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In a 1936 essay called The Stupidest Thing, GK Chesterton prefigured Obama perfectly: “Any man at any moment may do a stupid thing. It is the rare privilege only of a gifted few to do about six stupid things at once. It is reserved for really fine farcical heroes, like the heroes of the superhuman farces of PG Wodehouse; the sort of stories in which a man throws away a lighted cigar, which at one and the same moment sets fire to his father’s most favourable will, spoils his fiancee’s beauty, breaks the vase he might have sold for a thousand, sets the hotel on fire involving damages in millions and singes his sister’s dog, so that it yelps and bites her wealthy suitor in the leg.”
At the fag end of his presidency, Obama reversed the longstanding US position of vetoing wildly one-sided anti-Israel resolutions in the UN Security Council. Instead he passed a resolution claiming that every Israeli who lives anywhere beyond the 1967 ceasefire lines is an illegal settler, and that ludicrously blames Israel for the failure to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, and by implication puts that dispute at the centre of the Middle East’s woes. This was followed up by Kerry’s last big speech as Secretary of State, 70 minutes spent lambasting Israel and the settlements.
This is truly an epic cluster mess that will have doleful consequences for a long time. Malcolm Turnbull rightly, and courageously, called out the resolution as “one-sided” and “deeply unsettling” and said, further, “Australia stands with Israel. We support Israel, the only democracy in the Middle East.”
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop made equally strong statements. She and the Prime Minister displayed moral clarity and strategic sagacity.
Obama, on the other hand, emerges as his own kind of post-truth president, his undergraduate certainties and left-liberal pieties utterly undisturbed by eight years of Middle East reality. To believe, while hundreds of thousands die in Syria, civil war rages in Iraq, Yemen and Libya collapse, and the sectarian Shia-Sunni hostility rips through the region, that Israel is somehow the central issue in the Middle East is irrational, impervious to facts.
Kerry’s speech, in which he condemned the make-up of the Israeli governing coalition, was sharply criticised by British Prime Minister Theresa May, who issued a statement saying: “We do not believe it is appropriate to attack the composition of the democratically elected government of an ally.”
Although Britain voted in favour of the UN resolution, May also said she did not think it was sensible to focus on one issue such as settlements to the exclusion of other issues.
So Obama finishes office with the governments of the US’s two closest allies in the world, Australia and Britain, condemning him. Obama always damages and offends America’s friends while he never lays a glove on America’s enemies. He is that most horrible of strategic creatures, an impotent enemy and a dangerous friend.
Consider Egypt. Nothing that Obama has done in the past eight years has helped Egypt at any point.
Egypt, the giant of the Arab world, is perhaps Washington’s most important Arab ally. Egypt has a peace treaty with Israel that makes an immense contribution to stability in the Middle East. At the urging of Israel, and of the team around president-elect Donald Trump, due to be inaugurated in two weeks, Egypt withdrew its sponsorship of the resolution in question. Any semi-responsible, indeed broadly adult, administration in Washington would have decided at that point to make sure the resolution didn’t pass, so that the government in Cairo would not be embarrassed.
We don’t hear much about Egypt at the moment because the military government has stabilised the situation. But Egypt’s economy is challenged, and it is involved in its own deadly fight with Islamic State-affiliated terrorists in the Sinai. The broad future of Egypt is deeply uncertain.
Almost nothing in the Middle East — beyond the terrible humanitarian emergencies of right now, none of which involves Israel — should be of more long-term importance to Washington than promoting economic development in Egypt, and the simultaneous gradual development of institutions that might in time support a more representative political system.
But that, of course, is the challenging business of long-term, patient, even quiet, strategic purpose, and those words are entirely foreign to Obama.
Instead, by getting New Zealand to substitute for Egypt as the resolution’s sponsor, and then organising for the resolution to pass, Obama has actually penalised the government in Cairo for being a friend of the West and a force for moderation.
Cairo was in an impossible situation. Trump was begging it not to sponsor the resolution, the Obama administration was ensuring the resolution passed. If Obama had one speck of the statesman about him, removing that dilemma from Egypt would have outweighed all other considerations. Now Egypt’s government will be accused of being a plaything of the Western powers by its internal and regional enemies, who will weld both extremist Islamism and paranoid nationalism into their charges against Cairo.
And just for good measure, New Zealand will certainly, and deservedly, be damaged in its relations with the new Trump administration.
This is all a pretty good day’s work for Obama.
Many people have commented that the resolution encourages the worst tendencies within Palestinian politics. Why compromise on central issues like territorial dispositions — even though every serious player, even the Obama administration in its lucid moments, recognises that such compromise is necessary — when the UN promises you everything?
Tony Abbott made a good moral case against Australian taxpayers giving money to the Palestinian Authority when that authority pays pensions to the families of terrorists as a reward for their terrorism, including one who stabbed to death a 13-year-old Israeli girl.
Nonetheless, there is a reasonable realpolitik case for Canberra maintaining an extremely modest aid effort for the Palestinian territories, as a bit of diplomatic cover for Australia in the UN and the like. While Obama remains, I am sure Canberra will make better judgments than Washington.