The Corner

Mr. Obama’s Middle Eastern Legacy

Andy McCarthy recently offered a comprehensive analysis in these pages of Barack Obama’s decision to abstain from the U.N.’s vote condemning Israel. It’s an excellent explanation, well worth reading, or rereading for those who saw it the first time.

I’ll add a few words about the vote itself, and the broader Middle Eastern picture that confronts Donald Trump as he prepares to take office.

The U.N. resolution condemns the Israeli settlements as illegal. This presumes that there is some body of recognized law, binding on both parties, against which the settlements can be judged. But there is no such law; as Andy notes, there is only a dispute about who is sovereign over the different parts of the West Bank. Disputes have to be resolved by agreement or by coercion. There is no third way. The real question at issue is therefore not the settlements; it is whether sovereignty over the West Bank will be settled at the bargaining table or on a battleground. 

Israel wants the bargaining table. The Palestinian leadership – to the extent there is a Palestinian leadership, or for that matter, a Palestinian people; no one is sure who constitutes either – wants to resolve the dispute by violence. So the U.N. resolution was, in fact if not in form, an expression of international support for armed conflict. 

Even if Israel were to give the U.N. everything it wants and return to the 1948 boundary lines, that would not result in peace, because the parties which purport to represent the Palestinians don’t want just the settlements removed. They want Israel removed. They’ve made that much clear at least, in both their words and their actions, over the last 60 years. 

That is why American presidents, including the current president, have traditionally opposed such resolutions, and why there is such substantial bipartisan opposition to the Obama administration’s eleventh-hour reversal of its own policy. Some who have criticized the president are partisans of Israel, and for good and substantial reasons. Israel is a real democracy (albeit, like all democracies, imperfect) – an outpost of freedom and human rights in a region characterized by neither. Except by the inverted standards of the United Nations, Israel is morally superior to its opponents, and certainly to the kind of society that would replace Israel were it destroyed.

But even many of those who are neutral on the settlement issue nevertheless also opposed the U.N. resolution, because they believe, correctly, that it increases the likelihood of yet another intifada, or another Israeli/Hamas war, or, another genocide in the region.  

Should there ever be serious negotiations over the West Bank, these two camps will probably diverge in their view of whether and how strongly the United States should support Israel’s bargaining position. But for now they have joined in opposition to the latest, and, one fervently hopes, the final exhibition of Barack Obama’s peculiar genius for betraying America’s interests and allies, and the cause of peace, in the Middle East. 

When Mr. Obama entered office in 2009, the war in Iraq was wrapping up, and the rest of the region was stable – or as stable as it ever gets. 

The picture now is, to put it mildly, vastly different.

Libya is in chaos, and ISIS has a foothold there. Iran has advanced its nuclear program, has benefited enormously from sanctions relief, and is indulging its appetite for terrorism and aggression from Lebanon to Yemen. Syria is a killing field. Jordan is endangered. Iraq is fighting a civil war against an enemy whose tactics are barbaric even by Middle Eastern standards, and has, in the process, moved farther into Iran’s orbit. Russia is entrenched in Syria and is a major player elsewhere. Turkey is unstable, hostile, and increasingly making common cause with Russia and Iran; Egypt and the Gulf States are disaffected; Europe is being overrun by migrants; Islamic radicalism of all stripes has spread. 

Not content with all that, Mr. Obama has stabbed Israel in the back as he goes out the door.

The president entered office convinced that he was smarter than his advisers and determined to disregard the fundamentals of past American policy in the Middle East. He charted his own path, and he is responsible for the results. While his decisions were not the sole reason for the forfeits America has suffered in the Middle East, they were in every case a but-for cause.

Six weeks ago, the American people used the democratic remedy available to them and changed the direction of their government. A month from now that verdict will usher new leadership into the Oval Office. Mr. Obama will exit the stage of government, set up his library, and write his memoirs. But before all that happens — before the Obama era ends – we ought to reflect on how greatly American security has been compromised in the Middle East and elsewhere, how long the road back will be, and how much damage could have been prevented by a little humility and common sense at the top. 

Jim Talent, as a former U.S. senator from Missouri, chaired the Seapower Subcommittee. He is currently the chairman of the National Leadership Council at the Reagan Institute.