President Obama’s speech on May 19 covering the Middle East was one part Churchill and one part the echo of Neville Chamberlain. At long last the president revealed the secret George W. Bush hiding out in his soul with his version of the freedom agenda.
He noted that promoting individual freedom, democracy and economic opportunity was America’s “top priority that must be translated into concrete action.”
How this is to be achieved remains obscure, but it appears as if the president has decided he no longer wants “to lead from behind.”
In some respects his language echoed Churchill since he was tough on the tyrannies in Syria and Iran, the areas’ principal malefactors. He implied the road to stability can only be discovered with a democratic map. This was a significant departure from his Cairo 2009 speech in which he emphasized engagement and conspicuously avoided democratic impulses.
However, while there is much to applaud in his speech, there is another side, a dark and menacing side. In his dream of peace between Israel and the Palestinian territory, he made clear his inclinations. His perception that Israel return to the 1967 border is right out of the Saudi Arabian playbook and would, in essence, jeopardize the very existence of the Israeli state.
Yes, President Obama did explicitly discuss the recognition of a Jewish state and he did note that a future Palestinian nation should be demilitarized, but he did not explore the security vulnerability rendered by the return to ’67 lines.
Obama’s argument had to be heartening to Arab extremists everywhere for now all negotiations will begin with this premise. The president went beyond what previous presidents have said publicly on the subject and he did so hours before a meeting with President Benjamin Netanyahu designed to explore negotiation tactics.
This statement by Obama has the odor of Munich about it. Just as the Sudetenland was sacrificed to Hitler “for peace in our time,” the contention that Israel return to the ’67 borders may have the same toxic effect. An Israel with a width of nine miles would not be in a position of defending itself. Pre-emption would be its only option. A Hamas terrorist with a Stinger over his shoulder can shoot down any commercial aircraft landing at the Tel Aviv airport.
President Netanyahu responded by noting, “Israel believes that for peace to endure between Israel and Palestinians, the viability of a Palestinian state cannot come at the expense of the viability of the one and only Jewish state.” Alas, the echo of the 1930s fills the corridors of contemporary history.
It is difficult to know if President Obama is serious about his proposal. Afterall, he did engage in subsequent backpedaling at the AIPAC meeting. But even so, it seems as though he either doesn’t understand what Israel is up against or doesn’t care.
He may think this is a historic opportunity to do what his predecessors could not. However just as Chamberlain overreached in his desire for peace through appeasement, Obama is overreaching in his plan for peace by sacrificing Israeli security.
There must be rejoicing at the United Nations where the 57 Muslim nations seeking to impose a Palestinian state on the region have an ally in their quest for territorial antibellum. Obama did admonish against the looming U.N. effort to delegitimize Israel, but that is a pettifogging matter compared to Obama’s stance on the rearrangement of borders.
There is an Orwellian quality to the speech since freedom is embraced on the one hand and crushing imposition on the other hand. Obama has found his voice on the freedom agenda, but there is the nagging Chamberlain apparition that haunts his perspective. Since the president has oscillated all over the policy screen in the last few years from vigorous opposition to the war in Iraq to what is now an enthusiastic embrace, it is worth recalling Orwell’s statement that “In a time of universal deceit telling the truth is a revolutionary act.”
Herbert London is president of the Hudson Institute and author of the book "Decline and Revival in Higher Education" (Transaction Publishers).
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