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Obama Brings His Theology to the Middle East

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By Ira Chernus

Crossposted on Tikkun Daily

The real Barack Obama was clearly on display in his quick trip to Israel and Palestine. Wherever you are on the political spectrum, he always gives you something you want with one hand, while he takes away something equally important with the other hand.

When Obama spoke in Jerusalem, I cheered as loudly as the audience of liberal Jewish students who shared my views, which the president voiced so eloquently: The occupation is really bad for Israel; Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu must lead his nation to a just peace with an independent, viable Palestinian state.

I cheered most when I heard Obama say words that I never thought I’d hear an American president say in Israel: The occupation is not merely harmful to Israel’s national interests, it’s downright immoral: “It is not fair that a Palestinian child … lives with the presence of a foreign army that controls the movements of her parents every single day. … It is not right to prevent Palestinians from farming their lands … or to displace Palestinian families from their home.” Bravo!

But Obama is no starry-eyed idealist. He crafts such idealistic words for practical political purposes. In this case he was pushing Israeli liberals and centrists further toward the peace camp, widening the gap between them and the Netanyahu-led right wing. Down the road, he can use the political tensions he stirred up to move Israel toward the kind of peace agreement he wants.

The pundits who declared him finished with the peace process were obviously wrong. (Even Thomas Friedman can make mistakes.) The president gave me something I want very much: A promise of more American pressure on Israel to make a just peace, for moral as well as practical reasons.

Predictably, though, at the same time Obama took away something equally important: his demand that Israel stop the main roadblock to peace, its expansion of settlements in the West Bank. Instead he fell back on the vague language we’ve heard from many presidents before: “We do not consider continued settlement activity to be constructive, to be appropriate”; “Settlement activity is counterproductive to the cause of peace.”

In Ramallah, standing alongside Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas, Obama called the settlements merely an “irritant.” He urged Abbas not to use settlements as an “excuse” to refuse direct negotiations.

There’s some evidence that the PA had already received and perhaps accepted this message from Washington. Talking pointsprepared for Abbas suggested that he should agree to negotiations after getting only private assurances from Netanyahu on stopping settlement expansion. How much could those assurances be worth?

Back down on moral principle and tolerate an evil for the sake of a greater good: That seems to be Obama’s message now on the settlements. As usual, the president gives and at the same moment takes away. Does it make him just another crass politician, maneuvering to score the next victory, bereft of any principle?

Not necessarily. Biographies of Obama suggest that, from his college days, he has been a devotee of a consistent set of principles: the script laid out over 80 years ago by the famous theologian Reinhold Niebuhr in his classic book, Moral Man and Immoral Society — though Niebuhr supposedly said, years later, that he should have called it “Immoral Man and Very Immoral Society.”

Indeed. Because Niebuhr’s basic point is that we are all doomed to tolerate and even embrace evil. We are all selfish, always out to get more than the other guy, simply because we are human. It’s the old story of original sin — the myth of Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit, expelled forever from paradise — dressed up in 20th century clothing.

If individuals are bound to be nasty and brutish to each other, it’s worse in relations among nations, Niebuhr argued. Never expect anything from a nation except greed and lust for power. Even on the rare occasion that a nation pursues a relatively good aim, it’s bound to use evil means. And that includes Niebuhr’s homeland, the good old US of A.

It pained him to see his theology become the dominant narrative of cold war America with one huge twist: U.S. presidents and policymakers exempted America from the universal stain of sin — at least in public, where they insisted that America would, and could, do no wrong.

In private, the cold warriors acted upon (and occasionally admitted to each other) the principle that Niebuhr said all nations will inevitably use: accepting evil means to pursue even the best goals. The 21st century warriors against terrorism, Democrats as well as Republicans, have followed the same Niebuhrian script. Now Obama has brought it to the Middle East.

In fact Americans have always practiced such hypocrisy, Niebuhr argued, although they generally denied it and claimed that their nation was as pure as Eden. That’s The Irony of American History(as he titled his other most famous book).

Obama surely understand this irony very well. He never quite comes out and admits that he is embracing evil for the sake of a greater good. But he doesn’t boast of America’s perfect purity in the way the early cold warriors, or his predecessor George W. Bush, did.

Obama addresses almost every issue in the Niebuhrian way he spoke of the settlements: “The politics there are complex … It’s not going to be solved overnight,” because there is no absolute good or evil; we always deal in shades of gray; we all make compromises; sooner or later, we all become hypocrites.

But I wonder whether Obama ever stops to think about the other irony of American history, since Niebuhr became a guiding light of its foreign policy.

When he wrote Moral Man and Immoral Society, Niebuhr thought he was showing a better path toward hope and change than the idealistic Christian liberalism of the Progressive era. You’ve got to get your hands dirty in the political process if you want to improve the world: That was the essence of the myth that he intended to create.

History played a trick on him, though — just as his own theory predicted. The main message that American readers and leaders took from his book is that the world is a dangerous place; everyone is out to get us; self-protection is the name of the international game; so do evil unto others before they do it unto you.

This is the foundation of what I call the Americanmythology of homeland insecurity. It’s the narrative that dominates U.S. foreign policy — and Israeli foreign policy too, though the Zionists didn’t need Niebuhr to teach them. They developed their own myth of insecurity before he ever wrote a word.

The same narrative dominated Obama’s rhetoric in Israel. He wrapped his calls for peace in endless recitation of the supposed dangers that Israel faces, dangers that are largely imaginary. He may have meant it as a pragmatic move, to convince Israeli Jews that he really does care about their fate.

But irony always wins in the end, Niebuhr taught. So Obama’s powerful reinforcement of Israel’s insecurity is likely, in the end, to undermine his call for Israel to compromise and take risks for peace. As long as the Israeli Jews, and their supporters here in the U.S. (mostly gentile conservatives), believe that they are as endangered as Obama says, they are not likely to take any risks at all. They are more likely to do evil to others, because their fearful imaginings tell them that others are about to do evil to them.

Myths of insecurity always block the path to hope and change. Barack Obama, the faithful Niebuhrian, always gives hope and change with one hand and takes it away with the other.

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