A correspondent of mine expressed some surprise when it was announced yesterday that the new secretary of state, John Kerry, would not be visiting Israel prior to the visit next month of President Obama.
What this means to foreign-service hands is that there won’t be a ministerial-level sit-down in advance of the president’s trip. The army of foreign-service specialists who negotiate for the U.S. and Israel won’t come up with serious negotiating points (or at least statements of common objectives) on topics like talks with the Palestinian Arabs, or the Iranian nuclear threat. The president’s itinerary and official events will no doubt be planned thoroughly, but there is a big hole where the normal process of policy preparation would be.
The prospect of Obama’s visit producing a tangible Middle East-policy outcome is thus nil. Appearances now suggest that the trip will basically be an extended photo op. The president will have photo ops with the Palestinian Arabs in the West Bank as well. One of the bigger photo ops will be the award to Obama of Israel’s Presidential Medal of Distinction, by President Shimon Peres.
Appearances as to the kind of trip we can look forward to are probably not deceiving, but they must be understood in the context of Obama’s political style. This is a president who believes that a photo purporting to show him shooting skeet at Camp David will establish his bona fides as a supporter of the Second Amendment – enough so, at any rate, to neutralize political opposition to the increased gun restrictions he favors. For Obama, photo ops are the execution of policy: they build a narrative that gives him leverage by undermining his opponent’s position.
A case study in community organizing
Certainly, he has approached the federal budget stand-off this way. It makes an excellent case study. As numerous pundits have pointed out in the last week, the “sequester” of funds, in the absence of a budget agreement, was Obama’s idea. He has played the sequester to the media on both sides, however, attributing it entirely to the Republicans in Congress when it suits him to.
In February 2013, he is decrying a set of exaggerated effects which he claims will result from the sequester kicking in on 1 March. (Mike DeVine and Howard Portnoy, my LU compadres, have been all over this. As Jennifer Rubin notes, even the New York Times detected exaggeration in Obama’s dire predictions.)
But in the thick of the negotiations that produced the sequester threat, back in 2011, Obama threatened to veto any attempt to avert the sequester without a full budget deal. The same consequences have always been in prospect; what has changed is the position Obama proclaims to the public. (Daniel Horowitz’s timeline on the sequester, and the spending it has made possible, makes good reading at RedState.)
Writers at Politico – hardly a hotbed of right-wing perspective – quote administration officials identifying Obama’s sequester strategy as “shame.” (Emphasis added.)
Certain that the political winds are in their favor, [the White House is] forgoing serious negotiations for a high-risk public offensive, banking almost entirely on the president’s ability to persuade. They believe that the GOP will be scared of taking the blame from an angry public — and the White House says this is just the kind of thing that gave them the victory they claimed in the fiscal cliff fight and the most recent standoff over the debt limit.
The aim is to force Republicans to submit to new revenue as part of a deal to avert the $1.2 trillion in potential cuts — and the only way to get there, senior administration officials said, is by making the GOP position indefensible.
Just so we’re clear: this is community-organizing politics, in a nutshell. Hype an exaggerated problem or threat – even a counter-factual one – with a lot of noise and pressure; stir people up about it; make yourself and your agenda the hero fighting for the people; and pin the blame for it all on the target you want to squeeze concessions from: in this case, Republicans. (This site has a brief summary of Saul Alinsky’s “Rules for Radicals,” the methods community organizers favor to achieve their goals. Rules 4, 9, and 10 are particularly applicable here.)
Obama has taken off the mask of moderation since his reelection – something even his supporters have reservations about. This is important context for his visit to Israel in March. If he foregoes serious negotiations in Israel for a photo-op narrative-building opportunity, what are his objectives?
The approach to Israel
He will presumably seek to be seen in a posture friendly and solicitous toward both Israel and the Palestinian Arabs. I think we can expect very positive-sounding but vague comments about Israel and Israeli security, which, along with photos at the Western Wall (with kippa), a visit to an Iron Dome battery, and photos of himself receiving his medal from Peres, will be intended to evoke powerfully the sense of Obama as a friend to Israel.
Similar care will be taken to select photo-op venues with the Palestinian Arabs. But nothing material will be resolved; Team Obama will simply hope to pocket good feeling about his attitude toward both parties. As with his Magical Sequester Tour in the U.S., he will be looking for imagery and narrative building to establish his bona fides on Israeli security as against his political opponents’ – most particularly with an audience of the U.S. media and American Jews.
In community-organizing terms, Obama doesn’t have to convince Netanyahu himself, or other Israelis, or regional-policy experts; he certainly doesn’t have to make a parsable case for a posture that is trustworthy or has a rational basis. What he has to do is neutralize or “make indefensible” the position of his opponents – from House Republicans to Bill Kristol’s Emergency Committee for Israel – regarding both Israel and Obama’s stance on Israel. He has to outflank them on the battlefield of perception, looking more solicitous of Israeli security than Netanyahu, and better disposed toward Israel than either AIPAC or Pastor John Hagee’s Christians United for Israel.
If, as Rush Limbaugh suggests, Obama’s main political objective today is winning the House in 2014, then establishing imputed bona fides for him on Israel is certainly important to the races in some key districts. That Obama’s campaign organization remains in political-action mode, in spite of the constitutional limit on his own reelection, is clear. Obama won’t be leaving the 2014 election for the Democratic Party to handle.
But there is also the foreign-policy aspect of any “perception benefits” Obama hopes to garner from a photo-op tour of Israel. Down the road, Obama may want Israel to pay a high price in security concessions for any hugs administered in March 2013.
That, I think, is where the limits of community organizing will be reached. Netanyahu will remain undeceived as to the wisdom or utility of anything Obama may insist on (such as bilateral talks with Iran), regardless of personalities or media hype. So, of course, will supporters of Israel in the United States – but in this case, unlike the case of the sequester, the decisive factor will not and cannot be the perceived “indefensibility” of the position held by Obama’s political opponents at home. Not only does Israel have a vote on whatever policies are to prevail, but the other regional actors have votes too.
The limits of community organizing
None of those actors – the Palestinian Arabs, the Arab nations, Hezbollah, Hamas, Turkey, Iran, the EU – is locked in a closed-loop system with Obama, as his political opponents in the U.S. are. The foreign actors have alternatives to Obama’s suggested roles for them, and they are starting to pursue those alternatives. From outside the closed loop of American politics, most of them see clearly that a perception advantage for Obama inside the U.S. isn’t the same thing as Obama being reliable or competent, or having a policy idea that’s good for them. They will act according to their interests, in the end, rather than hitching their wagon to Obama’s star – or, indeed, rather than suffering political losses if Team Obama can make their American supporters look bad.
The community organizer’s horizon is always limited. So is his reach. In a way we have not seen since the 1930s, the rest of the world stands outside America’s internal struggle today, and plenty of foreign observers have Obama’s number. This will have the effect of making the world less stable, unfortunately, while reducing America’s influence over its direction.
It may also increase the poignancy of the Israeli government’s codename for the Obama visit – or perhaps it increases the geopolitical insight behind it. According to media reports, Israeli officials have dubbed the visit “Brit Amim,” which is being translated from the Hebrew as “alliance between nations.” The English expression being used officially by Israel is “Unbreakable Alliance.”
Christian groups on the watch for the eschaton immediately pointed out the similarity of “brit amim” to a passage in the prophetic book of Daniel that refers to “brit rabbim,” or a future covenant of Israel with all peoples. (The verse in question is Daniel 9:27.) “Brit” recurs throughout the Old Testament to signify “covenant,” in the sense of a covenant between God and His people.
While I do not think the Israeli government meant to invoke Christian prophetic expectations in choosing this codename, it is reasonable to suppose that Bibi Netanyahu, who titled his 1993 book on Israel A Place Among the Nations, is well aware of the biblical connotations of the formulation Brit Amim. The UN’s recognition of the state of Israel in 1948 was, in a sense, a covenant of the nations with the Jewish people, and Brit Amim as a codename for the visit of Barack Obama in 2013 may imply, at the very least, a dual meaning: not just affirming the alliance between Israel and the U.S., but affirming as well that the covenant of the nations with Israel extends beyond any one president or nation.
Community organizing is very narrowly focused and self-referential. Having no positive goals, it comes with an inherent expiration date. It may or may not bring America down; it will not keep history from happening.