Still Nervous

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President Obama is now safely sworn in. Even the few curmudgeons left who have not been completely won over by the new president felt a surge of pride in their country as they watched a black man take the oath of office. That could not have happened in any of the European countries that view themselves as America’s moral betters.

The new president had an impressive two months between the election and the swearing-in, during which period he succeeded in winning over half those who voted for his opponent. Conservative columnist Charles Krauthamer’s assessment of Obama, after his cool in the face of the financial meltdown, has been more than borne out. Krauthamer updated Harry Hopkins description of FDR as “a second-rate mind with a first-rate temperament,” calling Obama “a first-rate mind, with a first-rate temperament.”

If anybody has been disappointed with America’s new president in the months since the election, it has been his left-wing supporters. His cabinet appointments were mainstream in the extreme. He delivered his major economic policy speech at George Mason University, the last bastion of free market economics, supped with conservative columnists at the house of George Will, and reached out generously to his defeated opponent John McCain. He even told a television interviewer that there was a great deal of wisdom in former vice-president Dick Cheney’s advice he should first understand the bases for the Bush administration’s national security policies before seeking to dismantle them.

President Obama’s Inaugural Address was filled with bones for the conservatives: He described the wealth producing power of free markets, warned terrorists around the world that “we will defeat you,” acknowledged the determinative role of individuals, not just government, in the improvement of society, and mentioned G-d frequently.

Clearly, then, the hysterical pre-election portrait of Obama as the acolyte of ex-Weatherman terrorist William Ayers has proven comically overblown. And yet I remain concerned about the new president’s likely approach to Israel.

Those concerns are not based on anything that President Obama has done or said. His quoted comments on Hamas missile attacks on Israeli towns were eminently sensible: If someone were shooting at my daughters, he said, I would do everything in my power to stop them. That commonsense, human response was notably absent from much commentary on the war.

No, my concerns about the Obama presidency derive primarily from his membership in the class of graduates of elite Ivy League universities. Much has been made by The New York Times about all the degrees from elite institutions Obama’s staff possess. And that scares me.

Those fears are pretty much summed up in the statement of the new presidential envoy to the Middle East, former Senator George Mitchell. “There is no conflict without an end.” That remark captures a common mistake of brainy folks: the assumption that they have the answers to all the world’s problems. In 1996, Professor Robert Lucas, an Nobel laureate from the University of Chicago, boasted that economists now possess the tools to end the threat of worldwide depression forever, a claim that appears less well-founded by the day.

The belief that to every problem there is a solution is not just naive but dangerous when applied to Middle East peacemaking. It is predicated on the assumption that peacemaking is no different than negotiating a union contract. Both sides are jostling over the size of their piece of the pie.

But there are things that many people care about much more a larger slice of some material pie, and one of them is religion. That is something that smart technocrats commonly miss. Because religion plays no part in their own lives they fail to grasp its importance to others.

The repeated Western request that Hamas recognize Israel’s right to exist is an example of that failure. Hamas would have to stop being Hamas, and renounce its religious belief that Israel exists on Moslem holy land, in order to recognize Israel’s right to exist.

Peace between the Palestinians and Israelis does not depend the renunciation of this or that demand. It depends on the transformation of an entire culture of hate that has only intensified in the years since the handshake on the White House lawn. To attempt to suggest or impose “solutions,” without first changing the human material reflects a detachment from reality. Even the Northern Ireland peace negotiations, in which Senator Mitchell played a major role, were only possible because of the emergence of a Protestant leader, David Trimble, eager to put aside old hatreds, and a radical change in the attitudes in the leadership of the IRA on the Catholic side.

Only those who believe in souls can appreciate the difficulty of changing cultures. But souls are not the province of those who think they can devise a solution to every problem. If man were nothing but a rationally calculating homo economicus, could most disputes be settled around a negotiating table with skillful slicing of the pie. But he is not.

The scary noises coming from Washington D.C. derive from a misplaced confidence that a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is close at hand. Practically President Obama’s first act in office was to appoint Senator Mitchell as his Middle East envoy. It is unlikely that the new president would have given such high priority to the Middle East unless he thought that he could show some achievements.

That confidence is heard in the oft-repeated phrase “the general contours of the final solution have long been known to all the parties,” as if a solution can exist apart from the societies upon which it will be imposed. In fact, the basis for an enduring peace is farther away than it was during the last phase of activist American peacemaking, under President Clinton. Gaza and the West Bank are today functionally independent, which vastly complicates everything. More importantly, Israelis have learned both in southern Lebanon and Gaza that every territorial withdrawal only makes them more vulnerable.

As an older friend always tells me, “The longer I live the more I find that brains are greatly overrated.” Recognition of that fact may be the beginning of wisdom in the Middle East. Unfortunately, it is wisdom that is only likely to come slowly, if at all, to the smart fellows of the new administration.

This article appeared in the Mishpacha, 28 January 2009.

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13 Responses

  1. Bob Miller says:

    Self-glorification and self-absorption are traditional among the intelligentsia and those who want to bask in their glow.

  2. Jonathan Rosenblum says:

    Wow, Charles Hall, Ph.D, is an Ivy League graduate. Who would have ever known? By the way, I find little consolation that a boycott resolution against Israel could have gotten over 10% support from Ivy League graduates.

    My objection is not to Ivy League graduates per se. John Bolton, James Woolsey, my classmate Ruth Wedgewood, and my brother Jeremy serve as constant reminders, for instance, that a Yale Law School education need not drain one of all common sense. William Buckley, who famously remarked that he would rather be governed by any group of people picked randomly from the Cambridge phone book than the faculty of Harvard, did not deny anything could be garnered from an elite education, judging from the title of his first book.

    My objection is to the veritable panting in the New York Times about how smart everybody is in the new administration and how many fancy degrees they have, as if that self-evidently guaranteed that have tapped into some deeper wisdom. My fear greatest fear is that those written about may share that view. That is based on my observation of myself and my friends when I used to hang out in these places.

    One last point, elaborated on in this week’s Jerusalem Post piece, is that those who believe in their problem-solving ability also tend to have a tendency to frame issues in a way that makes them appear soluable. Example, forget about Islamic jihad or Islamic terror just focus on a few bad guys or organizations or particular local grievances. Is that the right framework? My guess is not. But rounding up the bad guys or addressing local grievances sounds a lot more doable than dealing with clashing cultures or civilizations.

  3. Garnel Ironheart says:

    > US troops are still stationed in Germany

    As a precaution against an invasion from Mother Russia, not as an occupation force of allied Germany.

    > and Japan,

    Because the US written constitution won’t let them defend themselves so the Americans are picking up the tab.

    > and Korea.

    And that show of force is the only reason North Korea hasn’t started round 2.
    ;-)

  4. Sam Szlezinger says:

    “…my concerns about the Obama presidency derive primarily from his membership in the class of graduates of elite Ivy League universities.”

    This isn’t about particular universities, more about the liberal tradition which sees progress over time as the defining feature of history.

    Israel’s real problem isn’t so much religion as it is depicted here but the cynical way in which all Arab governments have manipulated their populations and for which religion is used as a convenient cover. Palestinian suffering suits their leaders so they allow them to suffer, indeed, they exploit and intensify it. A Palestinian is not allowed to become homo economicus. Earlier plans which had at their core allowing a Palestinian middle class to arise who would have an interest in peace have not been allowed to develop. Until that changes Mr Obama’s Ivy League clever chaps will be whistling in the wind.

  5. YM says:

    Garnel, US troops are still stationed in Germany and Japan, and Korea. I guess these wars are still going on :)

    Chaim Fisher, I was reading the Village Voice (!!) yesterday; there was an article about the economic collapse and the writer, no conservative, blames Bill Clinton’s decision not to regulate the trading of derivitaves as the “ikur” cause of the collapse. The article, in general, blames policies of both parties. Stop blaming Bush for everything.

  6. David N. Friedman says:

    Please do not misunderstand J. Rosenblum’s point concerning the problem with elite thinking. In making a contrast with the diplomatic efforts of the Bush administration and his own, Obama was quick to proclaim that he would solve problems unsolved by previous administrations because he was going to offer “determined diplomacy.” Wow–how wondrous! This does not mean that Bush’s diplomats lacked people with academic degrees. Rather, Obama is advancing his naive notion of elite thinking and “sophistication” to solve problems which are not easily solved. JR’s point is that the people dealing with such problems need to have real world experience–something profoundly lacking in Obama’s personal case and also in the case of those he has chosen to represent America, like Hillary Clinton. Only the truly “sophisticated” believe that they can roll hard-core fanatics with formulas such as “mutual interests” or appealing to their soft-side as Obama attempted to do on Saudi TV.

    Yes, we want our officials such as our Attorney General to be as brainy as Mukassey–Eric Holder would therefore come out on the short side of that comparison and so would Biden compared to Cheney, etc. JR’s complaint is as much about attitude and expectation as it is about academic qualifications, per se. The concern is about a reliance on too many ivory tower, egghead” types, unfamiliar with the streets WHEN we are speaking about Arabs. To be fair, this is why C. Rice had problems since she is something of an ivory tower intellectual as well.

    Paulson is a Democrat and this is why he advanced notions which pleased Dems and infuriated the Right (McCain is not a conservative).

    Finally, to correct Rabbi Rosenblum, the conservatives are in a total uproar over Obama’s daily trail of scandals and speeches. His “stimulus” package has brought the Republicans together, his countless blunders make for sharply pointed fare on the talk shows and blogs If the Daily Kos crowd is disappointed, believe me, the conservatives are far more sapped of hope of some semblance of balance from this administration.

  7. Bob Miller says:

    Let’s give these “thinking people” a chance to think right for the first time in their public lives.

  8. Chaim Fisher says:

    Well, after the dirt-bike-riding, brush-clearing, sentence-massacring Bush administration nearly destroyed the world and its economy, maybe it’s time to give thinking people a chance…

  9. L. Oberstein says:

    Once again, I agree with your analysis of the “Middle East Conflict”. Now what? I viewed the exchange between the Turkish Prime Minister and Peres. Peres was magnificent, he covered all the bases and the applause he received were due to the really good job he did of restoring Israel’s image as a decent civilized country after 3 speakers in a row had browbeat him. What bothered Erdogan? 1. Peres raised his voice and this is not kovod to him. 2. The audience applauded Peres which he felt was an insult to Erdogan who called Israelis murderers. 3. The moderator did not let him make a tirade and limited him to one minute, which was in itself more than he was entitled to by the rules of the forum. I+It was an insult to him that he was told he couldn’t speak as long as he desired. In summary – kovod was the issue.
    Isn’t that the underlying problem in Israel’s relations with its neighbors? Israel’s existance is an insult to their manhood.
    Erdogan won the favor of the entire Moslem world.He is a hero because he stood up for his honor . That is the whole “middle east conflict” in a nutshell.

  10. David N. Friedman says:

    Jonathan Rosenblum accuses Obama of being naive in his stand towards Israel and her enemies and this is both an understatement and a compliment. To assess that there is “difficulty in changing souls” regarding the mindset of Islamic radicals is very true. Yet, the belief that an Obama administration will be as friendly towards Israel as the Bush administration is pure wishful thinking. Obama’s initial outreach to the Muslim world on TV was a disaster, as critiqued by Charles Krauthammer and others and if it is diplomatic to bash America’ in order to curry favor–this is not at all helpful.

    Jonathan Rosenblum remains one of the very best minds in our community but I must protest his belief that he has come out of the box as more moderate than expected. His speeches have always infuriated me and now more than ever. Note that as a few conservatives were initially swayed by his private rhetoric, such as Lawrence Kudlow, almost all have joined the growing chorus against his so-called “stimulus” plan which is nothing more than Democrat’s favored pork spending for their own selfish interests. It is shocking that we need to negotiate the President’s budget for wasteful spending down from hundreds of billions of dollars to a few less billions of dollars. If even a Democratic Congress fails to see that a nearly bankrupt nation can afford zero wasteful pork spending–let the voters see the contrast as the Dems and Obama press this agenda with a sure signal of over-reach and insult to the taxpayers. This is not merely a test of wills over people’s pocketbooks–we are at the stage of ruining people’s lives and changing our nation into a crippled socialist wasteland.

    Obama has been cheered by Iran for promising to close down Gitmo and I don’t expect Iran will be disappointed by Obama’s future moves in the Middle East. George Mitchell, of Lebanese ancestry and generally pro-Arab, is going to please few Israelis and even if policy need not be a zero-sum game, the Muslims are betting heavily that Obama is going to bring unprecedented pressure on Israel for concessions.

    The further difficulty in elite perception, is the fact that most of the players, including the President himself, is a lawyer. The kind of result favored by lawyers–i.e. signatures on a piece of paper, is precisely the kind of phony “victory” we should come to mistrust.

  11. Charlie Hall says:

    “No, my concerns about the Obama presidency derive primarily from his membership in the class of graduates of elite Ivy League universities.”

    As a graduate of one of those elite universities, I take strong exception to this statement.

    I never heard Rabbi Rosenblum complain that President Bush had degrees from two Ivy League universities, as do Henry Paulson and Michael Mukasey, the latter of whom is an Orthodox Jew. Or about the Princeton degrees of Donald Rumsfield, Josh Bolten or Mitch Daniels. Or John Ashcroft’s Yale degree. Or Alberto Gonzales’ Harvard Law degree.

    Finally, a true story: Early in this decade, there was a serious move to convince Harvard and MIT to divest its endowment holdings from companies that do business in Israel. An internet petition drive was begin. Quickly, a counter-petition drive began. The counter-petition accumulated NINE TIMES the number of signatures from faculty, staff, students, and alumni as did the pro-divestment petition. I was one of the alumni signatories.

    Enough with the sterotyping!

  12. Garnel Ironheart says:

    “There is no conflict without an end.”

    Rubbish. Every major conflict has had an end. Are either World War I or II still going on? Is the Korean War or Viet-nam War still raging? A conflict ends when one power decisively defeats the other or convinces it that it’s defeated so it’ll slink away ignominously. Neither has happened in Israel which is why that conflict seems unending but were Israel allowed to deael with the Arabs in a proper manner, that conflict would also end.

  13. Garnel Ironheart says:

    > If someone were shooting at my daughters, he said, I would do everything in my power to stop them. That common sense, human response was notably absent from much commentary on the war.

    Mr. Obama should be taken at his word. If he demands Israel’s unilateral surrender in the face of terrorism, he will first remind us of this phrase and then remind us that his daughters aren’t being shot at so what’s going on in Israel is different!