Martin Peretz has a powerful article in The New Republic on why Obama’s Middle East policies are in utter tatters. Peretz observes the rise of a new fundamentalism in Turkey, one of the most important countries in the region and once a strong U.S. ally. But thanks to President Erdogan, Turkey appears to be moving away from the U.S. and the West and towards becoming a hegemonic Islamic state.
The reason why President Obama appears to be so blind to Turkey’s new ambitions is that Obama is making the same mistake that many others have made in assessing the Middle East: thinking that the Israel/Palestine situation actually matters. Israel is the excuse given in the Middle East (and throughout the Muslim world) for a whole host of sins, as though the mere existence of Israel gave reason for Syria to murder its own people, Saudi Arabia to embrace the 14th Century, or Iran to destabilize its neighbors. But ultimately the Palestinian issue is a sideshow, a distraction from larger concerns. What is sad is that the West consistently plays into the Israel delusion, and Obama has embraced that delusion with full force. As Peretz puts it:
This conundrum of a non-negotiated state for the Palestinians appeals to the ardent déclarateurs. It ignores the fact that free and responsible politics has never been a habit in the Arab world. Read me right: never. There is nothing in Palestinian history to have made the Arabs of Palestine an exception to this stubborn commonplace now being played out again in virtually every country in the region. A commitment is never a commitment. A border is never a border. A peace is never long-lasting. Turkey has now added its serious mischief to the scenario. Erdogan himself will now unravel Cairo’s peace with Jerusalem, as Erdogan has already locked the PA into phantom international politics.
Poor Barack Obama. His adoring view of Erdogan has stimulated the Turkish regime to be a force not for stability in Cairo or reason in Ramallah. What’s more, Obama’s Palestinian initiatives have all collapsed. But the most striking collapse of his Arab politics has been in Syria where he posited that there were sensible and dependable men with whom Israel could make peace. Of course, that would entail giving up the Golan Heights (which are not the Great Plains) to Dr. Assad. The administration courted the family tyranny and its epigones. Responsible, reasonable, reserved. Two smart-assed Jewish boys were dispatched to play computer games with the Damascus elite. They were also enthused by the possibilities. I know that none of these people pulled the triggers on any of the thousands who are now dead. They just encouraged the clan to think they will get away with murder forever.
In the last few years, the Middle East has been at a crossroads. The democratic revolutions throughout North Africa could have spread into a full-on wave of democratization across the region. But that was not going to happen without the support of the West in picking the side of democracy. Instead, we have sat on the sidelines, content to let things play out as they may. The problem with that is that democracy in a delicate flower, and it can all too easily be crushed in the treads of a tank. Right now, Libya could easily become another enclave for al-Qaead, Egypt is a de facto military dictatorship, and the Syrian regime feels free to kill without fear of anything other than a few choice words.
Meanwhile, President Obama is playing the same old fool’s game of trying to negotiate a settlement between the most democratic state in the region and a loose-knit confederation of cast-offs who would like to see nothing more than the destruction of their democratic neighbor. There will be no solution to the Israel/Palestine problem until the Palestinians truly recognize the right of Israel to exist. Only then can the conditions for a lasting piece and Palestinian statehood exist. President Barack Obama is not going to talk them into that, no matter how much he thinks of his oratorical skills.
While the world occupies itself with the prospect of the UN recognizing a Palestinian state, the Middle East becomes increasingly dangerous after years of hope. Turkey’s sudden turn towards becoming a regional Islamic hegemon, Syria’s continued brutalization of its own people, and Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons are all more important than playing into the Palestinian mythos. Until the U.S. and other world powers stop playing into the idea that Palestine is the be-all-end-all of Middle Eastern affairs, the Middle East will not change for the better. What is sad is that Peretz is right—Obama thoroughly misunderstands the Middle East, and it will cost us in the long run.