Thursday, August 02, 2012

The Middle East Media Sampler 8/2/2012: Obama's Declinist View of America

From DG:
1) About that endorsement 

In endorsing Barack Obama for President, the editors of the Washington Post wrote:
But Mr. Obama, as anyone who reads his books can tell, also has a sophisticated understanding of the world and America's place in it. He, too, is committed to maintaining U.S. leadership and sticking up for democratic values, as his recent defense of tiny Georgia makes clear. We hope he would navigate between the amoral realism of some in his party and the counterproductive cocksureness of the current administration, especially in its first term. On most policies, such as the need to go after al-Qaeda, check Iran's nuclear ambitions and fight HIV/AIDS abroad, he differs little from Mr. Bush or Mr. McCain. But he promises defter diplomacy and greater commitment to allies. His team overstates the likelihood that either of those can produce dramatically better results, but both are certainly worth trying. 
I never read Barack Obama's books, but I was never impressed that he had a "sophisticated understanding" of foreign policy.

I doubt it will sway the Post's editors but Fouad Ajami (h/t Instapundit) has written a devastating critique of the President's foreign policy, The Foreign Policy of David Axelrod:
“The tide of war is receding” is one of the favorite mantras of this administration and its leaders. But what is receding before our eyes is the American influence in the world order. Mr. Obama has narrowed the horizons of a country with historically wide vistas. In the Obamian world, that which can’t be done with drones and the daring of our SEALs is left untended. In a note of exquisite irony, Barack Obama had made much of his predecessor’s poor standing in Islamic lands. Trumpet the polls, fall to them: Mr. Obama’s standing in Egypt, Jordan, and Pakistan, according to the Pew Global Attitudes Survey, is now lower than George W. Bush’s standing. A placard carried by a group of Syrian protesters tells it all: “We miss Bush’s audacity.”  
Now it could be that the American people have been made weary by foreign engagements, and that the economic distress—our debt, our deficits, an anemic recovery, persisting high levels of unemployment—has made us reticent in the face of burdens abroad. That would be an irony all its own—a president who mismanaged the economy being rewarded for the lack of confidence his presidency itself has generated. 
From the very beginning, Mr. Obama has been a herald of a “declinist” reading of America. We can’t aid the Syrians, our touch would sully them. We can’t identity ourselves with the democratic aspirations of the Iranians, for we must conciliate their rulers. We can’t defend the cause of liberty and freedom, for in that Obamian worldview, freedom is a fragile, uncertain bet the world over.
(Prof. Ajami wasn't critical of the President in his Washington Post article the other day. Rather he argued that President Obama and Governor Romney have different philosophies of America's role in the world. It's possible though that the "declinist" view of American power described here is a consequence of the "cosmopolitan" view described earlier.)

2) Romney's culture wars

Mitt Romney's reference to the role of culture in holding Palesitnian economic development back hasn't gotten good reviews in the mainstream media.

Mitt Romney's less than successful trip abroad:
In London, Mr. Romney expressed doubt about Britain’s readiness to host the Olympic Games, a comment that was bush league but not very consequential. More serious was Mr. Romney’s suggestion that “culture” explains the economic disparity between Israelis and Palestinians, and (for good measure) between Mexico and the United States. His comparison left out restrictions on Palestinian trade, workers and goods imposed by Israel over many years, and, more to the point, he reflected an alarmingly simplistic view of complex questions.
Why not in Vegas? by Thomas Friedman
While Romney had time for a $50,000-a-plate breakfast with American Jewish donors in Jerusalem, with Adelson at his elbow, he did not have two hours to go to Ramallah, the seat of the Palestinian Authority, to meet with its president, Mahmoud Abbas, or to share publicly any ideas on how he would advance the peace process. He did have time, though, to point out to his Jewish hosts that Israelis are clearly more culturally entrepreneurial than Palestinians. Israel today is an amazing beehive of innovation — thanks, in part, to an influx of Russian brainpower, massive U.S. aid and smart policies. It’s something Jews should be proud of. But had Romney gone to Ramallah he would have seen a Palestinian beehive of entrepreneurship, too, albeit small, but not bad for a people living under occupation. Palestinian business talent also built the Persian Gulf states. In short, Romney didn’t know what he was talking about. 
Romney angers Palestinians with comments in Israel - news story in the New York Times:
The remarks, which vastly understated the disparities between the societies, drew a swift rejoinder from Palestinian leaders. In an interview with The Associated Press, Saeb Erekat, a senior aide to President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority, called Mr. Romney’s remarks racist.
“It is a racist statement and this man doesn’t realize that the Palestinian economy cannot reach its potential because there is an Israeli occupation,” Mr. Erekat said. “It seems to me this man lacks information, knowledge, vision and understanding of this region and its people.” 
Mr. Romney did not speak to the deleterious impact of deep Israeli trade restrictions on the Palestinian economy, an effect widely described by international organizations including the World Bank, which recently reported that “the government of Israel’s security restrictions continue to stymie investment.” 
All of these objections to Romney's comments ignore that Israeli restrictions were put in place for a reason (to prevent terror) and "occupation" (or, more accurately, lack of statehood)  is the result of Palestinian refusal to negotiate with Israel.

But Romeny isn't the first American politician to argue that the Arab political culture has a negative effect on Arab societies. Noah Pollak points out that the sophisticated Barack Obama did the exact same thing in his widely hailed Cairo speech:
“But all of us must recognize that education and innovation will be the currency of the 21st century -- and in too many Muslim communities, there remains underinvestment in these areas.” 
He pointed out that "a woman who is denied an education is denied equality... And it is no coincidence that countries where women are well educated are far more likely to be prosperous."
He added that he has "an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn't steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose...Governments that protect these rights are ultimately more stable, successful and secure."
So why the difference in reactions?

One possibility, is that Obama's critique didn't explicitly mention the world "culture." When he used the world "culture," the context was:
Islamic culture has given us majestic arches and soaring spires; timeless poetry and cherished music; elegant calligraphy and places of peaceful contemplation. And throughout history, Islam has demonstrated through words and deeds the possibilities of religious tolerance and racial equality. 
Another is that Obama did not contrast Arab failures with Israeli's successes. 

While I often don't agree with Aaron David Miller (nor do I fully agree with his essay here) he recently made a good and relevant point:
But let’s be clear. The Arabs themselves have turned David into an ugly and mythical Goliath. The anti-Israeli trope goes much deeper than mere criticism of a nation-state’s behavior. Israel has been elevated to a power (backed by America) that, along with international Jewry, has the capacity to shape the world arena, if not to control it.
Romney's affront to the Palestinians was to compare them to Israel; a comparison that did not work to their favor.
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