Questions for Barack Obama

Mark Perry

Bitter Lemons, January 15, 2009

We await the arrival of Barack Obama. Some believe he will work wonders. Others aren’t so sure. This uncertainty has forced the hand of our citizens, who scramble to shape the ground he will walk. It is under the guise of influencing public attitudes that commentators have most recently focused on crucial issues. But make no mistake: the audience is him. Nowhere is this more apparent than in our nation’s editorial pages, where Israel’s invasion of Gaza has eclipsed all questions. Rising unemployment? Collapsing industries? American deaths in Iraq? These are nothing compared to Israel, its war in Gaza and the rightness of its cause.

If Barack Obama ever doubted the threat that Israel faces, all he need do is read the Washington Post. In its pages, Ephraim Sneh (“Why Israel is Bombing Gaza”, January 1) accused Hamas of transforming Gaza into “a military base for Iran”. The same day, Robert Lieber (“Hard Truths About the Conflict”) described Hamas as a “radical, terrorist, adventurist, Islamist organization” whose defeat would “enhance the prospects for peace”. The barrage continued the next day: Charles Krauthammer (“Moral Clarity in Gaza”) defended the justice of Israel’s cause by noting that “for Hamas, the only thing more prized than dead Jews are dead Palestinians”, while Michael Gerson (“Defining Victory for Israel”) compared the intensity of Hamas’ attacks on Israel to “the London Blitz”.

Sneh, Lieber, Krauthammer and Gerson are welcome to their opinions, but the new president would do well to add perspective to their views. He will need to decide why, if Gaza is “a military base for Iran”, Hamas’ arsenal lacked Iran’s more robust weaponry. Or why, if Hamas is a “radical, terrorist, adventurist, Islamist organization”, the Palestinian people made them the majority party in the Palestinian parliament. Obama may well conclude that Hamas purposely set out to kill its own people, but if he does, that will more likely result from muddled thinking than “moral clarity”. Simple arithmetic might add perspective to the claim that living in Sderot is like living in England during the blitz–when 48,000 Londoners died. Then too the new president might note that Palestinians are not Germans–as Gerson implies.

The hallmark of liberal societies is that they require obeisance to the same principles they are, in extremis, loathe to adopt. The respect for human life is one of these. In times of war, even the most progressive societies arm teenagers to kill and call it just. There is a perceivable calculus in such acts: the more just the war the less need for explanation. Unjust wars, however, provide a fertile field for ideologues. In 1890, US troops slaughtered 200 Indian men, women and children at Wounded Knee. A court of inquiry determined it was “the fault of the Indians themselves” and the killers were awarded medals. So too now, it seems, the Palestinian dead in Gaza were the fault of Palestinians, regardless of who pulled the trigger. As one Israeli commentator notes: “It is not our soldiers who are aiming their guns at Palestinian children, but the leaders of Hamas who are using them as human shields and decoys, while they hide away in safe houses prepared in advance.”

If a Palestinian brigade were loose in Tel Aviv would we say: the Israelis must disarm? If Israeli corpses were piled high on Dizengoff Street would we say: it’s their own fault? If Israelis were fighting in their own streets would we say: for Israelis the only thing more prized than a dead Palestinian is a dead Jew? The requirement to make a conflict moral is a function of its ambiguity. If the reasons for the invasion of Gaza are so obvious then why do they need to be explained? Why, if it is so moral, are we demanding “moral clarity?” What does morality have to do with it? When a society is faced with extinction, discussions of morality are suspended. Roosevelt and Churchill were never asked to explain why they allied with Stalin; no explanation was necessary. Our war was not a matter of morality, but of survival. We killed Germans and we liked it. We did not say: we have nothing against the German people, but only their government. On the contrary. We incinerated Germans from great heights. When enough of them had died, we made them sign a document. Then we had a parade.

The last victory parade my country had was at the end of the first Gulf War. We celebrated the defeat of our enemy. But through the smiles and triumph a bitter taste emerged that has yet to be washed away. For we left behind in Najaf and Karbala and Basra a society ruined. Our victory led to the collapse of civil order: a reign of terror wrought by Saddam Hussein that destroyed hospitals, clinics, orphanages, mosques, that destroyed water, electrical and sewage plants, that led to widespread starvation, indifferent murder and rapine, blood reprisals, the vicious exaction of revenge for perceived betrayals–the loosing of society’s psychopaths. All of this while we stood silent. We did not say we were not responsible. We knew.

This is what Barack Obama may well face in Gaza on the day he becomes president. In those circumstances, questions of moral clarity–of who started this and why–will pale. The international community will have to respond. Will we say: it was their fault? Will we say: they deserved it?

Will Israel have a parade?

Mark Perry is a director of the Washington and Beirut-based Conflicts Forum and the author of Partners in Command: George Marshall and Dwight Eisenhower in War and Peace.


  1. Rashid Samnakay wrote:

    Barak O’Bama reads Washington Post, with out any doubt!
    That is why he maintains that ‘ the security of Israel is SACROSANCT for America’
    He must also believe, therefore that the land was given to Zionists by god, who forgot to give them the Title deed so the British and Americans (and Arabs) are helping god to fulfill the promise for the third (or fourth) time.

  2. revjobarker wrote:

    I am so grateful to find affirmations of the myriad of wonder Hamas has brought into my realm,
    One is afraid to be disappointed…but, as the horrors upon Gaza unfold, so does the essence of Hamas…the social workers, the ones who love people, and are capable of true consciousness for humanity…they know the whole of humanity as a concept…and, I believe, they want the same aspects of life for their people and others who wish to live in coherent, caring, humanitarian-focused coexistence w/ all humanity in goodness sake for all peoples…not just them..they are setting the course for all of us & the peoples of countries everywhere to urge co-existance humanitarian societies…for all the people…
    a little wisful, maybe, in this i indulge…

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