Volume 3, Number 166
'There's a Jewish story everywhere'

Tuesday-Wednesday, August 4-5, 2009


Obama naive and heading for his predecessors' pitfalls

By Ira Sharkansky

JERUSALEM—I find myself defending Barack Obama, even though I think he is over his head, and on the way to embarrassment or worse in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Israel-Palestine.

The easiest part of this work leads me to ignore those who think him a Muslim anti-Semite, or a man whose elevation to the presidency depends on a forged birth certificate. They are close cousins of people convinced that Lee Harvey Oswald did not kill John F. Kennedy, and descendants of those sure that Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, the Rothschilds, or the Catholic Church engineered the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

The weightier discussions are with those who contend that Obama is naive, and wonder about his actions in countries neither he nor his advisors appear to understand.

I agree with the naive part, and try to explain why, nonetheless, here is another American president heading for trouble.

It comes with the job.

Like it or not, and I fear that presidents do like it, the president is Emperor of the World. The job derives from the country's power and resources, head and shoulders above anything comparable. When others want money, military or technical assistance, or cooperation on economic issues, they are most likely to approach the United States. American citizens, weaned on traditions that emphasize their country's moral leadership and superiority in just about everything, go once again to the pursuit of justice, glory, or salvation for themselves and others.

Barack Obama is stuck in the same vortex as George W. Bush and virtually every other predecessor back to William McKinley. Before then my sense of historical detail peters out.

Conditions have changed. The earlier presidents were moving toward greatness. It is from Franklin Roosevelt onward that American presidents have made the world shake in its boots.

There were exceptions. No one should accuse Warren Harding or Calvin Coolidge of aspiring to much of anything. Dwight Eisenhower deserves credit for restraint.

I restrain myself from claiming that none of the presidents did any good overseas. I am tired of trying to convince a neighbor that Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt were not anti-Semites

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who did everything they could to avoid helping European Jews. I give Jimmy Carter credit for nursing along the Egypt-Israel peace; in recent years he has been pathetic.

Even presidents who did well ended with stains on their reputation. FDR is blamed for Yalta and its aftermath, Truman went out with approval ratings similar to those of Jimmy Carter and GW Bush. Eisenhower had Gary Powers' U2. Bush's father left under the weight of "It's the economy, stupid." LBJ escalated and then quit on Vietnam. Nixon talked himself out of office. Clinton could not control parts usually kept private.

Reagan gets credit for ending the Cold War, but that depended a great deal on the Soviet Union imploding. Kennedy's death made him a hero, and left him with admirers convinced that he would ultimately have done a great deal.

Disappointments as well as aspirations come with the job. The record shows that presidents cannot overcome the antagonisms of the world, no matter how much their advisors have studied languages, cultures, and international politics. Domestic problems come from the complexity of the United States, all those interests and egos with access to Congress, and the temptations of presidential appointees to do well for themselves while doing good for the country.

Obama is destined to be associated with the greatest of aspirations. Some of them come from himself, with his rhetorical skills and theme of Change. Others come from his life story, and the expectations that it stimulates among his supporters.

The United States has a lot that invites fixing. The president is wise to begin with health, which is one of the most obvious shortfalls according to international comparisons. The best treatments are available in the United States, but the average American does not get as much as the average citizen in other well-to-do democracies. Obama's avowed downsizing in Iraq is admirable, but seems unlikely to undo the damage begun by his predecessor. His announced military aspirations for Afghanistan are not encouraging, nor are the beginnings of his political involvement in Israel-Palestine.

There are a number of blots on the United States' record that are not in Obama's game plan. These include the highest levels of civil violence, incarceration, and use of death as a penalty among the democracies. There is a damning record in what has been called the War on Drugs, which must be given some credit for those other miseries.

Hard to know if the American presidency is the world's best job, as measured by the money spent trying to acquire it, or one of the worst, as measured by the disappointments.
It is appropriate to end with best wishes. All of us stand to benefit or suffer from what comes out of the Oval Office, even if we prefer to be ignored by its occupant.

Sharkansky is professor emeritus of political science at Hebrew University. Email: msira@mscc.huji.ac.il

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