will give it confidence to crack down all the harder.

True, some Sudanese critical of the regime also think that he’s doing a good job.

Others don’t: Adam Mudawi, a Sudanese human rights activist, says, "In six months, he'll find out. They are liars."

At least, unlike another country I could name, they won’t have nuclear weapons by then.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Life in a Fourth-Grade American Classroom: The Friendship Worksheet

By Barry Rubin

When I went to school, we studied various academic subjects and even read Charles Dickens and William Shakespeare. At the time, I hated these works as boring and irrelevant. But how grateful I am today for this grounding in good literature.

(Is one still allowed to say such a thing or would the response be: How can we say something is “good” and how can we define “literature”? And which literature, since Native American literature is no doubt as good as English literature.)

But as an artifact of the increasingly unacademic nature of public schooling, I give you “Friendship Worksheet” from my ten-year-old son Daniel’s fourth-grade class in the Montgomery County, Maryland, public school. This was handed out in a half-hour guidance counseling session with the entire class.

The guidance counselor said: “The point of this is when you are sad then you look at the page and you feel better because this person thinks those nice things about you.”

My son, bless him, replied, “Of course the person is going to say nice things because it’s a project.”

Responds the teacher, no doubt in a slightly huffy tone, “You’ll learn that in Somerset (school) that the class is your family and you respect each other.”

One can’t help but read into that a bit of an implied threat, perhaps of being sent to a “reeducation camp” for being an undesirable element. Only kidding. Well, I do recall that some years ago he was sent to study hall as punishment for saying that some Indians were "ferocious" during a discussion on Native Americans at another American school. I guess that's how they teach pupils about free speech in the contemporary United States.

In the current case, it seems at least in part that “respect” here seems to be implicitly defined as “never criticize” and perhaps also as “don’t compete with.” And, of course, I remember enough about being 10 years old to conclude that students are also receiving the very strong message: Shut up and parrot the official line whether you believe it or not.

The teacher then chose for each student at random who they should write about and paired them off. In other words, it didn’t matter if they didn’t like this person or knew nothing about them they still had to praise them. As the teacher explained encouragingly, “The nice kids are popular.”

Funny, but when I was in school one of the most popular kids was Frank Rich, the future New York Times columnists, who was—and remains—one of the nastiest and most snobbish bullies I’ve ever encountered.

Even aside from this, as I remember it the “popular” kids were either sport’s stars; precocious enough to know how to maneuver socially; the best-looking; or, in those circles, derided as nerds the smartest. I seem to recall the saying that “nice guys finish last.”

But back to Daniel. The Friendship Worksheet begins with Adjectives in which the student gets to choose from 28 nice things ranging from kind and dependable through funny and nice.

In part two, a noun is chosen: friend, boy, girl, or person. Under predicates you get to pick five from among 14 items including “is nice,” “cares about others,” “has good ideas,” and “is a good sport.”

There is a choice at the end to write in something but the direction is foreclosed because one alternative begins with “is good at ___” and the other “is great at ____.”

While there is a choice for “learns quickly,” and “does well at school,” there is not one for being one of the top students or best athletes.

Finally, comes a “friendship sentence” to be written using the words chosen above. In my son’s case, he received the following: "You are a good and nice friend who is kind and learns quickly."
This took thirty minutes of class time.

Am I being unfair in ridiculing this exercise? This kind of thing might make sense in first grade but in fourth? As I recall, though, students are a pretty cynical bunch and take the attitude: We’ll give them what they want whatever that might be.

Should I speculate on the roots of the doctrine, so dear to President Barack Obama, that there is no such thing as an enemy and that individual or national interests—if properly defined—never conflict? I can’t help but imagine Obama filling out a Friendship Worksheet on Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in which he can only circle nice things about him.

PS: Daniel has informed me that he is willing to answer your questions about the state of the American educational system.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

Egypt: Where Bookburners Are Heroes and Democracy Advocates Are Villains

By Barry Rubin

Hala Mustafa is one of Egypt’s leading thinkers regarding contemporary political and international issues. Recently, she’s been the subject of a campaign to destroy her career because of something she did which has made her the object of hatred amidst the Egyptian professional and intellectual elite: She met for a few minutes with the Israeli ambassador to Egypt.

The Mustafa case is a real sign of how things work in the Arab world, far different from the assumptions so often made by policymakers, journalists, and both experts and “experts.”

Thirty years ago, Egypt and Israel signed a peace treaty. Israel returned the Sinai Peninsula, captured in the 1967 war, to Egypt, providing that country with a valuable strategic and economic (Suez Canal and oilfields) asset. Relations were nominally normalized though the Egyptian government limited tourism and trade. The Egyptian media continued to treat Israel as a demonic and enemy state. Egyptian professional associations, many under the control of the Muslim Brotherhood, banned their members from any contact with Israel.

It was in this context that Israeli Ambassador Shalom Cohen asked to visit Mustafa’s office to discuss a symposium he wanted to hold, in which Egyptians, Israelis, and Palestinians were to discuss the peace process. After a short discussion, Mustafa told him that she would have to consult her bosses about whether she could participate.

The head of the Egyptian journalists’ association has claimed this violates the group’s 1983 boycott of Israel and therefore Mustafa should be punished. Whether or not this actually happens, she is under a severe and vicious verbal and print assault.

To understand Mustafa’s complex position is to learn a lot about the contemporary Arabic-speaking world. Egyptian professionals and intellectuals can often be truly mediocre, slogan-spouting people who resemble the bureaucrats of the Soviet Communist regime. In contrast, Mustafa is clearly a serious and bright person, as became immediately evident to me in our conversations and through her writing. She also really cares about issues of free speech and democracy while showing some real courage on their behalf.

But what’s a liberal intellectual to do? Her main job is as editor of the quarterly journal Democracy. While published in Arabic, I believe that more copies are printed in English. This indicates the journal’s purpose as a showpiece, designed more to show the West that the Egyptian government is democratic-minded than it is to spark real discussion in Egypt.

Indeed, the journal virtually never publishes articles about Arabic-speaking countries, much less Egypt. The quality of the material, to Mustafa’s credit, is good but it is hardly going to spur a struggle for democracy within Egypt. And, of course, it cannot publish articles about, say, Syria or Saudi Arabia, since those governments would then protest this as an attack by the Egyptian regime.

For Democracy is, ironically but typically in Arab political terms, a state publication. Mustafa’s bosses are the heads of the al-Ahram Center. Al-Ahram is Egypt’s leading newspaper which is controlled by the state. It runs editorials, for example, claiming that the United States is responsible for all the terrorist violence in Iraq because it wants to split and rule Arabs and Muslims.

So a propaganda arm of a dictatorial regime is the publisher of the main journal in the Arabic world that nominally advocates democracy. If you understand that paradox, you get a concept of the situation.

What keeps the journal from being a stolid mouthpiece is the effort of Mustafa to do as much as possible within the limits permitted. At the same time, she is a member of the ruling National Democratic Party's policy planning staff, a point that is even more significant when it is noted that this is part of the apparatus of Gamal Mubarak, the president’s son and likely successor.

None of this is said to criticize Mustafa. If you want to know more about the constraints under which liberal reformers work in the Arabic-speaking world and why they are doomed to fail, at least in the short- to medium-run, you can read my book on the subject which is still quite up to date: The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East, John Wiley Publishers (2005).

It has now been reliably reported that the entire al-Ahram group has decided to boycott Israel entirely and to punish Mustafa. Note that this means the staff of Egypt's leading newspaper and Egypt's largest international affairs' research center will be forbidden from meeting Israelis (and perhaps from reading any Israeli publications?). In other words, no reporter can interview any Israeli. If anyone from this large media group would even have a conversation with me, they could be subject to firing.

And who appoints the head of the al-Ahram group and determines its policy? Why, President Husni Mubarak, the man who is supposedly a great U.S. ally, whose country hosted Obama's speech of conciliation when he spoke about the greatness of Islam, criticized Israel harshly, and urged Arabs to make peace with Israel. This is Mubarak's answer but no U.S. official will acknowledge that fact and it will not enter into U.S. policy.

Meanwhile, a key theme in Obama's strategy is the abandonment of any support for democratic change--which was a historic liberal position long before President George W. Bush thought of it--and close cooperation with the Arab regimes. This is a defensible tactic on one condition: that the United States gets something out if it. And this doesn't seem to be happening.

As for Arab liberals, they are being abandoned by the United States and the West in general. Here's one little anecdote that gives you a sense of how hard is the life of Arab liberals. A Syrian dissident, who has spent a lot of time in prison, during the course of an interview said: "Our government is fascist" but a few minutes later added that it was vital to support the government. Why? Because he hates the existing repressive regime but fears a radical Islamist one, the most likely alternative, would be worse.

Meanwhile, back in Egypt, while Mustafa is under attack, former Egyptian Culture Minister Farouk Hosni is a hero. Hosni was the supposed cultural custodian of Egypt at the same time as he was uttering antisemitic statements and told the Egyptian parliament that if he found any Israeli-authored books in Egypt’s libraries he would immediately and personally burn them.

Oh, and Hosni--like the al-Ahram media group--is also close to Mubarak, the man whom Obama looks upon as a close ally, the recipient of massive U.S. aid, the leader who has benefited by Obama's taking off the pressure over reform, etc.

In one of the few signs of sanity in the world recently, his behavior was too much even for the UN (which is saying a lot!) and he lost the election to be the next head of UNESCO, the UN’s cultural, educational, and scientific organization. In today’s atmosphere, it could not be assumed that a man who advocated book-burning might be rejected for the post of world’s leading cultural official. After his defeat, Hosni blamed an international Jewish conspiracy for his humiliation.

Egypt, by the way, is a country where despite about $2 billion in U.S. aid a year over a period of more than a quarter-century, the textbooks still claim that America secretly attacked the country in June 1967 and destroyed its air force in order to help Israel. And the media regularly publish articles on how the U.S. government or Israel were behind the September 11, 2001, terror attacks on America.

The story of Mustafa and Hosni is but one small tale of the contemporary Middle East. What are some of the lessons?:

--You can tell a lot about a country by who it regards as heroes and villains.

--The efforts of President Barack Obama have had no effect on the situation. The real problem is not due to U.S. actions or insensitivities but to the needs of the Egyptian regime. It requires America as a scapegoat to mobilize support for the dictatorship among those whose primary ideology is either Arab nationalism or Islam-oriented. Remember that the worst thing President George W. Bush did from an Egyptian government perspective was to advocate democracy in the Arabic-speaking world.

--There is almost no margin for the free functioning of intellectuals and democracy advocates in the Arab world. What the state doesn’t eat up, the extremist and repressive consensus devours.

--After thirty years of peace with Egypt, Israel is viewed with the same overweening hatred and slander as it was before the treaties were signed. Thus, real peace is extraordinarily difficult to achieve and is not subject to the kinds of expectations Western leaders and media have.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan).
To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books.
To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

Unnoticed Anniversary: Rome Fell 1600 Years Ago; Greeks Beat Persians 2500 Years Ago, Lessons for the Present?

By Barry Rubin

Next year marks important anniversaries of two of the most important events in Western history both of which, as far as I know, have been pretty much ignored.

Next September 21, it will be 2500 years ago exactly, on September 21, 491 BCE (BC to most of you), that the Greeks defeated the Persian invasion at Marathon.

And next August 24, it will be 1600 years ago, on August 24, 410, that Rome fell to the Visigoths under Alaric. Many historians mark this date as the end of the Roman Empire, though there continued to be emperors for another 66 years.

These two dates--whose anniversaries fall within a few days of each other--can be said to mark, respectively, the beginning of Western civilization's primacy and it's at least temporary end.

The victory for the Greek city-states marked the triumph of relative democracy and logic-based philosophy, among other things. It laid the basis for all that was to come.

The collapse of the Roman Empire brought to a close the Classical era of history and high civilization in general. While the truth is somewhat more complex, it can be said that it took humanity, certainly in the West, 1200 years to return to the intellectual and cultural level that had existed then.

While there has been a long and complex debate on why Rome and ancient civilization collapsed, clearly there were both internal and external reasons. Among the former can be counted: a loss of civic pride and patriotism, refusal of citizens to fight for their country, and decay of traditional values. The latter factors include the assault by other peoples with a strong religious and national sense of identity who were still willing and even eager to fight, and the flooding of the empire by immigrants who had a different world view and agenda aimed at taking it over.

People are free to draw conclusions regarding a comparison with contemporary conditions, but the subject should certainly be considered seriously. The study of Roman history has also undergone some change which seems to coincide with Political Correctness. The classical explanations for the Rome's decline and fall included moral corruption, the loss of identity, and letting the "wild warriers" of the Germanic tribes settling on its territory due to a labor shortage.
Many more recent writers speak of the Romans as not being nice enough to the Gothic immigrants, on whom they increasingly depended for their army.

On the other hand, we should never forget the great achievements. As Aelius Aristides summed them up in a 175 letter to Emeror Marcus Aurelius:

"Now the whole world keeps holiday and laying aside its ancient dress of steel [armor] has turned in freedom to adornment and all delights. The cities have abandoned their old uarrels, and are occupied by a single rivalry, each ambitious to be more pleasant and beautiful....Today Greek or foreigner may travel freely where he though he was passing from homeland to homeland....To be safe it is enough to be Roman....You have...bridled rivers with many a bridge, cut mountains into carriage roads, filled the deserts with outposts, and civilized all things with settled discipline and life."

As one of the relatively few people who can claim direct descent from the Persian Empire’s beneficiaries (King Cyrus of Persia ended the Babylonian exile of the Jews and allowed the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem) and from the Roman Empire's victims (since it killed and exiled my ancestors after the capture of Jerusalem following the great revolt there) I can appreciate counter-arguments regarding Persia's tolerance and Rome being an aggressive and often repressive dictatorship, too.

But the broader, long-term points remain valid.

(Here one can insert some sarcastic and humorous remark about what the world would be like if Rome existed today. An emperor who apologized for all its past conquests or the representative of Caligula or Nero chairing the UN Human Rights Commission? I leave the choice of appropriate examples to readers.)

Still, if many experiences remind one of personal mortality, this is an event that should make us think about civilizational mortality, something we hopefully won’t be finding out about directly.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

Obama Doesn’t Understand: The Alternative to Victory is Defeat

By Barry Rubin

The problem with President Barack Obama is not that he makes gaffes or factual errors when he speaks but because he expresses an ideological framework so shocking and dangerous.

Take the latest such remark, made in the G-20 press conference, referring to Iran’s nuclear program:

"I'm not interested in victory. I'm interested in resolving the problem."

Totally detached from actual international conflicts, this is a rational and noble statement. Hey, says Pragmatic Man, I’m not seeking something to brag about, a total victory and my opponent's humiliation. I just want to solve problems and leave everyone happy.

Yet he's not playing a game of bridge here but dueling with a dictatorship that thinks it has divine support and wants to build a massive totalitarian empire. The fact that Obama thinks this way makes him a person not fit to deal with real enemies.

Briefly, here are several reasons why:

--In a misunderstanding with those who are otherwise friends, this "no victory" approach makes sense. If the United States has some minor problem with, say, Canada or the United Kingdom, it would be good to seek a resolution in which it wasn’t a victor. Sure, get the blip in an otherwise good relationship out of the way so the two allies can get back to cooperating on a hundred other matters.

But Obama doesn’t seem to understand the profound difference between friends and enemies.
As Obama has repeatedly shown, he is more eager to resolve conflicts with enemies than to back up friends. For him, enemies don’t exist but have only been created by mistaken U.S. policy. Apologies or concessions will suffice to end any friction.

--Obama assumes the other side is rational and well-intentioned. Whether its Libya or North Korea, Cuba or Syria, Iran or Venezuela, Obama simply doesn’t get the idea that dictatorship and ideology, greed and passionate hatred can create forces which don’t want to be friends.

In effect, such regimes have the precise opposite approach to that of Obama: They aren’t interested in resolving the problem. They are interested in victory.

--By making such a statement, Obama speaks as if Iran is a blank slate rather than a country which has repeatedly broken promises on the nuclear issue; called for genocide against Israel; been the world’s leading sponsor of terrorism; killed Americans through terrorist operations in Lebanon, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and other countries; is ruled by a regime that just stole an election; has violently repressed the opposition and put peaceful activists on trial for their lives; has a defense minister who is a wanted terrorist; has just been shown to have been concealing a second enrichment facility for arming nuclear weapons; and then brags that it now had long-range missiles capable of hitting Europe.

Could all this be telling something important about Iran's readiness to be moderate and compromise? Obama should be using each stage in this escalation to build support against Iran but instead he has basically ignored all of these factors in setting his policy and strategy.

Iran is not ruled by a regime with which you can just solve problems. And any solution without victory of a sort will not be a solution.

--If Iran intends to build nuclear weapons and the United States opposes this goal how can there be any resolution of the problem without victory? If the Iranian regime builds deliverable nuclear weapons then it wins; if Tehran is stopped from doing so, the United States wins. What kind of conceivable compromise can there be without a victory for one side or the other?

--Obama’s formulation could be sensible with another side whose feelings one didn’t want to hurt unnecessarily. Assuring the other side you don’t insist on total victory can be a soothing factor. Unfortunately in this case it is the radical side which needs to say so. (The Palestinian side and most Arab states need to say this to Israel but never do so. Israel has already said so to the other side but it hasn’t done much good.)

--But most important of all is Obama’s seeming inability to understand the concepts of deterrence and credibility. I’m not exaggerating here. He has never made a single statement incorporating these ideas.

Yes, you need to be tough. Yes, you sometimes have to make threats. Yes, you need to show yourself willing to use force. Yes, you sometimes have to win victories. The leader of a great power needs to do these things to discourage enemies from being more aggressive and disregarding his country’s interests. In addition, the leader of a great power must do these things to encourage friends to rely on him and his country for help and protection.

Obama thinks he is reassuring America’s enemies by apologizing, avoiding conflict, and insisting he doesn’t seek victory. He is reassuring them—reassuring them that they can walk all over the United States without cost.

In totally misconceiving the nature of his own responsibilities and of international affairs, Obama is creating an extremely dangerous situation. One of the many things he doesn’t understand is that his approach makes crisis, bloodshed, and war far more likely.

It is sobering to see the man who holds the world's most powerful job for dealing with international affairs on the planet has no previous experience dealing with this topic. It is horrifying that his ideas ensure disaster for the democratic forces and successes for the dictatorial ones.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Is America Losing Its Greatness on the Playing Fields of the East Coast?

By Barry Rubin

My son, Daniel, who is doing anthropological field work on American society at age 10, points out something interesting after he comes off the field in his soccer (football) game. But I can see it also.

The boys don’t play very aggressively. And by “aggressively” I don’t mean brutally or in a nasty or macho way. It's so far below that level that the concept of "macho" isn't in this universe at all. They really seem to hold back and, as much as my memory is accurate, they are far more diffident than when I was that age.

Is this the result of social conditioning and educational indoctrination in contemporary American society, or is it my imagination?

One reason that I think I might be on to something here is an American documentary I saw aired on Israeli television. It was a two-part program about how to raise a boy. I expected the worst and, sure enough, within minutes there was a scene on an American football (not soccer) field in which the coach was urging the players to be tougher.

The narrator was explaining that this was unnecessary. Why did the coach believe that boys should be aggressive? she asked. That was only because he was so conditioned when he was young, a delusion about the way men were supposed to be. Really? Are thousands of years of history to be dismissed so easily?

Or perhaps one might say: that’s why there have been so many wars in the past, we no longer need that sort of behavior, and so we are going to train them out of it.

That really does seem to be the conscious trend in educational philosophy now, right? And, of course, it has certain implications for foreign policy as well.

I should quickly add that what I’m saying probably pertains more to big-city and suburbs upper middle class young people. In the Mid-West, South, Mountain States, and rural areas, things have changed far less. Or perhaps it is a matter of the change coming only when those young people have gone to universities and been exposed to the kind of professors who seem dominant in those institutions nowadays?

I’m just raising questions here, having not spent much time in the United States during the past couple of decades. You tell me.

But there’s also something else accompanying this observation, and again perhaps I’m overstating the case. The coach and parents keep telling the kids how well they are doing, how every play they are making is terrific. My son mimics this with an exaggerated: “Isn’t that great!”

Even when they lose, even when they make a mistake, the emphasis isn’t on correction but on encouragement. There is much to be said for this, of course. It certainly builds self-esteem and that’s a good thing. But is it also a preparation for mediocrity, indifference between victory and defeat, loss of competitiveness?

Again, I don’t know. You tell me. In Israel, as my son points out, the coach yells at the kids and even curses at a “fashlan,” a real mess-up on the field. When they were picking the team at his Israeli school to play in the championships, the teacher told the students: “Don’t feel bad if you aren’t chosen but we have to pick the best players for the good of the class.” The idea was that the goal is to win, not just to make everyone feel good.

At the end of the game, which I think he played quite well, my son is upset. He’s very hard, even too hard, on himself because he didn’t play up to his own standards. It’s bad that he’s unhappy about it, yet it’s good also because it means he’ll practice hard and be determined to do better next time.

Obviously, every approach has its drawbacks. Kids have been long traumatized by pressure, over-critical parents, low self-esteem, and a sense of failure. They were also told, however, it doesn’t matter if you win or lose but how you play the game. This didn’t mean that it didn’t matter at all whether you won or lost but rather that the single most important thing was to fight hard and genuinely do your best. And if you don’t play well enough I’m going to show you how to do better.

That’s very different—I hope you see the distinction—from saying: Whatever you do is fine. That statement ends discussion, it ensures the status quo situation. It doesn't promote personal excellent, putting everything you have into the effort.

The Duke of Wellington—who hated his old school—didn't say, as it is often claimed he did, that the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton. Still there is some relationship between these two kinds of things.

Are Americans—at least elite Americans, at least a significant portion of Americans--being programmed to lose in the world and on the playing field by the current child-raising, educational, and politically dominant philosophy and leadership?

I honestly don’t know. You tell me.

Here's what one non-American correspondent writes to me: "This is certainly true. I taught soccer in the LA area, and this kind of capitulation mentality had already started, at least with some of the league officials and the refs then in the mid-1990's. Receiving encouragement when you do your best and fail is one thing, it is another thing when you do nothing and are told you are wonderful. In the latter case, you end up becoming Obama-like."

By the way, I should have added the following true story: In the soccer league of a wealthy area of Connecticut they don’t keep score—because winning isn’t important—and a coach or parent told one team before the game not to be too hard on the other one, that is, don’t try to score too many goals.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Barack Obama, Iran, and the “Or Else” Factor

By Barry Rubin

At the G-20 meeting in Pittsburgh, President Barack Obama and several European leaders threatened Iran that it had just better stop developing nuclear weapons right away or else they would act decisively. Let’s call this the “Or Else” factor.

The Western countries revealed that they knew all about a secret Iranian enrichment facility which showed how thoroughly that regime had hitherto lied and concealed its nuclear weapons’ project. Yet there is something very curious in this: Why didn’t President Barack Obama mention this facility during his UN speech?

A different way to express the same thought is the contradiction between the U.S. delegation walking out on Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's speech at the UN, declaring him an extremist and antisemite, at the same time as Obama is stating his eagerness to negotiate with Iran in a "serious, meaningful" dialogue and to make a deal with that very same man's regime.

Presumably, in both cases, Obama wanted to keep the U.S. response limited and to avoid triggering a real crisis. By behaving this way he also forfeited a remarkable opportunity to build a large support base for doing something about the problem. Sure, he is moving forward, but doing so very slowly and—after eight months in office—without material effect.

Who believes that he is really willing to confront Iran (or anyone else who threatens U.S. interests) in future? The date on the calendar will change but this administration's underlying philosophy is more likely to remain the same.

Given Obama’s strange (in terms of all previous U.S. history) approach to international relations, the Or Else factor becomes paramount and the usual roles are reversed. Iran is openly defiant, acting as if it is the more powerful side before which the West must cower. The more extreme the regime’s behavior, the more it demonstrates—especially to Iran’s primary audience of Arabs and Muslims—who’s strong, who’s courageous, and who’s winning.

The Or Else factor is a major part of personal, social, and political life. “Clean up your room or else!” Or else a spanking? No allowance? No TV or computer? You’re grounded? The threat must be credible and it is helpful to have seen it put into action once or twice.

“Don’t cheat on your taxes or else!” Or else what? You have a good chance of being investigated, caught, sent to jail? But the people in question have to believe there is a real chance this might happen, a risk that outweighs the benefits they get from the money they save by cheating.

“Sponsor terrorism, attack your neighbor, and ignore our interests and our gunboats will overthrow you or our covert agents will undercut your government. Well, that’s sure out of fashion. In fact, Iranian and Syrian officials help kill American soldiers in Iraq, the U.S. government knows about it, and nowadays does nothing in response.

Or else is based on the idea that we are much stronger than you, that we will take risks, take and give casualties, spend money, and succeed in taking away your power. Or wealth.

But when countries renounce the legitimacy of their power—all states have an equal right to nuclear weapons; we are no better than you are—and lose self-confidence in their power and demonstrably so, they thumb their nose at you or give you the finger.

That is what Khomeini did: they are bluffing (see my Iran book) and Ahmadinejad is in this tradition. America can’t do a damn thing

This is where credibility comes in. but if you destroy your own credibility by apologizing for past actions (and we’ll never be aggressive and arrogant again), pledging not to do more than timid allies permit, expressing sympathy for the other side (in Middle East politics, kindness is considered weakness and empathy a sign of cowardice), and showing a notable reluctance about the use of force.

There is a saying that a real collision occurs when the unstoppable force meets the immovable object. In Obama versus the Islamist regime, it is a case of the reluctant force meeting the immovable object.

And look at the international community’s recent record:

Hamas fires missiles at Israel, Israel retaliates, world condemns Israel.

Hizballah fires missiles at Israel, Israel retaliates, world (through the UN) promises to restrain Hizballah, Hizballah threatens UN forces, world backs down.

Russia seizes parts of Georgia and the West does nothing, with most comments blaming Georgia for not surrendering fast enough.

Yet even if Obama was far more effective (that is, scary for America’s enemies rather than its friends), the Iranian regime would behave this way. After all, it was founded by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini who was convinced he had the deity on his side.

Khomeini, who seized power in 1979 and died in 1989, was explicit in exhorting Iranians to defy America and the West. He assured them that if they did so, the Great Satan would back down. On one occasion he expressed this by saying, “American can’t do a damn thing,” to hurt Iran. The hostage crisis, and President Jimmy Carter’s restraint, seemed to prove him right.

True, in 1988, fearful that the United States might attack Iran to protect Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arabs in the Iran-Ira war, Khomeini backed down and ended the conflict. Anything short of such a credible threat probably won’t work.

Iran’s current President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad styles himself as Khomeini’s disciple. He believes—and he’s shown it—that if he is very aggressive the West won’t take him on. So far, he’s been proven right. That success was a central element in the decision of Iran’s spiritual guide, Ali Khameinei, to back him for another term in office.

To foreign observers, the stolen election and demonstrations make the regime look weak; to Iran’s rulers, having successfully stolen the election and put down the demonstrations makes them feel strong.

Obama is treating Iran as if it is a generic country: offer talks and benefits or sanctions and punishment. But Iran’s Islamist regime is not just another country but rather an ambitious, ideologically guided regime that thinks it is winning and its enemies won’t confront it. That regime is not going to respond to Obama’s treatment, especially lacking the Or Else factor’s credibility.

On behalf of Obama, Britain, and some other states, French President Sarkozy gives a rather low-level "or else" threat: “If by December there is not an in-depth change by the Iranian leaders, sanctions will have to be taken.”

If and when this happens, Iran will first examine the level of new sanctions—if any—and find them not so frightening. It will look for ways to get around them, probably with Chinese and Russian help. It will then say: Bring it on! Do your worst! Make my day! Punk, do you feel lucky?

And then, what’s the United States going to do? Go to the UN, where action will be delayed—both by Obama’s caution and the constraints of a divided Security Council--and any tough response whittled down further?

Thus, unless Israel attacks, a year or two or three will go by with Iran surviving the sanctions. And the day will come when the regime has nuclear weapons. This is Ahmadinejad’s game plan and it seems a reasonable one from his standpoint.

Obama is trying above all to prove that he isn’t the Big Bad Wolf of international relations—he doesn’t just apologize for but greatly exaggerates the errors of past American diplomacy—and daily expresses his determination not to threaten to, “Huff and puff and blow your house down.” Whether their regime is made of straw, mud, or bricks, the Iranian dictators can thumb their nose at him, give him the finger, and not tremble the least bit.

"All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing," said the British political philosopher Edmund Burke. He might just as well have said: …do far too little, far too late.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

Friday, September 25, 2009

A Slice of Life: There's Reality and Then There's NPR

By Barry Rubin

The American media fascinates me, says a European colleague visiting Washington. In Europe, he continues, there’s a wide range of views from left to right in the media. In America, with some obvious exceptions, everyone says the same thing.

So I get into the car and click [radio on] its National Public Radio in mid-sentence. The announcer (reporter? host?) is saying [slight paraphrasing]:

“Now that the United States isn’t putting missiles in Eastern Europe the Obama Administration has added Russia as a friend. Can the Obama Administration claim a success in getting Russia to support higher sanctions against Iran?”

The expert replies:

“They would say so,” going on to talk about how President Barack Obama stood with the leaders of Britain and France and “has now widened out the alliance beyond traditional allies.”

Hello? What is this, Pravda? The Russians have not yet agreed to raise sanctions. The most said is that they would “consider” it, but generally Moscow has said it opposes more sanctions on Iran. Moreover, the idea of reducing Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin—whose policy is systematically anti-American—to being a “friend” is pretty startling.

[Since writing this I have heard about additional statements made by high-ranking Russian
officials off the record which confirm that they don't think sanctions will work and don't believe this is the time to increase them. All reporters must be aware that this is the kind of thing the Russians have been saying. It is also on the record that Russian leaders have expressed disdain for Obama, that his public opinion poll ratings are not so high, and that Russian policy has not been helpful to the United States on a number of issues. So why pretend Obama has scored a big success with the Russians?]

Just yesterday the Chinese government says it opposes higher sanctions. The Chinese, by the way, are building a huge refinery in Iran that would help the Tehran regime circumvent sanctions on refined petroleum products. Speaking of which, the French foreign minister had said a few hours ago that he thought that particular restriction would be “dangerous.”

For those of us who haven’t been in this environment for years, it is startling to see the systematic misrepresentation of the most basic and publicly available facts in the media’s tireless effort to make Obama look good and his policies seem successful. No matter how often you’ve read about it doesn’t prepare you for the experience.

A few hours earlier when I dared turn on the radio, I caught a program being broadcast on NPR in which a panel was explaining that while “right-wing” commentators in the media were simultaneously very irresponsible and had tremendous influence on the Republican Party, fortunately there were no left-wing commentators like that in being either irresponsible or influential. (To be fair, one of the four panel members dissented the tiniest bit possible--the left-wingers, he said, were far better than the right-wingers but a tiny number might have gone too far but fortunately had no influence--though generally agreeing with the other three.

I honestly don’t want to exaggerate but at times it seems like living within some kind of demented Monty Python skit populated with people insisting the emperor has clothes, the parrot is alive, and the five-year plan is being successfully fulfilled.

PS: For a good update on the current situation regarding Iran's nuclear program and sanctions see The Economist Intelligence Unit report.

Where’s America? Where are the Americans? Life in a Fourth-Grade Public School

By Barry Rubin

My son who is 10 years old is going to the Montgomery County school system in Maryland this year to give him some wider experience after having all of his previous education in either Israeli or Jewish community schools. It certainly is an experience!

In some ways, it seems like a parody of multiculturalism. My children are tough, well-informed and have strong characters, largely informed by an Israeli world view. But they also have a very American persona, though one that may be becoming increasingly rare among upper middle class elite counterparts.

Here are some highlights of fourth-grade life in Montgomery County for my son:

--He wrote a fantasy genre story in which there was violence (quite a good story by the way). The teacher refused to let him read it because it included violence and said that this was not permitted. He received another warning after his second such story.

--Two units on man-made global warming as a fact with no indication that it is still an unproven and controversial issue. Children are told that unless carbon emissions are vastly reduced the oceans will rise, large parts of the land will be flooded, catastrophe will ensue.

--But there was no commemoration for the September 11 terrorist attacks that killed around 3,000 Americans (including a number of local people). When my son brought it up and complained, he was allowed to speak two minutes at which point the teacher interrupted him and said that now they would discuss some happier subject.

--Another student in his class, a Nigerian Christian, on finding out that he was from Israel said in private conversation between them that she’d heard Israel “was one of the worst countries in the world.” (My daughter had a parallel experience while attending a summer course at an elite Washington private school.)

--They had a session in which they were told that the “Golden Rule” is observed by people all over the world. This is an ironic example of multiculturalism as provincialism since of course it is a specifically (in the version they were being taught) Christian concept. In addition, while “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” can be a good social and ethical guideline (though don’t try it with con-men, sociopaths, etc) it is a very bad concept for international relations.

Those trying to defeat you in war or conquer you or get the advantage of you in a trade deal (hundreds of examples could be offered) don’t want you to treat them in the same way they treat you.

Under Islamic Sharia law, there are very different treatments of the two genders, for example. This law is based not on individual preferences or reason but on what is believed to be divine legislation.

--But the apex of his indoctrination so far is the “Schedule of Book Projects, October 2009." No, I’m not making this up. Here’s the entire plan:

“October 22 (Thurs.) Fiction book about an Hispanic American OR Native American (American Indians).

Jan. 14 (Thurs.) Non-fiction OR Fiction about an African-American or a book with the setting in Africa

March 18 (Thurs) Non-fiction book on the topic of your choice

May 27 (Thurs) Fiction novel placed in Asia or about Asian Americans.”

Where to begin?

Learning to know about and respect minority groups is certainly worthwhile but it should never be the center of the educational process. First, establish your own identity and understand your own society as a whole, then go into details, sub-cultures (a word which expresses an outdated view of a pluralist rather than multiculturalist society!) and only after you do that phase should you go on to compare it to other societies.

Note that this is not defined as a unit on international literature or learning about other countries and cultures (which would be more understandable and quite reasonable in a balanced context) but as their main interaction with literature, at least for the first half of the year.

There’s nothing whatsoever on the majority of Americans (70 percent or so?) who don’t’ fall into any of these groups and are now reduced to being their own “other.” Perhaps more important, there’s nothing about Americans as such. Americans don’t exist as a category; there is no overall experience or culture in this concept. (The school, of course, could pretend that this is to be covered in the one out of four book of choice but there is no indication that this is intended).

Yet perhaps the most egregious problem is this one: these aren't defined as novels with a range of characters—including Native American or Hispanic or Asian or African-American ones—mixing together in American society but take each group as if it is in a separate (dare we say, “segregated”) world of their own. Yes, in a sense—I don’t want to exaggerate here—it’s a return to the pre-civil rights days. What is multi-culturalism, after all, but a revised version of “separate but equal” societies?

There are tremendous political and psychological implications to such an approach that I will let you fill in for yourselves. But it is worth noting that America succeeded brilliantly as a melting pot, as a country with a unified worldview but freedom for groups to maintain their own organizations, customs (within reason), and beliefs.

Recently, I engaged a graduate student in a discussion about Judaism. She only had one question that interested her (and it was not based on personal interest, which would have been understandable): That life must have been difficult for homosexuals in past centuries.

Now there is nothing wrong with raising this as one issue to discuss, but I realize that in her education only that which is more marginal and minority is paramount. The majority experience or mainstream ideas was of little interest. And of course on such secondary issues any system could be made to seem illegitimate and oppressive.

Has America provided wonderful lives, tremendous freedom, high living standards?

Yes, many students are being taught today but that's not important. What's important is that it discriminated against African-, Hispanic-, and Asian-Americans.

But didn't it work hard to correct these problems? Didn't hundreds of thousands die in a Civil War to abolish slavery? Didn't the system fix itself in response to--in all honesty--rather low-level pressure and a call to conscience by the civil rights movement? Hasn't it leaned over backwards to provide equality?

Yes, many students are being taught today but that's not important. What's important is that only the left worked to change things and there's still racism today. (Even the smallest, most marginal is made to assume tremendous proportions.)

Wasn't America a unique society where people from many backgrounds could blend together to create a common culture, worldview and polity through what was called a "melting pot"?

Huh, many students can say after being taught. What's a melting pot?

In the same way, all America’s achievements could be invalidated by the situation of various sub-groups. Even the fact that it had allowed for the recognition of all of these problems and the solution of many of them did not count if any “oppression” could be found (or invented) to still exist.

For example, the fact that racism in America has probably declined by 90 percent over the last half-century (the number cannot be proven but the proportion seems reasonable) did not say anything great about the United States. Even the election of an African-American president might only be the occasion for acting as if racism had greatly increased.

In addition to all that, however, something else struck me on hearing all of this, as well as from my son’s cross-cultural observations. Aside from the subtle indoctrination to the left and the quite open indoctrination to multiculturalism, there is a kind of naïve-making process. These children are not being prepared for the world as it is but rather a cocoon in which they are taught to harbor unreal expectations and unworkable methods.

So the bottom line is this: the structure of the world view and skills being taught is similar to what went on in the 1950s, albeit without the patriotic aspects and confidence in their own civilization.

The destruction of the commonality of experience, the very concept of mainstream, is terrible. The dissolution of the concept of America is terrible. The creation of a foundation on which college professors can later add a superstructure of saying that America stinks, Western civilization stinks, capitalism stinks, is terrible. The creation of a generation of naifs unable to deal with a tough real world and an even tougher global world is terrible.

No wonder Bill Ayres, former but unrepentant Weatherman terrorist, close friend and apparently key political patron of Barak Obama’s early career is now putting his efforts as a professor into designing the public school curriculum.

Of course, things are much more complex and mixed than these generalizations indicate. It is easy to exaggerate. There will be a U.S. history unit later in the year, though such a thing should come before the current reading project. When we get there I’ll tell you about that one. I’ll just mention for now that a correspondent whose kids go to a school in the western United States told me they covered 1492 to 1789 in one week.

Yet there are worrisome trends and a lack of consciousness about what is being done and why it’s wrong that may grow even worse in time.

When asked about the main goals of their educational effort, the principal at another local school said that the most important was to teach children self-esteem. Yet what about social, civilizational, and national self-esteem?

Of course, they won’t even know what their civilization is, why it has been great, and how to sustain it. That is extraordinarily dangerous and troubling. This is an area, and an era, in which parents—especially the educated and affluent--take a tremendous interest in their children’s schooling. They want them to be advanced in everything, to get into good colleges, and they often arrange extra courses for them.

But how about the values and self-image they are being taught?

PS: A non-American colleague who is currently in his local Massachusetts public school and has no political ax to grind, tells me that during the election campaign students were openly intimidated if they said they supported McCain. He said: "You see such things on Fox and think they are marginal phenomena, but there's a huge amount like this going on."

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books: . To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports, .

Obama's "Enormous Progress"? Why Can't You Think of Any?

By Barry Rubin

You know someone isn’t doing a great job when his main cheerleader tries to come up with a list of accomplishments and can’t do so. In fact, everything they mention is more a minus than a plus.

You also know that when somebody’s arguments are so obviously empty, contradicting, and even self-damning, they've stopped listening to the opposite viewpoint, even if only to improve or balance their own.

That’s what has just happened with the New York Times and President Barack Obama. The editorial of what was once a great newspaper and now isn’t, explains:

“President Obama, in his first visit to the opening of the United Nations General Assembly, made progress… wringing a concession from Russia to consider tough new sanctions against Iran….”

Get it? They are considering sanctions. Well, they’ve been considering sanctions for years. The question is whether they will ever support tougher sanctions!

Meanwhile China is making it clearer that it won’t support stronger sanctions. It will be at least one year after taking office—and maybe not even then—when Obama will get around to actually doing something material to pressure Iran. This is the man who says, regarding domestic legislation, that everything must be done instantly.

Any other foreign policy accomplishments? Well here's the best the Times can do:

“Let’s be clear: Mr. Obama has made enormous progress in the short eight months since he took office. He has overturned some of the most odious Bush-era policies: banning torture and pledging to close the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. He has persuaded the world once again to hear, and to listen to, what America has to say, but he is still figuring out how to fully capitalize on that good will and credibility.”

See what I mean? Does this qualify as “enormous progress?” Obama has pledged to close a prison—what else is to be done with the prisoners? Well he hasn’t gotten that far yet—but it is still only a pledge and doesn’t seem like it’s going to be fulfilled any time soon. And he’s persuaded the world to listen to America, not to do what it wants, mind you, but they’re listening.

But even on Guantanamo, the Times is, as they used to say, "whistling Dixie" or "whistling in the dark," which means trying to put a good face on a bad situation. Here's what the September 25 Washington Post has to say about this great "success":

"With four months left ot meet its self-imposed deadline for closing the [prison], the Obama administration is working to recover from missteps that have put officials behind schedule and left them struggling to win the cooperation of Congress.

"President Obama's top advisers settled on a course of action they were counseled against: announcing that they would close the facility within one year. Today, officials are acknowledging that they will be hard-pressed to meet that goal."

Are you laughing yet? This is what is happening on the same day the Times is announcing the closing as a success!

This is starting to remind me of a joke based on something President Dwight Eisenhower once said about Vice-President Richard Nixon. Asked what he thought of Nixon having claimed great achievements as vice-president, Eisenhower supposedly replied: "Give me a week and I'll try to think of one."

Keep trying:

“With his speech to the United Nations General Assembly…President Obama took another step toward repairing America’s battered image. There was no bombast and bullying, but he still managed to challenge other countries to take more responsibility and this country to ask more of itself.”

Ah, the image! That’s what this is all about. But if this is repairing America’s battered image, Obama’s approach rests on two principles.

The first is, regarding America’s detractors and enemies: If you can’t beat them join them. Show you are on their side. Go after Israel, at least rhetorically, that’s always good for applause.

The second is: The easiest way to become popular is to agree with everyone else. Unfortunately, in this case the “everyone else” consists largely of dictatorships, on one hand, and, on the other hand, those afraid of confronting them without leadership or due to reluctance to take risks.
Every word Obama uttered at the UN—and much of the rest of the time--is an attempt to say he’s just one of the gang.

“Mean old” George W. Bush had more than his share of faults but he tried—like Bill Clinton and George Bush and Ronald Reagan, among others—to show leadership in the world. Nowadays, American leadership is equated with arrogance.

Acting as a leader and combating enemies makes you unpopular. Obama’s international popularity is often a sign of failure on his part. Those previous presidents defined enemies and tried to foil them. That is now equated with a counterproductive confrontational approach.

As for bombast, Obama has a very high quotient of it. While I find his voice a nice combination of the silky and certain (he always reminds me, strangely enough, of the staccato-speaking actor Jack Webb), I, apparently alone in the world, have never been impressed by his speaking style, which strikes me as nothing but bombast.

As for bullying, that’s the least of our problems. Only with Israel (and a bit with the Palestinians for balance) does he portray such a mode, and even then it isn’t backed up with anything.
Here are the lines of the speech which have generally received the most praise, as presented by the Times:

“Mr. Obama was right when he said `those who used to chastise America for acting alone in the world cannot now stand by and wait for America to solve the world’s problems alone.’ After eight years of President Bush’s unilateralism, that is a particular relief. The world is also looking for clear American leadership.”

Lots of countries are still chastising America. And what about those afraid that the United States
won't protect them from bad guys?

But the Times has become so intoxicated with ideology that it doesn’t even notice the contradiction in what it’s saying.

On one hand, it says, they can’t stand by and wait for America to solve the world’s problems alone.

Translation: No decisive American leadership. Washington will wait for consensus, will be constrained by dissonant and timid allies, and be paralyzed without agreement

On the other hand, it says, they are looking for clear American leadership.

Clear American leadership? That’s precisely what they’re not getting from Obama.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). Read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

News Flash! Palestinian Leader Throws Pie in Obama's Face, Rejects Obama’s Attempt to Help Him Get a State

By Barry Rubin

No matter how hard President Barack Obama insists the Palestinians are in a desperate situation and are eager for a state as soon as possible, they show the opposite to be true.

No matter how hard President Barack Obama tries to help the Palestinians they throw a pie in his face.

Will he get the message and adjust accordingly?

No sooner had Obama made his UN speech insisting on an instant return to final-status negotiations did Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu say “Yes!” (Note: Will the media start reporting Netanyahu as peace-oriented and moderate?)

No sooner had Obama done so that Palestinian Authority (PA) leader Mahmoud Abbas said, “No!” (Note: Will the media start reporting Abbas as a hardliner who is blocking peace?)

And now the news: Abbas says the Palestinians cannot return to peace talks because of “fundamental disagreements” on the agenda and that it has “no common ground” with Israel’s government. (Funny, Obama said that making peace would be easy.) Even if Israel were to stop 95 percent of the construction, explains Abbas, that won’t be sufficient.

Yet Abbas has a simple way of stopping all such construction forever: be flexible and negotiate a peace agreement. Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon made this point precisely. When Israel made peace with Egypt and pulled out of Sinai it dismantled all settlements. When Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip it dismantled all the settlements. If the Palestinian Authority makes a deal with Israel all settlements on the new country's territory would be gone. So what's Abbas's problem?

Well, first he wants a pay-off from Obama for helping out the U.S. president. All the U.S. aid money wasn't enough, the distancing from Israel wasn't enough. The flattery of the Palestinians and of Islam wasn't enough. No matter what Obama does it will never be enough.

Second, he's afraid of Hamas. As the AP put it:

“If Abbas returns to talks now, without a freeze in place, he is likely to lose more credibility at home where he has been locked in a power struggle with his Islamic militant Hamas rivals. Hamas, which threw Abbas' forces out of the Gaza Strip two years ago, has derided negotiations as a waste of time and portrayed Abbas as a Western lackey.”

If this were the problem, however, Abbas has an easy solution: negotiate seriously, get a state, remove the Israeli presence, obtain lots of aid money, and prove that diplomacy worked. He'd be a hero, right?


Why doesn’t anyone stop to think that if Abbas were to make an actual deal with Israel he’d be called things a lot worse than lackey. If he can't even talk when one apartment is being built how is he going to give Israel full recognition, end the conflict forever, resettle all refugees in Palestine, and stop cross-border terrorist attacks on Israel?

Explain this to me, too: Obama said in Cairo that the Palestinians face an “intolerable” situation. If they’re so desperate why are they in so little hurry?

The answer to all these questions is simple: Both the PA and Hamas are ready to wait for decades and put off getting a state in hopes of wiping Israel off the map completely and getting everything. This may not make sense to the average American or European but it is nontheless the reality of the situation.

If developments keep contradicting your view of reality it is necessary to change your analysis.

When will the U.S. and Western European governments comprehend this fact?

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Regarding That "Boy in Gaza": Obama Overlooks Genocidal Regime and Real Barriers to Peace

By Barry Rubin

It's clear that numerous Hamas children's shows, mosque sermons, and publications advocate genocide but this never seems to elicit a Western government response. The absence of any mention of Hamas or the problem it poses to Israel-Palestinian peace is quite notable in President Barack Obama's UN speech.

Here’s a debate on a Hamas children’s show, “Tomorrow’s Pioneers,” aired on al-Aqsa television, September 22. The issue being discussed is whether all the Jews in Israel be killed or merely expelled and their society destroyed?

The bear puppet Nassur makes the following statements: The Jews must be “erased from our land.” "We want to slaughter them, Saraa, so they will be expelled from our land….We'll have to [do it] by slaughter." "There won't be any Jews or Zionists, if Allah wills. They'll be erased."

The young girl hosting the show says: "They'll be slaughtered." But at another point says: “Just expel them from our land."

Then they reach a true dialectical resolution:

Nassur: "We want to slaughter them, so they will be expelled from our land, right?"

Saraa: "Yes. That's right. We will expel them from our land using all means."

Nassur: "And if they don't want [to go] peacefully, by words or talking, we'll have to [do it] by slaughter."

This is an open call for genocide, worse yet is teaching children this is what they must do. One of Obama's closest advisors in the White House, Samantha Powers, is an alleged expert on genocide yet she's totally unconcerned with this issue. Guess she's only an "expert" on genocides after they happen.

It has become a cliché that those who would commit genocide announce it beforehand, as Germany’s dictator once did in his book or as happened in Rwanda in radio broadcasts before the mass murders. Supposedly, the world is united in opposing such a horrendous policy.

Yet while there are sanctions against Hamas, there is no concerted effort to overthrow the regime, even by those who claim to be in favor of Israel-Palestinian peace as a high priority. But as long as Hamas is in power there can be no such peace. Indeed, the main international activity was to restrain Israel in its war in Gaza and then to criticize it afterward in a way that positively benefits Hamas.

How can this behavior be reconciled with the fact that on a daily basis Hamas is clearly seeking to carry out genocide in terms of all the standard international legal and moral definitions?

Here's Obama’s only mention of Gaza in his speech to the UN:

“We must remember that the greatest price of this conflict is not paid by us. It is paid by the Israeli girl in Sderot who closes her eyes in fear that a rocket will take her life in the night. It is paid by the Palestinian boy in Gaza who has no clean water and no country to call his own. These are God’s children. And after all of the politics and all of the posturing, this is about the right of every human being to live with dignity and security.”

This is meant to be one of those even-handed throwaway lines about how everyone is suffering. But let’s examine it more closely.

More importantly, what about the alleged lack of clean water and actual lack of a country by the Palestinian boy in Gaza?

If he has no clean water—which more than likely isn’t true—it’s because the Palestinian Authority didn’t build the proper facilities during the dozen years it governed the Gaza Strip even though U.S. aid money was given for the project! And because since then Hamas prefers to sustain a war against Israel and use its income for military goals.

What about the fact that the Palestinian boy—and why not a Palestinian girl, who faces a whole range of oppressions?—will not enjoy freedom because he is living under a repressive dictatorship which will force him to fight for decades. That boy is being taught by Hamas mosques, schools, media, and clubs to believe that Jews are subhumans and that his duty to wipe them out--child, woman, man--one way or another. Isn’t that significant?

Yet this is the president of the United States speaking and one should expect some basic logic. Let’s assume that he gets the Palestinian Authority and Israel to make peace (of course this isn’t going to happen). A Palestinian state is created on the basis of this agreement. That agreement would have no effect whatsoever on the little boy in Gaza! He’d still be living under Hamas rule and his life wouldn't change or improve in any way.

In fact, things would probably get worse in Gaza if the PA and Israel made peace. Hamas would try to wreck the agreement, perhaps using that boy as a suicide bomber. It would plow every penny it could get on weapons; it would provoke wars leading to more damage on the infrastructure and casualties.

Isn’t that worth pointing out? So to help the boy really, the United States would have to call for and help bring about the overthrow of Hamas.

Obama could have done so in his own way, drawing a contrast between what he might call the wonderful, peace-loving, moderate Palestinian Authority and the evil repressive Islamists of Hamas. But that would be defining enemies, taking sides, showing leadership.

Instead, in his UN speech, Obama never mentioned Hamas—not once—and did not condemn it. Yet what is a bigger barrier to peace: the building of apartments on existing Israeli settlements or the fact that almost as many Palestinians and almost as much land is governed by Hamas as by the Palestinian Authority?

[Note: I also can’t help but adding that if he wanted to discuss genocide he might have said something about Sudan—I don’t know if the term is appropriate for what’s going on in Sudan but many observers say it is. That, however, would have been embarrassing since the Sudanese government leads the “nonaligned” movement, the most powerful bloc in the UN, which is his supposed mechanism for solving world problems!]

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books: . To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports: .

Obama and Israel: Time for a Reassessment

By Barry Rubin

To say that President Barack Obama hates, seeks to destroy, and/or is pressuring Israel is a staple of the Internet rumor mill, especially from the right. A large portion of the far left would like to believe it . But it isn’t true. That outcome of reasonably good U.S.-Israel relations under the Obama Administration wasn’t inevitable, yet that is what has happened.

Looking beyond the president’s tone, miscomprehension of regional realities, and all-too-apparent eagerness to please the world, the latest developments have made this so clear that it is time for people to adjust their view. The result is not an ideal relationship but one comparable to that which usually existed under his predecessors and a situation not directly dangerous to Israel.

Indirect problems are another matter but here Israel is in the same boat as everyone else who wants strong, sane American leadership in the region and, indeed, U.S. interests themselves.
This outcome, however, was far from inevitable.

The Hostile Obama

From his political background, Obama learned three negative attitudes toward Israel. If things had gone otherwise, these might have been expressed as major policies during his presidency, the disaster that many foresaw and some still misperceive.

--Indoctrinated by the far left into the Third World, “anti-imperialist” narrative, Obama disliked Israel and saw it as evil, taught by such people as Rashid Khalidi, an Edward Said acolyte and Palestinian propagandist, and the Reverend Wright, an outright antisemite.

--He thought Israel was too strong. Israel was seen as so powerful that it could afford to make huge concessions without risk. And on Israel was the fault for the peace process not succeeding.

--He thought Israel was too weak. It needed peace quickly or might collapse and thus had to be forced to make huge concessions for its own good.

Obama only held the last of these three objectively hostile views after the inauguration but it was dissipated by the first half-year or so of his experience. The other two were already dropped.

Why Did Obama Shift His Stance?

During the campaign he came to learn that Israel’s supporters were active, energetic, and would fight back even when almost no one else would confront him. In addition, the fact that he could gain Jewish support gave him an added incentive to pull back. Put simply, being anti-Israel was a political liability. Obama knew it and shifted accordingly.

Since the political costs of an anti-Israel stance are continuous, he needed to follow this change after he became president as well. Moreover, he needed Congress, which after a brief period of silence, intimidated by Obama’s victory and apparent popularity, has returned to its usual pro-Israel stance.

In addition, though, he began to discover that his views didn’t work in the real world. His attempt to bully Israel failed, for which credit is due to the Israeli government. A key factor here was the toughness and superb maneuvering of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ably supported by President Shimon Peres and Defense Minister Ehud Barak.

The Israeli government could not possibly have handled Obama better. At the same time, the obvious fragility of the current government coalition proved another persuasive factor that made Obama pull back. I shudder to think what would have happened if Tzipi Livni had been prime minister.

In addition, as always, intransigence on the Arab and Palestinian side was so extreme that even the Obama Administration couldn’t ignore it. The Palestinian Authority’s leader Mahmoud Abbas was absolutely uncooperative with Obama, throwing away an incredible strategic opportunity. Arab states Obama thought would fall into line behind him—especially Egypt and Saudi Arabia—refused to help. It is said that his meeting with the Saudi king, who went into an anti-Israel diatribe, was a particular shock. Syria and Iran also showed they were not so open to friendly engagement.

All these factors have helped force a rethinking process on Obama and his Administration. Moreover, this is a president who, despite outer show, lacks toughness and backs down when he meets resistance. Ironically, in this regard Israel benefits from the same point that helps its radical foes in the region.

To this day, the U.S. government under Obama has not taken a single material step against Israel and no such development seems to be on the horizon either.

Latest developments

While there are many criticisms that can be made of Obama’s Middle East policy, it has swung in a more pro-Israel direction while still maintaining the kind of “evenhanded” balance frequently seen in his predecessors.

The latest examples include:

--Continuation of joint U.S.-Israel military exercises, consultations over Iran, arms sales, the use of Israeli equipment by the U.S. military.

--Changing policy on the idea of a freeze of constructions on settlements. First, the administration shifted to accepting the idea of reciprocal Arab concessions, now Obama speaks of “restraining” rather than freezing construction, trying to negotiate some compromise.

--The Administration took a tough stand in denouncing the Goldstone report, which was designed to bash Israel over the Gaza war, and on blocking its use to put on sanctions against Israel.

--Obama specifically mentioned the need for a Jewish state of Israel, reflecting one of the Israeli government’s most important demands, which is rejected by the Palestinian Authority.

--In contrast to his earlier position, Obama now emphasizes the need for talks without preconditions, thus specifically rejecting the Palestinian demand (which originated with him) of a settlement freeze before negotiations could restart.

--Seeks Arab steps toward Israel as well as the reverse, again in contrast to his original stance.

--Has praised Israel’s government for its flexibility and taken up the theme of raising Palestinian living standards.

--Did not echo the Arab demand that Israel should join the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty and be made to give up its alleged nuclear weapons.

--While this has more to do with the State Department than with the White House, the U.S. government has not been taken in by Syria and has maintained demands for changes in Damascus’s behavior before further engagement can proceed.

--Bottom line. While Israel's government professed itself pleased by Obama's UN speech and supports negotiations without preconditions, Abbas complained that he opposes them and was forced into appearing alongside Netanyahu. Some Palestinians said he was "humiliated" by the president.

--Sometimes, relatively positive formulations are misinterpreted by some the opposite way. For example, when Obama said at the UN that he considered post-1967 Israeli settlements to be illegal, he was only echoing long-standing U.S. practice. He was also saying that Israel's existence should not be in question and by not mentioning construction on settlements Obama was actually deescalating on that issue. His statement did not imply that Israel must return to 1967 borders.

Of course, Obama Administration policy does not comprehend things like the impossibility of comprehensive peace due to Palestinian obduracy, the need to bring down the Hamas government in Gaza for progress on peace or stability, and other points required for a really good and effective U.S. policy. But comparing it to positions under the last half-dozen U.S. presidents shows less change than looking at rhetoric alone would seem to indicate.

Can it change again? Definitely. But in which direction? If Obama is determined to push the peace process forward, the Palestinian leadership will teach him what they taught his predecessors: they are the real roadblock. Arab states will frustrate him because they won't lift a finger to help.

Again, there are many criticisms that can be made of Administration policy, especially with regard to Iran, and I've presented them in detail in my writings. On these issues the Administration might not learn its lessons since Obama's clear reluctance to identify and confront the radicals could well push it into a dangerous passivity. That, not appeasement, is the biggest threat.

But the Obama Administration has shifted on bilateral relations with Israel and on its concept of a peace process from a position of hostility to the historic U.S. policy default stance.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books: . To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports, .


Obama Expresses His Basic Concept of International Affairs: Pollyanna, Yes; Machiavelli, No

By Barry Rubin

The most important paragraph of President Barack Obama’s speech announces a repeal of all prior guidelines and principles for U.S. foreign policy and a rejection of the basic rules of diplomacy as they have been practiced for centuries. It reveals the fundamental philosophical outlook of the president of the United States.

Of everything Obama has ever said, these 82 words for me are the scariest. One has to go back to first principles to explain to the U.S. government (and to many in Europe) how the real world works.

This should be the lead to all coverage of the speech. First, let’s present the paragraph in question:

“In an era when our destiny is shared, power is no longer a zero-sum game. No one nation can or should try to dominate another nation. No world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will succeed. No balance of power among nations will hold. The traditional division between nations of the south and north makes no sense in an interconnected world. Nor do alignments of nations rooted in the cleavages of a long gone Cold War.”

Let’s examine this paragraph:

It is true that all the people in the world face certain common problems like disease, poverty, environmental problems, the need to provide sufficient housing and jobs, crime, and the list goes on.

But this is not some twenty-first century revelation. It has always been true, even going back to the time of the Pharaohs and the Sumerians.

Philosophers and the creators of some—but not all—religions have argued that as a result all people should be kind to each other, help each other, work together, etc. Nation should not lift up sword against nation, neither should they war any more.

Yeah, but they still do.

Here’s where politics and international relations come in. Resources, development, wealth, and strength are not evenly spread. There are always people who have argued that power is a zero-sum game. I can take from you more easily than I can work and equal your success.

And if I believe that the only reason you “have” is that you stole from me, then power will certainly be a zero-sum game. This is why, for example, the Arab-Israeli conflict doesn’t come to an end. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin makes clear that he thinks his country's rightful sphere of influence has been stolen by the United States. The rulers of Bolivia, Cuba, and Venezuela say that the United States has stolen their country's wealth.

A second element that makes power a zero-sum game is the fact that different people have conflicting ideas. If there’s a group—say radical Islamists—who believe they are following the instructions of the deity and must put their worldview into rule than power for them is a zero-sum game. Either a country is ruled by Islamic law or it isn't.

Any leader who doesn’t realize that power is at least in large part a zero-sum game is like a man who drives his luxury car into the toughest part of town and with a visible flourish leaves it unlocked.

Indeed, Obama's speech was made at the UN, an institution that’s living proof that these ideas don’t work. It is corrupt and increasingly ruled by radicals who attack democracy and trash truth. The high founding ideals for which the UN was founded have been trampled by the very realities that Obama says don’t—or no longer—exist.

No one nation can or should try to dominate another nation, says the president. Well there are a lot of nations who don’t think that way. So what are you going to do about it? Utopian visions can work only if almost everyone believes them. Or they're nice if you don’t take them too seriously. If a nation acts otherwise you have two choices: stand by and do nothing or defeat them in some way that makes them stop trying to do so.

Note, however, that Obama doesn’t say this is the way the world should be—which is understandable as an idealistic goal—he says that this is the way the world actually is—which is a prescription for disaster.

No world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will succeed, says the president. Well, if he means that you shouldn’t try to dominate others that is one thing, but if he means that you shouldn’t try to exercise power which at times forces others to do your will than you are acting in a way that ensures that a group of people is elevated. The only thing you are accomplishing, however, is to make it certain that the group on top won’t include yourself.

And there is another implication here: a renunciation of American leadership in the world, the denial that the United States has a special role to play, has values or ideas or institutions that should be spread to countries that don’t possess them. If everyone is equal, there are no leaders.
But if you don’t lead, how do you achieve your goals: goals that others don’t necessarily share, despite Obama’s apparent failure to realize this. How do you enforce stopping others from dominating, taking, and conquering?

Now there is a positive side to this position. Obama says: you cannot expect the United States to solve all your problems and you cannot blame the United States for the failure to solve them. If this were coupled with a reasonable leadership stance this would make sense and Obama's credibility in this direction would help a bit.

Still, if countries don't believe the United States can do enough to help them they will seek friends elsewhere or appease America's enemies. And of course no matter what Obama does or says lots of groups, peoples, and countries will blame America for problems. Why? Because it is in their interests and many view the United States as an enemy.

He adds: No balance of power among nations will hold. This is absurd. What does it mean? That you cannot have a coalition of forces—say the West and its allies—that can stop another group from doing whatever it wants? Where is the alternative? That you must either reconcile your enemies or give them what they demand?

Of course, a balance of power can hold. And let’s remember the purpose of balances of power: to stop aggressors without going to war. No balance of power, the result has to be settled by surrender or fighting.

The traditional division between nations of the south and north makes no sense in an interconnected world. If by this Obama says that the poor should not be in conflict with the rich, it sounds like the usual fare from Western leaders. But in context is he saying that the developed world should give away its wealth to the Third World? And remember this statement comes from a man who favors environmental policies that if adopted would destroy Third World development efforts. No polluting power plants, mass ownership of automobiles, and smelly factories for them!

Nor do alignments of nations rooted in the cleavages of a long gone Cold War. If that means that the West should not look on Russia as an enemy (China was already part of the Western coalition in a sense by the late 1970s), that’s fine. But does this imply that democratic states should not see a kinship as against dictatorships? That liberty and freedom should not unite those against others whose ideas are those of tyranny and oppression?

Again, the point to remember is that Obama did not say that this is the way the world ought to be but that the world actually is like this. To say that one day the lion will lay down with the lamb is admirable. To say that it’s happening right now is a recipe for lamp chops.

What Obama has done in this paragraph is to reject reality and to put a gigantic “kick me” sign on the United States and its allies.

In a sense, it is the extension of multiculturalism to diplomacy. There's no good nor bad. Attila the Hun and Genghis Khan were just expressing their cultural norms. Who can say that the United States is better than Sudan, a country by the way which is chairing the largest bloc in the UN, or Libya, one of whose officials is charing the General Assembly.

Anyone would think he has absolutely no experience in international affairs!

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books: . To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports, .