The occasion of UN Resolution 2334 declaring illegal all Jewish settlements in the disputed territories Israel captured in the 1967 Six-Day War leads me to revisit the roots and themes of the Obama foreign policy. It’s a topic I explored in my book, Vietnam Envy and the Emerging Iraq Syndrome (available here!), and one that seems particularly relevant in the wake of the UN resolution.
Although the Obama Administration probably fancies itself an outside-the-box thinker when it comes to foreign policy, with its realignment toward Iran in the Middle East and opening to Cuba, in fact, Obama’s foreign policy is nothing more than a conventional, banal leftist foreign policy that would fit snugly in the academic circles from which Obama came. It’s probably indistinguishable from what an average Middle Eastern Studies department might favor, straight out of the Edward Said “Orientalism” school of thought. (Who knows, maybe Obama studied with Said while at Columbia. Obama’s college transcript might help us figure that out, but it is under lock and key, for unknown reasons. If I was a politician and I had a transcript with straight As from Columbia, that puppy would have been in a full-page ad in the New York Times during my campaigns.)
Obama’s realignment toward Iran and away from America’s traditional Sunni allies is the apotheosis of this conventional, unoriginal leftist foreign policy. Iran combines several factors that touch leftists’ erogenous zones:
(1) Iran is a revolutionary, anti-Western state. Just as the left has a soft spot for revolutionary dictators like Castro in Cuba and the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, the left has a weakness for the mullahs in Iran. They aren’t capitalists, they think the West is decadent, and they are running a non-Western theocracy that is hostile to Judaism and Christianity, giving them that authentic “revolutionary” feel. Iran under the mullahs is an exotic, non-aligned, Third World “other” — catnip to Western leftist intellectuals.
(2) Iran is a state whose policies are grounded in grievances against the West. Iran blames the West for the overthrow of Mossadegh, the years of the Shah, and for the West’s prior colonial activities in the Middle East. It believes that the West took advantage of Iran’s oil resources prior to the 1979 revolution. It despises the West’s support of the Sunni Gulf monarchies. And, of course, it regards Israel as a Western colonial outpost.
(3) Iran’s current government overthrew a Western-backed dictatorship. That alone might be enough to make Iran heroic in Western leftist intellectuals’ eyes. The Shah, like Pinochet, was a dirty word in leftist circles. Never mind that the mullahs maintained much of the Shah’s secret police (SAVAK) for their own ends and instituted a police state far harsher and more ruthless than that of the Shah. And never mind that Iran was much more prosperous and free under the Shah than the mullahs. Boring, conventional bourgeois values never meant much to leftist intellectuals who hunger for revolutionary authenticity against Western mores and values.
In the opposite corner, the Obama Administration had Israel. It is the exact opposite of everything that Western leftist intellectuals love about Iran:
(1) Israel is a fully Western country. Israel is a parliamentary democracy. It has the feel of your average Western European country. Despite its socialist roots, the country is fully Western in attitude, outlook, culture, and economics. It is most emphatically not a revolutionary state. Citizens are free not to care about politics and to focus on other pursuits. The state is not the all-consuming center of life as it is in any totalitarian society. No massive billboards of Dear Leader on every street corner in Israel.
(2) For the leftist intellectual, Israel represents colonialism. Perhaps the cardinal sin for a Western leftist intellectual. Given the Balfour Declaration and the British Mandate, there is a view that Israel is the imposition of Western colonial powers. In his Cairo speech in 2009, Obama emphasized Israel’s creation in response to the Holocaust without mentioning the centuries of Jewish connection to and inhabiting of Palestine. The recent UNESCO resolution denying any historical Jewish connection to Jerusalem is of a piece with — and probably intended to reinforce — the belief that Israel is a relatively recent creation of Western powers.
(3) Israel is rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Israel is not an exotic Third World “other”. Although Israel is the most multicultural, tolerant, polyglot, LGBT-friendly nation in the Middle East, its political system and justice system are firmly rooted in Western Judeo-Christian traditions.
(4) Israel is not grievance-minded. Israel is a forward-looking nation that has assimilated immigrants from all over the world, including refugees from Arab nations that evicted their Jews in 1948. You won’t find 50-year-old refugee camps in Israel kept like a festering sore to maintain a cause of action against those countries that evicted Jewish refugees. No families still hold and proudly display keys from homes they left half a century ago. Israel is a leader in biotech, cybersecurity, and agriculture. Israel does not nurse grievances against countries that have done it wrong. It defends its interests diplomatically and militarily like any other nation. But it is not consumed by grievances against others. For Western leftist intellectuals, grievance is the basis for diplomatic activity — witness Obama’s infamous apology tour of the world when he first became president.
So if you are wondering where Obama got his foreign policy, it’s no real mystery. Just find the nearest Middle Eastern Studies faculty lounge and have a listen.