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.