I know I am going to take some heat for some of what I am about to write. However, a theme in President Obama's speech in Cairo this week refuses to fade from consciousness and gives me the courage to proceed:
It is time to discuss in public what everyone acknowledges in private.
President Obama was referring to the inevitability of a two-state solution to the Middle East conflict, requiring Arab nations to accept Israel's right to exist as an independent Jewish State and requiring the Israelis and their supporters to accept the establishment of a sovereign Palestinian State. The president was stating the obvious. There can be no peace in the Middle East without such bilateral acceptances.
Unfortunately, until now, no would-be mediator has been successful in pursuing the obvious. By voting for change, we elected a president who is willing to shout to the world that the Emperor wears no clothes and to force all parties to the debate to move on to a level of negotiations that is not based on unrealistic underlying assumptions used as if they were legitimate bargaining chips. The Arabs cannot extract concessions from the Israelis by agreeing to recognize Israel. The Israelis cannot take credit for agreeing to an independent Palestine on their border. After President Obama's speech in Cairo, those entitlements became the starting blocks of the negotiations, not interim goals to be achieved. In effect, President Obama was telling the parties, if we cannot move on from those starting blocks, we can't move on. No starting blocks, no race.
What a difference an administration makes! The eight years that ended on January 20, 2009 were marked by public policies, or a lack thereof, that were first vetted with an eye towards the political implications. Politically untenable positions were generally discarded. Worse, the politics pursued were those of a right-wing ideology. The right-wing base that financially supported, and vociferously shored up, the last administration had effective veto power over any proposal that did not fit within their view of America.
Consider the debate over immigration policy. President Bush's rare practical position that recognized that we were not going to be able to return 11 million "illegal" residents from Mexico as a starting point of immigration reform was shouted down by the Far Right, accusing the president of promoting a general amnesty for Mexican scufflaws and their nursing children. The president's proposal to initiate immigration reforms was merely stating publicly what everyone acknowledged privately. Eleven million illegals were staying put. But W lacked the independence, credibility and leadership capability to dismiss his opposition.
Not so with the new president as he addressed the world. He signaled that from now on, there would be honest discussions exploring peace in the Middle East. Not "easy", "honest". He did so without clearing his remarks with other members of his political party. He proclaimed the obvious regardless of the political consequences he knew would follow from the response of the American-Israeli Political Action Committee (AIPAC). He insisted that Hamas relinquish its policies of hatred and violence against Israel that the organization has so effectively utilized to maintain political control and distract its constituency from demanding a government that addresses basic societal needs.
The implications of such forthrightness are striking. I am not naive enough to think that political considerations are ignored in the Obama Administration. But the willingness to do the right thing in spite of anticipated political fallout, and the demonstration of faith that the American public has the maturity and intelligence to respond to an honest discussion of the challenges facing us, gives me much hope for the future of our country with President Obama at the helm.
Our new president personifies leadership, not gamesmanship. He relies on thoughtfulness and pragmatism, not demagoguery. He has taken some very tough positions.
Witness the shockwaves resulting from the paradigm shift in the American auto industry implemented by President Obama. There is a lot of short term collateral damage to working class families all across the country as a result of the Obama Administration's gameplan for "saving" General Motors. In fact, I am not sure I agree with everything that has been done. But, and it is an important "but", I am willing to be proven wrong because I have a sense that the Obama Administration is addressing a very difficult situation with the best of intentions and not as a means of furthering a political viewpoint.
Nothing comparable to The Patriot Act has been generated in response to the threats to our national security posed by imminent financial collapse. Public debate has not been muzzled. Government decision-making has been significantly more transparent than ever before.
We finally have a president who, faced with unprecedented challenges on every front, realizes he does not have the luxury of either time or multiple chances at success to allow himself to squander opportunities to find solutions. He will not engage in doublespeak; he will not ignore in public what "the deciders" acknowledge in private. The president's resulting popularity, even in these difficult times, shows just how hungry Americans are for such rare candor.
In terms of Middle East peace, it will take many more speeches. It will take international acceptance of President Obama's pragmatic, wise, no nonsense approach. There are parties at the negotiating table whose personal agenda is enhanced by the continuation of the hostilities. But, by continuing to discuss in public what everyone acknowledges in private, the larger Israeli and Arab communities can now bring pressure to bear on the peace process and use the growing weight of public opinion to fashion a more selfless resolution.
To be continued . . .