Saturday, June 7, 2008

On Understanding the Damage before Trying to Control It

Whether or not Barack Obama reads Al Jazeera English (or has an aide that tracks all of their stories that may pertain to his campaign), he seems to have gotten the message that his "AIPAC debut" was not the best first step towards furthering peace in the Middle East. For one thing Al Jazeera English ran a report of his attempt at damage control through an interview on CNN. Unfortunately, the sort of language he used did not serve his goal very well:

Well, obviously, it's going to be up to the parties to negotiate a range of these issues. And Jerusalem will be part of those negotiations.

That use of the adverb "obviously" (which was probably the most notorious adverb of my eight years of undergraduate and graduate education at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology) hit me as particularly galling. Obvious to whom? To use the sort of convoluted language that ran through the halls of MIT, about the only thing that is obvious is Israel's refusal to recognize that negotiation over Jerusalem is an obvious part of the "Middle East peace process!" Even worse is that, as the Al Jazeera English report reminded us, the United States Government has legislation on the books that reinforces the obviousness of this non-negotiability:

The US Congress passed a law in 1995 describing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel that said it should not be divided.

This report also demonstrates that, in the face of criticism from both Hamas and the Palestinian Authority (not known for agreeing on very much, if anything, as I pointed out on Thursday), Obama may have done little with his CNN time other than dig himself deeper into the hole he dug at AIPAC:

Obama told CNN that dividing Jerusalem "would be very difficult to execute".

"And I think that it is smart for us to - to work through a system in which everybody has access to the extraordinary religious sites in Old Jerusalem, but that Israel has a legitimate claim on that city."

That adjective "legitimate" is almost as damaging as "obviously." At the risk of sounding too reductive, I would posit that the entire question of peace in the Middle East hinges on establishing criteria for legitimacy that all conflicting parties can live with, if not embrace passionately.

Now I think it is important to observe again that my criticism of Obama is far from a suggestion that John McCain is doing any better. He dug a pretty deep hole in his AIPAC performance; and my guess is that he is still not aware that, from the perspective of relations between the United States and the rest of the countries in this world, damage control may be in order. Rather, my criticism of Obama emphasizes a point I made almost a year ago, when the media were just beginning to take him seriously. What may matter most in his effective performance as President will most likely be a matter of how he "provides himself with skilled advisors and knows how to draw upon the advice they provide." To illustrate my point, I offered, as an example, Dennis Ross, who acquired so much expertise in statecraft during the time in the Clinton Administration that he may well have written the most useful book on the topic. Since much of that book was informed by personal experiences in the Middle East, it may well be time for Obama to first read Ross' book and then have a serious sit-down with the man himself. If he is serious about damage control, this could well be the best way for him to show it.

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