On Equivalency: Introducing the President of Newton’s Third Law of Motion…

Among the most hotly debated issues arising from President Obama’s speech in Cairo was whether or not he was implying a moral equivalency between the plight of the Palestinians and that faced by the Jews during the Holocaust. He and his team have denied this, but the juxtaposition of ideas in speeches does not occur ...

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Among the most hotly debated issues arising from President Obama's speech in Cairo was whether or not he was implying a moral equivalency between the plight of the Palestinians and that faced by the Jews during the Holocaust. He and his team have denied this, but the juxtaposition of ideas in speeches does not occur entirely by accident. Neither does the juxtaposition of stops during presidential trips.

That President Obama went from Cairo to Germany and from a day where the central message was associated with his outreach to the Muslim world to one in which his central message was a commemoration of the Holocaust was purposeful. Frankly, to me it was slightly grotesque. "Ok Jews, if Cairo gave you heartburn here's a little Holocaust for you. Feeling better now?

Among the most hotly debated issues arising from President Obama’s speech in Cairo was whether or not he was implying a moral equivalency between the plight of the Palestinians and that faced by the Jews during the Holocaust. He and his team have denied this, but the juxtaposition of ideas in speeches does not occur entirely by accident. Neither does the juxtaposition of stops during presidential trips.

That President Obama went from Cairo to Germany and from a day where the central message was associated with his outreach to the Muslim world to one in which his central message was a commemoration of the Holocaust was purposeful. Frankly, to me it was slightly grotesque. “Ok Jews, if Cairo gave you heartburn here’s a little Holocaust for you. Feeling better now?” 

Further, the message delivered by the president at Buchenwald, was as carefully calculated as all his messages are to resonate different ways with different audiences. Again, the juxtaposition of Buchenwald with Cairo colors how we hear words like:

This place teaches us that we must be ever vigilant about the spread of evil in our times. … We have to guard against cruelty in ourselves. …And it is now up to us, the living, in our work, wherever we are, to resist injustice and intolerance and indifference in whatever forms they may take and ensure that those who were lost here did not go in vain.”

Palestinians will undoubtedly greet those remarks as affirmations of their cause even as Israelis may greet them as a recognition of the lessons of the Holocaust. It is a deft politician who can use such a blend of language, setting and day-to-day context to deliver potent and seemingly supportive message to two deeply divided groups at the same time. 

Whose evil is he referring to? Whose cruelty? He dances with issues of equivalency but never gets so close as to actually embrace them.

This helps him with his outreach to the Muslim world because he seems to be saying the Israelis are hypocrites and while they have used the Holocaust for years to justify the existence of their state and the often tough tactics they have used in defense of it, perhaps we can now join together in using it against them. And for the Jews he says, I feel your pain. 

Indeed, on this trip, for all the talk of Muslims he has sought to take a page out of the playbook of a popular Christian icon, Santa Claus, offering something for everyone. For Muslims the speech, for Jews Buchenwald, for Palestinians tough talk about Israeli settlements, for Israelis talk of an unbreakable bond with the U.S., for anti-Iranians criticism of Ahmadinejad’s Holocaust denial, for Iranians acknowledgement of their “right” to a civilian nuclear program, for the American right attacks against “violent extremists,” for the left no use of George Bush’s favorite word “terrorism.” And so on.

Thus, while the equivalency debate may continue to boil for some time without resolution (because everyone can hear what they want to or what they fear to in his recent statements), it underscores that the message of this trip seems to be that there is no position so divided that the U.S. cannot be on both sides of it, no group pair of enemies so embittered that we cannot offer support to both sides. While I am willing to accept the Administration’s assertion that there was no implied equivalency between the actions of the Israelis against the Palestinians and those of the Nazis against the Jews, I am more troubled by the fact that the President or his team somehow think that leadership and diplomacy require that we view all issues as somehow equivalent…that there is no idea that cannot be bartered for another, balanced by a countervailing thought.

Obama on this trip has become President of Newton’s Third Law of Motion. For every action, for every word, there is an equal and opposite reaction…and the United States will embrace both. 

While some may hope to see this as the impartiality of the peacemaker, others might reasonably fear that it is the moral vacuity of a politician who seeks to be all things to all people. As my friend Tom Friedman often says, “just because George Bush or Dick Cheney says something doesn’t always mean it is not true.”  There are absolutes. There are countries with whom we have greater shared interests than others. There are crimes that are worse than other wrongs. To restore American leadership does not mean having everyone like us. We can take stands that are more difficult and controversial than the President’s statements today opposing Holocaust denial and genocide. (Though it might be worth exploring whether we are opposed only to genocide during or after the fact or whether we are willing to actually try to stop those who threaten it…as do the Iranians and the leaders of the militant wing of Hamas in their views toward the destruction of Israel. And by the way, by stopping them I don’t mean reprimanding them.)

The answer as to whether Obama ultimately lives up to our hopes or our fears come when his actions illustrate whether there are values we are not willing to negotiate, points that can’t be balanced, enemies we are willing to oppose, friends we are willing to stand by even when it is unpopular. Tell me the day that Obama is willing to make his first enemy in order to defend a deeply held principle and I will tell you the day he ascends from being a politician to being a statesman.

JENS-ULRICH KOCH/AFP/Getty Images

David Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017. Twitter: @djrothkopf

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