Obama’s SilenceJanuary 4, 2009 at 2:11 pm | Posted in Barack Obama, International | 1 Comment
Even in the transition from running a campaign to governing a country, much is still expected of the not-yet-President Barack Obama. As Israeli tanks thunder into Gaza towards an outcome where the only certainty is the loss of yet more innocent life, the demands for Obama to publicly address the crisis get louder and more numerous, as do the interpretations of his silence. Is he implicitly condoning Israel’s actions? Is it a sign that he’s reluctant to criticise Israel until he’s in office? Or is it an example of what some critics have long thought to be a fence-straddling cautiousness that his soaring rhetoric manages to disguise as unifying leadership?
My hunch, which is based partly on observing his positions for the past two years and partly on the methods of the Clinton era, is that a President Obama would’ve supported limited, intelligence-based air assaults on known military targets, most probably Hamas’ rocket-launching sites. That would’ve been too hawkish for my liking, particularly as the civilian casualties involved would’ve been considerable and the chances of destroying Hamas’ rocket-launching capability from the air would’ve been slim.
However, given that Israel is seen throughout the Middle East as a proxy for American power, and remembering that the incoming administration needs ‘moderate‘ Arab states to deal with Iran and Iraq, I don’t think he would’ve allowed the air bombardment to go on as long as it has, and I’m reasonably certain that all but the briefest of ground incursions would’ve been forbidden.
So why hasn’t he said any of this, and instead left the world’s commentators desperately thumbing through the tea leaves of adviser David Axelrod’s vague appearance on Meet the Press? Well, for a start, the “one President at a time” rule might sound like a platitude, but it is also an undeniable fact. There is simply no equivalence between Obama’s condemnation of the terrorism in Bombay (which had no diplomatic consequences and where America couldn’t influence the outcome) or his statements on an economic recovery plan (which were essential to reassure panicked markets and dispirited consumers) and what is happening in the Gaza Strip.
The moment the President-elect makes a statement on an explosive ongoing conflict in which the U.S. is a major stakeholder, you essentially have the appearance of two Presidents: one a deeply unpopular lame duck who just happens to be squatting in the Oval Office, and the other his longed-for successor who’s making conflicting statements but has no authority to take action. Not only that, but the political capital he would’ve wasted creating a mini constitutional crisis would’ve been matched by the waste of spending it criticising Israeli leaders he’ll need to work with after the inauguration.
But beyond the practical impediments to Obama taking a role in this crisis, his silence reminds us of his broader criticism of Bush-era foreign policy. As Obama adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski points out in this interview, had the Bush administration been dedicated enough, had they thought and acted strategically enough and had they been more even-handed in their approach, this latest conflict could’ve been avoided. By acting as the ‘honest broker’ it has always purported to be, America could’ve at least prevented the conflict from escalating and pointed out to Israel that their actions would breathe life into a grasping, politically hobbled Hamas.
The problem is, the vast majority of this necessary, exhaustive work can only happen in private, takes years to build and a breadth of diplomatic talent to make it happen. From 20th January, Obama will have the opportunity – should he choose to take it – to make use of the power and influence and his disposal. But by speaking out now, not only will he fail to stop Israel’s attacks, but he’ll most likely compromise his ability to do so in the future.