It's been almost 40 years since I moved from the US to Israel. I still write about the country where I was born, had my formal education, and spent about one-third of my professional career. Internet friends, some of them not so friendly, attack me from both left and right, claiming that I do not understand their country.
Although I am not current about many details, I look at a number of prominent US media each day, and I feel that enough remains from what I wrote and taught when I was in the middle of things American to be comfortable in writing about issues that I have followed closely. That means, among other items, policies likely to affect where I have spent two-thirds of my professional life.
Barack Obama is now at the peak of things American.
He is not only the President, but also symbolizes much that has happened to the United States in its present era, which we can date from its serious turning toward civil rights in the mid-1960s.
Obama benefited personally from civil rights and affirmative action, and was sent to the presidency with, arguably, less preparation and testing in politics and government than any of his predecessors.
Also becoming popular in the 1960s was the term "imperial presidency." It referred to the pomp and ceremony that Richard Nixon sought to introduce, the considerable staff associated with the White House that has spilled over into other buildings, and the continued development of the country's global reach that came with World War II and what happened after.
Barack Obama expresses in his own statements and actions themes of post-1960s political correctness and a reluctance about military power. In his efforts to pull out of Iraq, downsize in Afghanistan, stay out of Syria, timidity with respect to North Korea and Iran--even with an earlier escalation in Afghanistan, activity in Libya, and the continued targeted killings in several countries--he expresses what has been building in the US since Vietnam with an acceleration after the second Bush's invasion and messy occupation of Iraq.
Obama's unchallenged skill is as a communicator, at least when standing in front of teleprompters. He also shows signs of considerable intelligence. One does not have to agree with everything or anything, but he seems to be learning about the world.
Pity that he did not know more before he reached the presidency.
Critics wonder if has he learned enough since being there.
No matter what he knows, he is at the head of institutions that pay great heed to presidential decisions, as well as whatever hints can be perceived in what he says, the comments and actions of his aides, and interpretations from a large number of commentators.
I may have missed something, but I credit him with avoiding recent expressions denying the problem of Islam. If so, he has come a long way from that Cairo speech that some see as one of the triggers for Arab spring and its multiple disasters.
To paraphrase Bill Clinton in his campaign against the first Bush, It is Islam, stupid.
To be sure, one must be careful.
Islam is a faith with competing doctrines and perspectives. In this--as well as in their range from those that are humane to those that are hateful of others--Islam resembles the doctrines of Judaism and Christianity. Moreover, the doctrines, per se, associated with its founders, are not solely responsible for the problems that Muslims present to the rest of us. Yet Islam is somewhere at the core of cultures that differ significantly from those now shared by the overwhelming majority of Jews and Christians. Islam and its cultures prevail throughout the Middle East, and are brought from there by migrants to Europe and America.
Both Jews and Christians had their wars among competing clusters of believers. Yet the last wars among the Jews were those smashed by the Romans. Christians finished with their religious wars about 300 years ago.
Muslims are still at it, most prominently in Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Sudan, and Egypt, along with various jihads directed against Jews, Christians, and other Muslims that we lump under the label of terror by Islamic extremists. It is not only the renewed warfare in recent years between Shi'ites and Sunnis, but a confusing multitude of other conflicts coming from competing ethnic groups, extended families, clans or tribes, and rival movements that pursue their own political or religious goals.
Recognizing all that should not lead us to overlook the reality that most Muslims may be peace loving, and have no desire to join the fighters who are threatening them as well as others.
Whatever Barack Obama has learned and however he has shifted during his presidency with respect to Islam, one issue that is especially worrying is the prominence that he gives to Palestine.
"America’s diplomatic efforts will focus on two particular issues: Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and the Arab- Israeli conflict. While these issues are not the cause of all the region’s problems, they have been a major source of instability for far too long, and resolving them can help serve as a foundation for a broader peace."
Elevating his need to provide the Palestinians with a state to the equivalent of keeping Iran's mullah's from having nuclear weapons suggests that he may not have learned what is essential.
One can hope for the best with respect to the talks between Israelis and Palestinians, but comments from the Palestinian leadership--including Mahmoud Abbas' recent speech at the UN General Assembly
--suggest that they are no closer to accepting decent offers as the best achievable than in 2000
. Israeli settlements, the wall, and the prisoners that appear so prominently in the statements of Abbas and others result from violence that targeted Israeli civilians, and has not ceased despite Abbas' claims of pursuing agreements peacefully.
Obama's doubters wonder if he realizes the depths of Palestinian rejectionism, along with widespread corruption in the Palestinian Authority, incitement from on high concerning the lack of a Jewish claim on Jerusalem or Israel's legitimacy, and the numerous armed groups always waiting for a chance to express themselves. Just this weekend a number of those groups sought to start something on the anniversary of the second intifada that began in 2000, and resulted in more than one thousand Israeli deaths and some 3,000 Palestinian deaths
Obama and his aides speak more often and more pointedly about Israeli settlements than any of the Palestinians' systemic problems. Obama's continued use of 1967 borders as the basis of negotiations suggests that he does not weigh the Arab aggression that produced the 1967 war and Israeli settlement.
One should also hope that the United States will do more to keep Iran from achieving nuclear weapons than was the case with North Korea. One can applaud the conversation between the American and Iranian heads of state. Jawing is better than warring. But one should also appreciate the suspicions expressed by Israelis and others about the Iranian strategy of stringing out talks while building the means for producing nuclear weapons.
The American President, as always, also has a lot of worries closer to home. His concerns for health insurance, gun control, and immigration reflect his primary constituencies, and cause him considerable trouble with intense opponents.
What happens in the rest of his term, and whoever wins the primaries and general election of 2016
will tell us if Barack Obama has managed to nudge America in directions that he prefers, or if he will only have served as a symbol that has gained praise and prizes from enthusiasts, but not much more.
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