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PRUDEN: The late education of Barack Obama

- The Washington Times - Friday, March 22, 2013

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

A late education is better than no education at all, even for a president of the United States. The man who is a mighty legend in his own mind is even showing a little humility. Barack Obama, who usually finds someone else — usually George W. — to blame for every little thing that goes awry, finally admitted this week in Israel that even a synthetic messiah can make mistakes.

"I hope I'm a better president now than when I first came into office," he told reporters at one stop early in his trip. "I'm absolutely sure that there are a host of things that I could have done that would have been more deft and, you know, would have created better optics."Now if he'll only turn from an obsession with "better optics" to the serious statecraft at hand, we can all breathe a little easier. Not a lot, but a little.

There's no more crucial place to get a late education than in the Middle East, where graduate schools abound in every nook in the brambles and crannies in the ancient rocks. This is one place where making crucial and momentous decisions on the fly risks not only disasters, but invites catastrophes. This is no place for "a man without a foreign policy," as one commentator remarked, a man with only naive aspirations who operates on the notion that a chaotic and perilous world can be changed by "the transformative power of a good speech, but no clear path to achieve anything."

Perhaps the president burned a little midnight oil just in time. Vali Nasr, who was not so long ago a senior insider at the Obama White House, describes in his forthcoming book, "The Dispensable Nation," how decisions have sometimes been made. On Afghanistan, for example, he says Obama policymakers were determined not to make long-reaching strategic decisions but to satisfy shifting public opinion. These policymakers, according to an advance reading of Mr. Nasr's book, comprised "a small cabal of relatively inexperienced White House advisers whose turf was strictly politics."

Campaign politics Chicago-style, where every problem can be solved with a favor or an expertly placed shiv, clearly doesn't work in the Middle East. Mr. Obama arrived in Jerusalem just when the strategic interests of the U.S. and the strategic concerns of Israel seemed to be on a collision course. The president has been concerned with spreading cliches and bromides, the prime minister with survival. The photographs of Mr. Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, unarmed and smiling, were staged to show everyone that despite their history of hostile relations, they could, too, get along without taking or giving a punch.

"To sensation-hungry journalists," says Zalman Shoval, who twice served as Israeli ambassador to the U.S. and learned first-hand about the hunger of American journalists for sensations and irrelevancies, "the titillating relationship between Mr. Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu is a favorite topic." He wrote in The Jerusalem Post, "Though personal chemistry does sometimes play a role in international relations — either positive, like that between Golda Maier and LBJ and Richard Nixon, or negative, such as at least intermittently between Yitzhak Shamir and Bush 41 — what really mattered then, and does now, are the respective diplomatic, strategic and often political, on both sides, interests."Or, as Lord Palmerston, the prime minister, explained to Queen Victoria when she asked who were Britain's permanent friends, "nations have no permanent friends, they only have permanent interests."

Mr. Obama, making his first trip to Israel as president, had visited Arabia first, in 2009, bowing to kings and caliphs in the vain pursuit of "resetting" American relationships with Muslims. This time, he learned that the intractable problems of the Middle East require more than simple syrup. The president who imagines that his voice is the most reliable weapon in the American arsenal got tripped by his own tongue when he was called to account for the difference between what he said about settlements in 2009 and what he said about them this week in Israel.

Still basking in the bonhomie he enjoyed in Israel, he told Mr. Netanyahu that the Jewish settlements on the West Bank and in eastern Jerusalem were "not constructive or appropriate," but did not say, as he did in 2009, that building the settlements must cease. When he got to Ramallah the next day for a joint news conference with Mahmoud Abbas, he quickly saw that the Palestinian leader remembered the difference. Mr. Abbas launched into a familiar diatribe, the usual history of the world since the Flood. The settlements, he said, were "a hurdle and ignoble" and must be dismantled before there can be real progress toward "peace," meaning, no concessions, no return to the peace process.

The first lesson in Mr. Obama's late education is that "jaw, jaw" may be better than "war, war," but be careful to remember what you say, and where you said it.

• Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.

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