May 28th 2011

Disconnected and Dysfunctional

by James J. Zogby

Dr. James J. Zogby is the President of Arab American Institute

Reactions to President Obama's speech on developments in the Arab World were a striking reminder of just how deep and troubling the disconnect in the U.S.-Israel-Arab relationship, and how dysfunctional politics in the U.S. have become.

Given the historical setting: dramatic changes taking place across the Arab World; the killing of bin Laden; the floundering Arab-Israeli peace process coming up against the September deadline the President once suggested for the establishment of a Palestinian State; and the Republican Congressional leadership's invitation to Benjamin Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress-the White House calculated that this was the appropriate time for the President to deliver a speech that framed a comprehensive vision of his Administration's Middle East policy.

It was an impressive effort, but the questions that gnawed at me as I sat in the State Department's Benjamin Franklin room listening to the President were "who was the intended audience" and "how would this speech be received by the many audiences who would hear it"?

If directed at an American audience, it was a useful speech. The President's analysis of the Arab Spring was thoughtful and challenging, as was his resolve to "reset" relations with the broader Middle East in the wake of profound changes occurring in that region. By embracing and reframing a "democracy agenda" and focusing on the need for economic development and empowerment, Obama shoved aside the neo-conservative clap-trap and Islamophobic nonsense that has seized much of the right and infected some of the left.

Our current "slash and burn" Congress may not be inclined to act in support of the President's initiatives, dooming them before they get off the ground, but it was important for Obama to challenge them to "put their money where their mouths are". Politicians may pay lip service to democracy, but when it comes to supporting the capacity building and job creation necessary to advance societies in transition, they turn their backs.

It was also a humble speech in which the President, at times implicitly and at other times, explicitly acknowledged the limits faced by U.S. diplomacy in the region. He noted that the U.S. did not make the Arab Spring, nor can the U.S. direct its course. All we can do is help emerging democracies with resources and support.

As direct as the President was in addressing this democracy agenda, he was more oblique in his handling of the issue that drew the most post-speech attention-the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It was a valiant effort in which he tried to both lay down markers for Netanyahu while not creating a major confrontation with the pro-Israel lobby that is meeting in Washington this week (and before which both he and the Israeli P.M. are scheduled to speak).

Obama carefully parsed his words giving something to both sides. For example, he accepted the Palestinian argument that borders and territorial issues should come first, recognizing the '67 borders as the starting point, but then adding the need for "mutually agreed upon land-swaps" in deference to Israel's concern. He rejected the Palestinians' efforts to seek a United Nations' endorsement of their state, but added that the future Palestinian State should have borders with Israel, Jordan and Egypt and be "contiguous"-a slap at Netanyahu's efforts to severe Gaza from Palestine and maintain Israeli control in the Jordan Valley.

He had, of course, much more to say, but most of it had been said before and should not have surprised or shocked anyone. But it did.

The mainstream press made much ado about the President's speech, with front page headlines and commentaries galore either heralding or denouncing the President's referencing of the "pre-67 borders". They did this despite the fact that President George W. Bush had spoken of the 1949 Armistice lines as the starting point for negotiations-those lines being exactly what is meant by the pre-67 borders.

For their part, hardline pro-Israel groups became hysterical denouncing the President for ambushing Netanyahu, embracing a Hamas agenda, and condemning Israel to live within "Auschwitz" borders"! The 2012 Republican aspirants chimed in accusing Obama of being "irresponsible", "throwing Israel under the bus", and "betraying" or "disrespecting" our "only ally".

Meanwhile, in the Arab World, the speech fell flat. Not interested in nuance or the careful parsing of terms, the speech the Arabs heard was too tired and too careful, in no significant way advancing the discussion beyond the Cairo speech of 2009. Arabs wanted the President to do something. What they hoped for, two years after Cairo, were firm markers, a timetable for implementation and concrete steps the U.S. would take to end the now 44 year long occupation of Palestinian lands.

And herein lies the problem. What the Administration saw as a necessary, though risky, step at home, ended up outraging hardline Israelis, becoming partisan fodder at home, and being seen as "too little, too late" by many Arabs.

And this is only the beginning of what will no doubt be a most troubling week for U.S Middle East diplomacy.

After their Friday White House meeting, Obama and Netanyahu each delivered remarks to the press. The President acknowledged differences between the two sides, which the Israeli Prime Minister then elaborated upon issuing his "No's": "No" to '67 borders because "they don't take into account ...demographic changes that have taken place over the past 44 years" (A remarkably antiseptic way of describing Israel's illegal settlement expansion!); "No" to Palestinian reconciliation; and "No" to the Palestinian "right to return".

All eyes will now be on Obama as he speaks before the AIPAC (the major pro-Israel lobby) meeting on Sunday to see whether he backs away from or fine tunes the positions he outlined in his State Department address. While AIPAC's leaders have cautioned their members not to boo the President, it will not be a receptive audience-unless he walks back from his earlier positions, in which case the AIPAC crowd might cheer while an already disenchanted Arab audience will become enraged.

Then comes Netanyahu's turn. He will speak before AIPAC on Monday and Congress on Tuesday-both audiences ready for whatever "red meat" he will throw their way.

There is a disconnect, to be sure, and a dysfunctional situation as well. All of this reminds me of Jesse Jackson's description of a complicated political bind in which anything you say "excites one side, but incites the other side".

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Apr 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "Some presidents indulge in the “Mount Rushmore syndrome” making an obvious effort to achieve greatness. Normally soft-spoken and apparently modest Biden is making his own bid for immortality."
Apr 9th 2021
EXTRACT: "New ways of thinking about the role of government are as important as new priorities. Many commentators have framed Biden’s infrastructure plan as a return to big government. But the package is spread over eight years, will raise public spending by only one percentage point of GDP, and is projected to pay for itself eventually. A boost in public investment in infrastructure, the green transition, and job creation is long overdue."
Apr 7th 2021
EXTRACT: " One can, and perhaps should, take the optimistic view that moral panics in the US blow over; reason will once again prevail. It could be that the Biden era will take the sting out of Trumpism, and the tolerance for which American intellectual life has often been admired will be reinvigorated. This might even happen while the noxious effects of American influence still rage in other countries. For the sake of America and the world, one can only hope it happens soon.  "
Mar 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "By refusing (despite having some good reasons) to end electoral gerrymandering, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., has directly enabled the paralyzing hyper-partisanship that reached its nadir during Donald Trump’s presidency. By striking down all limits on corporate spending on political campaigns in the infamous 2010 Citizens United decision, he has helped to entrench dark money in US politics. And by gutting the 1965 Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder, Roberts has facilitated the racist voter-suppression tactics now being pursued in many Republican-controlled states."
Mar 24th 2021
EXTRACT: "the UK’s tough choices accumulate, and the problems lurking around the corner look menacing. Britain will have to make the best of Brexit. But it will be a long, hard struggle, all the more so with an evasive fabulist in charge."
Mar 15th 2021
EXTRACT: "Over the years, the approach of most American policymakers toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been Israel-centric with near total disregard for the suffering endured by the Palestinian people. The architects of policy in successive US administrations have discussed the conflict as if the fate of only one party (Israel) really mattered. Israelis were treated as full human beings with hopes and fears, while Palestinians were reduced to a problem that needed to be solved so that Israelis could live in peace and security.  ..... It is not just that Israelis and Palestinians haven’t been viewed with an equal measure of concern. It’s worse than that. It appears that Palestinians were judged as less ​human than Israelis, and were, therefore, not entitled to make demands to have their rights recognized and protected."
Mar 8th 2021
EXTRACTS: "XThere’s a global shortage in semiconductors, and it’s becoming increasingly serious." ...... "The automotive sector has been worst affected by the drought, in an era where microchips now form the backbone of most cars. Ford is predicting a 20% slump in production and Tesla shut down its model 3 assembly line for two weeks. In the UK, Honda was forced to temporarily shut its plant as well." ..... " As much as 70% of the world’s semiconductors are manufactured by just two companies, Taiwan Semiconductor (TSMC) and Samsung."
Mar 5th 2021
EXTRACT: "Back in 1992, Lawrence H. Summers, then the chief economist at the World Bank, and I warned that pushing the US Federal Reserve’s annual inflation target down from 4% to 2% risked causing big problems. Not only was the 4% target not producing any discontent, but a 2% target would increase the risk of the Fed’s interest-rate policy hitting the zero lower bound. Our objections went unheeded. Fed Chair Alan Greenspan reduced the inflation target to 2%, and we have been paying for it ever since. I have long thought that many of our economic problems would go away if we could rejigger asset markets in such a way as to make a 5% federal funds rate consistent with full employment in the late stage of a business cycle."
Mar 2nd 2021
EXTRACT: "Under these conditions, the Fed is probably worried that markets will instantly crash if it takes away the punch bowl. And with the increase in public and private debt preventing the eventual monetary normalization, the likelihood of stagflation in the medium term – and a hard landing for asset markets and economies – continues to increase."
Mar 1st 2021
EXTRACT: "Massive fiscal and monetary stimulus programs in the United States and other advanced economies are fueling a raging debate about whether higher inflation could be just around the corner. Ten-year US Treasury yields and mortgage rates are already climbing in anticipation that the US Federal Reserve – the de facto global central bank – will be forced to hike rates, potentially bursting asset-price bubbles around the world. But while markets are probably overstating short-term inflation risks for 2021, they do not yet fully appreciate the longer-term dangers."
Feb 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "To be sure, calls to “build back better” from the pandemic imply some awareness of the need for systemic change. But the transformation we need extends beyond constructing modern infrastructure or unlocking private investment in any one country. We need to re-orient – indeed, re-invent – global politics, so that countries can cooperate far more effectively in creating a better world."
Feb 23rd 2021
EXTRACT: "So, notwithstanding the predictable release of pent-up demand for consumer durables, face-to-face services show clear evidence – in terms of both consumer demand and employment – of permanent scarring. Consequently, with the snapback of pent-up demand for durables nearing its point of exhaustion, the recovery of the post-pandemic US economy is likely to fall well short of vaccine development’s “warp speed.” "
Feb 20th 2021
EXTRACT: "Human rights abuses under Erdogan are beyond the pale of inhumanity and moral decadence. The list of Erdogan’s violations and cruelty is too long to numerate. The detention and horrifying torture of thousands of innocent people for months and at times for years, without being charged, is hard to fathom. Many prisoners are left languishing in dark cells, often in solitary confinement. The detention of tens of thousands of men and hundreds of women, many with their children, especially following the 2016 failed coup, has become common. It is calculated to inflict horrendous pain and suffering to bring the prisoners to the breaking point, so that they confess to crimes they have never committed."
Feb 20th 2021
Courtyard of the Amsterdam Stock Exchange, circa 1670, (Job Adriaenszoon Berckheyde).
Feb 12th 2021
EXTRACT: "Global regulators will no doubt be concerned about a potential volatility spillover from digital asset prices into traditional capital markets. They may not permit what could quickly amount to effective proxy approval by the back door for companies holding large proportions of a volatile asset on their balance sheets."
Feb 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "Since Russians began protesting opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s imprisonment, the security forces have apparently had carte blanche to arrest demonstrators – and they have done so by the thousands. If Russians so much as honk their car horns in solidarity with the protesters, they risk personal repercussions. The official response to the protests goes beyond the Kremlin’s past repression. It is war."
Feb 6th 2021
EXTRACT: ".......like Biden, Roosevelt was certainly no revolutionary. His task was to save American capitalism. He was a repairer, a fixer. The New Deal was achieved not because of Roosevelt’s genius or heroism, but because enough people trusted him to act in good faith. That is precisely what people are expecting from Biden, too. He must save US democracy from the ravages of a political crisis. To do so, he must reestablish trust in the system. He has promised to make his country less polarized, and to restore civility and truth to political discourse. In this endeavor, his lack of charisma may turn out to be his greatest strength. For all that he lacks in grandeur, he makes up for by exuding an air of decency."
Feb 2nd 2021
EXTRACT: "Europe must not lose sight of the long game, which inevitably will center on China, not Russia or relations with post-Brexit Britain. China is already establishing a presence in Iran, and demonstrating that it has the capital, know-how, and technology to project power and influence beyond its borders. Should it succeed in turning the Belt and Road Initiative into a line of geopolitical stepping-stones, it might soon emerge at Europe’s southeastern border in a form that no one in the EU foresaw."
Jan 29th 2021
EXTRACT: "One sign of this change is that, unlike all recent Democratic administrations, Biden’s hasn’t paid obeisance to Wall Street by giving bankers top jobs. The new Secretary of the Treasury, Janet Yellen, is a former Federal Reserve chair and academic who has made it clear that she understands the country’s pressing social needs. Moreover, Biden consulted Warren on her economic views, and has named a former Warren adviser as Yellen’s deputy. Yellen’s appointment demonstrates that Biden shares the insight that enabled Trump’s rise: that too many Americans feel that they cannot get a fair share. "
Jan 24th 2021
EXTRACT: "Barack Obama cautioned in his final speech as president that, “Our democracy is threatened whenever we take it for granted.” Yet isn’t that exactly what America has been doing? In a decade punctuated by the global financial crisis, the COVID-19 crisis, a racial-justice crisis, an inequality crisis, and now a political crisis, we have only paid lip service to lofty democratic ideals. ... Sadly, this complacency has come at a time of growing fragility for the American experiment. Internet-enabled connectivity is dangerously amplifying an increasingly polarized national discourse in an era of mounting social and political instability. The resulting vulnerability was brought into painfully sharp focus on January 6. The stewardship of democracy is at grave risk. "