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A Few Notes on the Obama Interview

On Barak, the Palestinians, non-proliferation, and politics

Marc Tracy
March 02, 2012

There is so, so much to unpack from contributing editor Jeff Goldberg’s interview with President Obama, which dropped this morning, that the most sensible thing for me to do is to tell you to read the whole thing. I’ll just leave a few quick thoughts I had reading it:

Barak on board. Ethan Bronner also appeared to get this, reporting: “Others in Israel, including Defense Minister Ehud Barak, are more persuaded by Mr. Obama’s assurances.” And it seems like Obama is confirming it: “I think that Ehud Barak understands it,” he said. This was apparently not the case as recently as a month ago. Barak is the second-most important decision-maker when it comes to whether to attack Iran. He is a former prime minister and the most decorated soldier in Israeli history; despite being a former rival of his and a deeply unpopular politician, Prime Minister Netanyahu clearly sees having Barak as defense minister to be essential. If Barak is onboard Obama’s program, that’s a huge get in itself, and it makes one optimistic for Bibi.

Like they don’t exist. There is no mention of the Palestinians in the interview. They are on the back-burner until the Iranian issue settles down. The Palestinian issue, and whether Israel should freeze settlements, is in fact the thing critics of Obama could point to as something where he did not give Israel everything it wanted. This is a sign that Obama knows, for now, he can’t pressure Israel further on the Palestinians, because Iran is too important (and arguably an admission that he perhaps should not have pushed so hard in the first place, on the grounds that, perhaps, there would be a little more trust that would come in handy right now; not sure if I buy this, but it’s a thought). It’s also a sign to the Palestinians that, boy, did they miss their chance. Early in Obama’s administration, he actually managed to extract a 10-month West Bank settlement freeze. This came before the the Arab Spring and before the Iran issue truly heated up. President Abbas refused to meet with Netanyahu until the tail-end of those 10 months. What if he had met with him during the first or second month? We’ll never know; we’re likely not to see such an atmosphere again for awhile.

Nonproliferation geek. The first foreign-policy address of Obama’s presidency was a strident, borderline pie-in-the-sky call for a world with no nuclear weapons. During his campaign, securing loose nukes was a signature issue. Obama is unusually passionate about nonproliferation. And as I understand it, the first rule of nonproliferation is: no new members of the club. In the interview, Obama speaks extensively about the dangers of a nuclear Iran, not from Israel’s perspective, but from a nonproliferation perspective. If you don’t trust Obama to protect Israel, I still don’t see why you shouldn’t trust him to go all-out if necessary to prevent a nuclear Iran, because, for reasons unrelated to Israel, he loathes the idea of a nuclear Iran.

Water’s edge. Obama says:

Some of it has to do with the fact that in this country and in our media, this gets wrapped up with politics. And I don’t think that’s any secret. And if you have a set of political actors who want to see if they can drive a wedge not between the United States and Israel, but between Barack Obama and a Jewish American vote that has historically been very supportive of his candidacy, then it’s good to try to fan doubts and raise questions.

I’ve always thought the phrase “politics stops at the water’s edge” was very dumb. Different people and parties will have different views of proper foreign and security policy, and these should be debated openly. But if you’re talking about “politics” in terms of partisan scheming to win elections, then I understand, because there, unlike with domestic issues, you are potentially using electoral calculations to box the commander-in-chief in. I think most people who criticize Obama’s foreign policy aren’t playing politics, they’re debating issues. But, say, this Emergency Committee for Israel ad, that reads, “He says a nuclear Iran is unacceptable. Do you believe him? Do they?” with a picture of Ayatollah Khamanei and President Ahmadinejad isn’t designed to debate issues but to win votes in a way that forces Obama to enter political calculations into his national security policy (or not, and then potentially pay the consequences). We should reject this sort of thing.

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.