In Search of the Real Barack Obama

A conversation with Jeffrey Goldberg on why he thinks “the most Jewish president we’ve ever had” is having such a tough time in the Middle East.


The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, one of the most incisive, respected foreign policy journalists around, recently conducted an in-depth interview with U.S. President Barack Obama covering many dimensions of his administration’s Mideast policy. (Here is a link to the interview, well worth your time if you haven’t read it yet.) Later the same week in late May, Goldberg was in attendance when the commander in chief visited Washington, D.C.’s Adas Israel synagogue, again to help make the case for his Mideast policies and to discuss in depth his sometimes troubled relationship with Israel’s leadership.

The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, one of the most incisive, respected foreign policy journalists around, recently conducted an in-depth interview with U.S. President Barack Obama covering many dimensions of his administration’s Mideast policy. (Here is a link to the interview, well worth your time if you haven’t read it yet.) Later the same week in late May, Goldberg was in attendance when the commander in chief visited Washington, D.C.’s Adas Israel synagogue, again to help make the case for his Mideast policies and to discuss in depth his sometimes troubled relationship with Israel’s leadership.

Because Goldberg has had unique access to Obama and because he has insight into the region, I thought a conversation with him into what he learned from these exchanges would be engaging and worthwhile — and it certainly was.

David Rothkopf: I re-read your most recent interview with Obama. It is the first interview with the president in which you seemed to really express your discomfort with some of his views. In fact, in my view, it is one of the most candid and direct interviews I have ever seen done with him. What was your takeaway?

Jeffrey Goldberg: For me, it’s a mix — the main frustration, of course, is technical — there’s never enough time, and this president talks in perfectly formed paragraphs, and he’s given to filibustering on occasion, and it is, of course, hard to interrupt any president in the Oval Office. So most of the time I’m just worrying about getting in the questions I want answered. (Actually, by the way, it’s something deeper and more interesting than filibustering — I think he takes pride in deducing the next three questions in an interview, and so he answers these imagined questions before you get a chance to ask. The flummoxing part of this is that he’s very often right about the questions. Maybe it’s a lawyer trick, I don’t know.)

Obviously, there was also frustration for me with a number of his answers. Let me put the Israel issue aside, because, as I’ve written, I probably share a lot of his analysis of Israel’s core dilemmas. To put it crudely, the basic split on Obama is this: Is he destroying Israel, or is Israel destroying Israel? I go more with the latter than the former at the moment. If you believe the former, you despise him. If you believe the latter, you can’t quite believe that a) Israel’s government is carrying out policies that will eventually lead to the country’s dissolution, or wholesale isolation; and b) that more Israelis don’t understand that an African-American president who speaks feelingly about the moral necessity of Zionism is a friend, not a foe. But we can talk about that later.

On Iran, I was happy to hear him say he owns this process. It’s on him, and the fact that [Obama] recognizes that he will be blamed, even as a 75-year-old, if Iran gets a bomb, is actually reassuring.

But I also worry that he is unrealistic about aspects of the Iran deal, for a number of reasons — the way they will spend their money, his belief that his negotiators are dealing with rational people — rational in the way that you and I think of rationality — and so on. On Gulf issues, the hardest swallow is that he appeared to be warning Saudi Arabia of the consequences associated with gearing-up its own nuclear program, but he’s attempting to strike a deal with Iran that allows it, in essence, to maintain the infrastructure of a nuclear program. In other words, an ally is being treated more harshly, in this one way, than an adversary. Of course, his answer to this is that Saudi Arabia has America behind it, so it doesn’t need a nuclear program. Still, the optics are strange, and the unhappiness of certain Arab leaders is understandable.

On his general foreign policy disposition, I have to think more about it. I would say that I was surprised at the number of times he comes back to the civil rights movement as a touchstone.

DR: When I read your interview, I was struck by three things. First, by his use of the first person and the apparent weight he sees his personal views, role, or identity as having in U.S. foreign policy. The alternative would be to speak more often of U.S. national interests, for example. But he spoke to you of the Iran deal and said because his name is on it and because he will be associated with its success or failure, we should feel reassured, knowing that he does not want his reputation damaged. While this is a very human inclination — certainly how the deal affects his legacy must be a factor in his thinking — it seems less compelling to me than a substantive case for how or why the deal will work. The results matter more than the public perception of him, after all.

He also spoke of his feelings for Israel as a personal matter. Again, it is clear criticism he has gotten for his handling of the U.S.-Israel relationship stings him. And much of it is unfair, I think, given the role the Israeli government has played in all this. There are other examples in your transcript. So, the question is, did this strike you too? Do you see it as a sign of narcissism or over personalization? (I see it as a kind of natural extension of maintaining a campaign stance as he and his team have done throughout the presidency. He is the commodity. He is the product. He is the deliverable in many relationships. His view is what is central. His support or condemnation is seen as critical.)

JG: First things first. Let me put this apparently newsworthy line of the president’s — the one in which he staked his reputation on the long-term success of the (not-yet-finished) Iran deal — in context. This was something he said an hour into our conversation, as I was getting ready to leave the Oval Office. It was prompted by something I said, which is that I was feeling anxiety ridden about the coming Iran deal. (Yes, I was sharing my feelings.) Remember, we had spent a good deal of time in the interview reviewing some of the flaws in the prospective deal, or, at least, what I told him I understood to be flaws. He, of course, argued against the idea that the flaws I identified were flaws at all.

In any case, the line you’re paying so much attention to was just one statement among many. Most of the time — in this interview, in other interviews, and in speeches — Obama appears to be making a traditional national security case for the deal, so I wouldn’t read too much into this. In fact, as best as I can tell, this is the first time he’s made this statement publicly. I thought it was notable — and actually reassuring — that he was taking ownership of the deal 20 years into the future. Remember, one accusation made against him is that he’s kicking the can down the road — and that the next president, or the one after that, will have to deal with the fallout from this amoral and weak deal. But here he is, saying, no, this is on him, even after the formal agreement comes to an end.

What do I take from this? Two things — he’s doing the right thing by owning the future consequences of this deal, and also, he’s speaking in the practical language of politicians. The fact that he understands that it is his reputation is on the line, and not merely (“merely”) the national security of the United States, should provide some measure of comfort to those who think that he’s doing this for obtuse or abstract ideological reasons. I like it when a politician recognizes that his self-interest is tied up in the success or failure of a policy. It means they will be on the lookout for minefields. In this case, it suggests that Obama is watching the Iranians to make sure they’re not playing him, and it suggests he’s watching his negotiators to make sure they’re not going to strike a weak deal just so that they can claim (temporary) credit. I emphasize the word “suggests,” because I don’t know what is in his heart. Like you, and a lot of other people, I think that he and his administration want this deal a bit too much. But here was a bit of proof that he himself has some anxiety about going through with this deal.

On Israel, I agree with you that much of the criticism of Obama is unfair. Netanyahu, and Sheldon Adelson, have been engaged in a clear attempt to convince Israelis, and American Jews, that the Democrats are not their friends. This is both factually wrong and stunningly shortsighted. I don’t read as much as into his personalization of this, and other issues, as you do. Actually, I read a great deal into his personalization of the Israel issue, but not in the way I think you mean.

I’ve argued that Obama is in many ways the most Jewish president we’ve ever had. I don’t want to rehearse all of my proofs right now, but in essence, no president has been shaped to the degree that Obama has been shaped by exposure to Jewish mentors, Jewish teachers, Jewish fellow community-organizers, Jewish advisers, Jewish political supporters, Jewish writers, and Jewish thought. On the Jewish right, of course, Obama is thought of as something approaching an anti-Semite. He’s not, of course. What he is, is a philo-Semite. And this comes with its own set of problems and challenges. If you read between the lines, you’ll see that Obama is asking Israel (pleading with Israel, in fact) to be — not to put too fine a point on it — more Jewish, to live up to what he understands to be Jewish values. Obama’s impatience with Israel, and his dislike of Netanyahu, is rooted in the fact that he is a very specific kind of Jew – an intellectual, Upper West Side, social action-oriented, anguished-about-Israel liberal values Jew. This happens to be a common American Jewish archetype, more common, in fact, than the Sheldon Adelson archetype. As a person who so closely identifies with this Jewish archetype, Obama sometimes forgets that he is not, in fact, Jewish. It is remarkable, the degree to which he holds Israel to standards he doesn’t apply to other American allies. Doing this isn’t particularly fair, but it is particularly Jewish. You and I both know the argument — the Jewish people didn’t wait 2,000 years for a country so that it could be better than Syria. Obama holds Israel to high standards in part because he’s learned from [those] Jews who hold Israel to hold standards.

DR: A second question has to do with the president’s views regarding Iran and the Sunnis. In conversations I’ve had with several former senior Obama officials, they have all mentioned that he (and some others close to him) seem to believe that Iran is poised to change, indeed, as a country, wants to change, and that Iran’s leaders seek reform. He is an Iran-optimist in a region where everybody from the Israelis to the GCC would argue from experience that they are Iran-pessimists.

This extends to the view that the Iranians will not use much of any windfall they might receive re: sanctions relief to continue their regional efforts to spread their power and influence. A view which virtually all in the region with whom I have spoken characterize as “naïve,” and this includes the notion that the deal will give reformers more traction and thus help them gain sway in Iran’s government (which most Iran experts I’ve spoken to also view as unrealistic given the very firm grip on power that the theocracy has in Tehran).

In counterpoint, in the recent New York Times interview the president did with Tom Friedman, he spoke much less hopefully about the prospect for reform in Sunni states and effectively distanced himself from their current regimes. (Certainly he alienated himself from them with those comments and others.) Is that your takeaway too? Is it more nuanced than that? How?

JG: I’ve heard this theory before, in the Gulf, in Israel, and elsewhere, including Washington, but I have not gotten the impression, in my (limited) direct exposure to the president, that he’s as enthusiastic for a Shia-Sunni-U.S. realignment as his critics argue he is. That said, his frustration with Sunni states is obvious: The Gulf States, he argues, can’t wait anymore for American leadership, Egypt’s government is gratuitously cruel and provocative, and so on. I have also gotten the impression that he suspects the period of the Islamic Revolution in Iran — from 1979 until now — is aberrational, and that Iran will, sooner rather than later, come to its senses. He argues that he’s not banking on internal change as he negotiates the Iran deal, but he’s clearly hoping for such change, and he’s clearly hoping that the empowerment of the Rouhani/Zarif side of the ledger would mean good things for reform.

To me (like you), he’s overly hopeful on a number of issues, some of which I raised in my interview last week. For one thing, he argued that most of the windfall Iran will see as a result of this deal will be spent domestically. I’m worried, and others are worried, that the radicals will grab a big chunk of the post-sanctions proceeds and redouble their efforts to expand their influence across the region. I believe, based on past patterns of Iranian regime behavior, that my fear is more justified than his hope, but we’ll see.

It would be quite an achievement to bring Iran back into the column of law-abiding states, and to neutralize it as an adversary, and I’m sure that Obama, who, like any second-term president, is thinking about his legacy, would like to claim credit for such an achievement, especially given that his other goal in the Middle East — to bring about peace between Israelis and Palestinians — isn’t going to be happening anytime soon.

All that said, I do wonder sometimes about the almost automatic opposition to some of Obama’s foreign policy experiments. I myself often wonder why is it that we’re still such close friends with Saudi Arabia, a country with which we share 0.0 values? As far back as 2002, Obama was raising the same question. I think these are good questions to ask, but I think the danger comes when you begin to think that the enemy of my friend could be my friend.

DR: There is a thread of denial that runs through your interview with Obama. He speaks of Ramadi and the U.S. fight against the Islamic State (IS) and says he feels we are winning when in fact, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that at best we are in a stand-off and at worse (viz. Ramadi and Palmyra this past week) that we are losing ground. This is uncomfortably reminiscent of early George W. Bush and the U.S. military denial about how badly things were going in Iraq in 2004 to 2005. President Obama also blames the situation with IS on the Iraqis as though the United States has had no influence over affairs there.

It is totally reasonable to argue that the Iraqis bear the bulk of the responsibility for their own affairs. But when we accepted Nouri al-Maliki, did not push for more reform in Sunni provinces, chose to pull out early and not fight for the SOFA, denied the early gains being made by IS, and chose not to act, we oversold the potential effectiveness of a coalition that was a) not really much of a coalition in fact and b) did not involve the ground capabilities needed to make real gains — we must be seen to bear some responsibility if only for the ineffectiveness of our policies.

In other circumstances we have claimed Yemen as a success even as it was proven to be a disaster, argued we were helping Syria with aid when most of the aid was not getting through, and it was too little too late, argued that things were going better in Afghanistan than they really were and are, and argued that things were going better in the broader fight against terror than they were and are. Is this just politics in your view? Spinning? Or do you feel the president actually believes what he is saying and that perhaps critics don’t appreciate what is actually happening on the ground?

JG: The best possible way for the White House to spin his overly optimistic comments on Ramadi, Iraq generally, and Yemen (and so on) is to say that the president is not prone to panic; he understands this is a very long game, and there’s actually no reason to think that Ramadi represents an actual defeat, as opposed to a serious setback. I do tend to agree that in the current frenetic, bipolar media environment in which we exist, every negative development is automatically framed as a crisis.

All that said, long-term strategic decisions made by an administration eager to shed itself of responsibility for Iraq have influenced events on the ground hugely and negatively. (Similarly, as you mention, a hesitancy to engage the problems of Syria may have aggravated the situation there as well.) The president made reference in my interview to a concern I’ve had about his foreign policy — that underreaction to events can be almost as dangerous as overreaction. He showed in this interview that he at least understands this qualm. [Obama] also showed, implicitly, that he knows something else — that he’s under virtually no domestic pressure to raise the level of U.S. involvement in the Syria/Iraq theater or in Yemen. He’s made it clear in private conversations with people I know that he believes American voters are distinctly un-eager for a greater level of engagement in the Middle East.

DR: The president’s speech at your synagogue was extraordinary in how personal it was, how he essentially and literally sought to describe himself as a “member of the tribe.” That he argued that he understands American Jewish values better than Netanyahu is, in my view, probably true. But it also further personalizes the standoff between the two leaders. What drives the passion of his remarks in this area? Are you sympathetic to them? How did your congregation react? Is his position illustrative of a growing rift between the views of American and Israeli Jews? (As I have argued elsewhere… in my exchange with Michael Oren that appeared a while back in FP, for example.) What does it bode for the future of the relationship?

JG: Let me deal with your questions in order. What drives the passion is, as I’ve mentioned, a deep-seated belief that Israel should be better than it is. My theory of the Netanyahu-Obama relationship is that Obama looks at Netanyahu and asks himself, “What kind of Jew is this?” He’s accustomed to liberal American Jews, the anguished, over-intellectual types. For his part, Netanyahu looks at Obama and see.… I don’t know. Eldridge Cleaver? Jimmy Carter?

Is the belief that Israel should be better, and more refined, than its enemies, given that it is a Jewish state, unrealistic and unfair, given both the neighborhood and the nature of Israel’s enemies? Maybe. Is it also a feeling that many American Jews share? Yes. You can see that in the reaction to his speech at Adas Israel, which, by the way, is not some Birkenstock-y, Woodstock-y counterculture outpost. Adas Israel is mainstream and establishment, and some of the president’s biggest applause lines last Friday had to do with the necessity of a two-state solution and the moral case for Palestinian independence.

If current trends continue, a civil war is coming. It will be a very civil, civil war, but it will be a civil war nonetheless, between an American Jewry that has been nurtured on the values of the Civil Rights Movement, and an Israeli Jewry that has been taught, harshly, that the Middle East is not a place of mercy. Many American Jews are probably too rosy in their understanding of the possibilities of peace and reconciliation; many Israelis, particularly those who believe that the settlement project on the West Bank is a moral success, rather than a disaster of epic proportions, don’t understand that their country is slowly growing unrecognizable to American Jews, and to would-be members of the tribe — including the one in the Oval Office — as well.

DR: Do you believe that U.S.-Middle East policy during the Obama years has been successful? If so, by what metric? If not, where do you think the greatest damage has been done? Clearly, the president took his perceived mandate to get out and undo the wrongs of the George W. Bush era very seriously, and those two themes seem to have dominated his actions throughout the past six and a half years. Those and the related sense you mentioned before that America has no appetite for further war in the Middle East.

Furthermore, many of the battles currently being fought in the region have very little to do with America — our past great errors notwithstanding. In my view, these wars that have bogged us down are really the last wars of the 20th century and have really distracted us from the great emerging changes of the 21st century.

These are societies struggling with modernity, torn apart by major factions seeking to cling to old, outmoded, failed, and inequitable ways. Inroads of 21st century progress — whether in some Gulf States or Israel — are often seen as threats in that respect. And many of the governments have failed altogether at governance.

Having said all that, America’s relations with virtually every ally we have in the region are worse now than they were six years ago. Virtually every country is at war (except Oman). Our interventions are for naught. Terrorism is a bigger problem than ever — there are more terrorists, more attacks, more casualties, and the terrorist groups are spreading in new and more threatening ways. U.S. interests in the region — from the security of our allies to the potential threats emerging to Americans and America to our influence to our access to oil — are all in worse shape than six years ago. So, how’s Obama doing? How are the president’s views jibing with reality? Is he in your view learning?

JG: You want context? I’ll give you context. The Middle East sinks presidencies. That is the traditional role it plays in American politics. It undid Jimmy Carter’s presidency. It undid George W. Bush’s. It nearly undid Ronald Reagan’s. The only president in recent memory who has had a semi-successful encounter with the Middle East was George H.W. Bush, and his great victory over Iraq in Kuwait inadvertently laid the groundwork for both his son’s later difficulties and for the rise of Islamist extremism. (Remember, the stationing of American troops in Saudi Arabia was a predicate act for Osama bin Laden, and those troops were stationed in Saudi Arabia to defend it from Saddam Hussein after George H.W. Bush chose not to remove him from the scene. I’m not blaming Bush, of course, just noting that each presidential decision in the Middle East comes with downstream consequences we sometimes can’t even imagine.)

So, when I look at this question (and I’m spending a lot of time looking at it, because I’m writing a book about the encounter between American presidents and the Middle East), I try to understand Obama’s problems in at least a 50-year context. Compared to other presidents, Obama is not having a completely miserable experience in the Middle East. By any other standard, he’s having a fairly miserable experience in the Middle East. Let’s look at the four main Middle East-related objectives delineated by his administration at the outset of his first term. Obama came into office hoping to a) pull the U.S. out of Iraq; b) end the war responsibly in Afghanistan while refocusing U.S. efforts in the fight against al Qaeda; c) devise a new strategy that would bring about the birth of a Palestinian state and an end to the Israeli-Arab crisis; and d) engage Iran, neutralizing it (at the very least) as a foe of the United States.

I’ll take these from last to first. Iran, of course, is still a live issue. The president will probably get his nuclear deal — this could be a very good thing for the region, but only if it leads to broader moderation on the part of the Iranian regime. I have very serious doubts, as you know. The goal of an arms control agreement should be to enhance stability. I’m afraid that this deal might empower the worst elements of the Iranian regime, which will seek to further destabilize the Middle East. But, again, this chapter isn’t written yet, and we won’t know for a while if Obama’s gamble will succeed. On the matter of the Israel-Palestine dispute, the administration has failed, just like every other administration before it. I don’t blame American presidents for their inability to fix this problem, because I’ve come to see the problem as more-or-less unfixable. (You’ve caught me in a pessimistic mood.) Afghanistan: I think Obama had the tragic sense, early on, that there was no possibility of nation building in Afghanistan, and so he focused his efforts on decimating al Qaeda. He has had obvious achievements in this realm, but al Qaeda still exists, and al Qaeda-related or inspired groups are proliferating.

He could not solve the Afghanistan problem in part because he could not convince, cajole, or pressure Pakistan to play a positive role there. Again, Afghanistan has confounded outsiders since the 1850s and earlier, and so it is not remarkable that Obama has failed to ameliorate the situation. On Iraq, he did succeed, for a while, in bringing about an end to an American military presence there, but in his eagerness to carry out his mandate (I do think this was an actual, as opposed to perceived, mandate from the American voter), he helped to create a vacuum that was filled by the Islamicized Baathists of the Islamic State.

The Arab Spring, of course, came about when Obama was already in office, and we could spend 10,000 words unpacking the various contradictory decisions made on the fly by the administration, including those that concerned the handling of Hosni Mubarak’s ouster, the rise (and fall) of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Libya intervention. Let me focus, though, on the Obama response to the Syrian revolution. Last year, in an interview, I asked Obama if he should have provided greater help to the Syrian opposition in 2011, when the revolution first erupted, before it was hijacked by foreign Islamists. He made, in response, a now-familiar argument, that the revolution — initiated by carpenters, dentists, farmers, and the like — could not have succeeded against the Bashar al-Assad regime, and its allies in Hezbollah and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps. He might have been right, but I still think this is a classic example of the perils of underreaction. We will never know the truth, but we do know that the perception of American irresolution hasn’t helped matters.

Here’s the central issue: Obama, in part because he was so hesitant to engage in Syria, may leave office in 2017 with broad swaths of the Middle East under the control of IS or IS-style groups, and with an empowered, but not more moderate, Iran, one that is eager to foment Sunni-Shia tension in order to advance its hegemonic goals. Again, I want to be careful about blaming American presidents for conditions in the broader Middle East (the area stretching from Pakistan and Afghanistan to Tunisia and Morocco) because I believe that many of these problems are beyond fixing, but unless IS is stopped, and unless Iran both adheres to the terms of the nuclear deal and moderates its behavior, Obama’s successor will inherit problems as serious as the problems he inherited.

One more thing, and this is both important and mitigating: Something that is not happening in the Middle East right now is that American soldiers are not dying. For the American people, this is of paramount importance, and this should count as an important Obama success. We tend to forget about this one when we discuss American policy in the Middle East. The American voter seems to be exhausted by the Middle East and its unsolvable problems, and Obama is under virtually no pressure domestically to dive further in to the mess.

DR: Where do you see the next 18 months going? Is the U.S.-Israel relationship destined to be on hold or in the deep freeze for the remainder of the Obama years? Our relations with traditional allies in the Arab world the same? Is it likely that at the end of Obama’s term the one true big winner of the Obama years in the Middle East will be Iran — the country that gained the most from his policies both directly (through sanctions relief and restoration in credibility) and indirectly (through America stepping back and contributing to factors allowing it to gain regionally)?

JG: Both the United States and Israel seem eager, at the moment, to prevent further deterioration in the relationship. President Obama, as I have argued, wants to be understood as a philo-Semitic, pro-Israel president, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is still sensible enough to know that further gratuitous provocation of the American president (and his party) doesn’t serve his country’s interests. (Whether the people around Netanyahu know this is another question.) But anything can happen. Israel could put forward an assertive new settlement plan that causes Obama to see red, for instance.

In the matter of the Gulf States, it also appears as if the president is trying, with, so far, some success, (not a huge amount, but some) to ameliorate the fears and worries of our traditional allies. Ultimately, as you suggest, the future of the relationship between the United States and its Arab allies will depend on the answer to the question: Is Iran the big winner of the Obama era? If Iran intensifies its anti-Sunni activities once it receives its windfall from sanctions relief, then there will be much bitterness among Arab leaders directed at Obama (and much work to be done by the next president). If Iran moderates itself and becomes a more responsible global player, then Obama will be able to tell the Arabs that the risk was worth it. Again, I’m not hopeful that Iran is going to become more moderate in the way it engages its neighbors.

DR: I ask these questions because the underlying tension I perceive in your earlier answers is one between good intentions and results. The Obama you describe seems smart, in the midst of struggling to do the right thing — a man who devotes real care and attention to the cultivation of his conscience, but this does not seem to be producing great results in the region. Or is it something else in your view? Am I missing something?

Further, the tension between “good Obama” and “bad results” seems to suggest that the hardened realism you attribute to Israeli Jews in their rift with American Jews (or Gulf leaders in their distrust of Obama) suggests that those who live in the Middle East seem to understand the reality (their own results notwithstanding) better than the U.S. president. Might a bad Obama record in the region be the death knell for idealism and mark a return to U.S. policies in which we embrace autocrats and just hope they keep a lid on things by hook or by crook? Or is he tapping into changes stirring in the hearts of regional populations that the leaders there may be missing?

JG: Let me start small, with a specific answer about one particular question. If the question is: Who better understands Israel’s existential dilemma, Benjamin Netanyahu or Barack Obama, I would have to give Obama quite a bit of credit here. Last year, in an interview I conducted with Obama, he wondered aloud about the absence of an alternative to a two-state solution. “[N]obody has provided me with a clear picture of how this works in the absence of a peace deal,” he said — the “this” referring to the goal of maintaining Israel as a Jewish democracy. “If that’s the case…if there’s something you know you have to do, even if it’s difficult or unpleasant, you might as well just go ahead and do it, because waiting isn’t going to help. When I have a conversation with Bibi, that’s the essence of my conversation: If not now, when? And if not you, Mr. Prime Minister, then who? How does this get resolved?”

Netanyahu is correct to note that the region is in turmoil and that the Palestinian polity is weak. But this shouldn’t stop him from creating conditions on the ground — the removal of far-flung settlements, for instance — that could give hope to moderate Palestinians by showing that the Israelis are committed to eventually allowing them to create a state. What Obama sees — and what frustrates him (and a large number of American Jews) — is an Israel that is burying its head in the sand. There is still time to arrange the birth of a Palestinian state in an orderly fashion, in a manner that allows the Israelis to set many of the security terms of this new state’s creation. No good can come of this continued waiting. There is a tipping point ahead — one day soon, Israel will be defined across most of the world as an apartheid state, unless it steps away from the status quo. So, to the question of whether Obama doesn’t understand Middle East reality, I would answer that, in the case of Israel, he is grappling with some of the core challenges to its existence, challenges Netanyahu is avoiding.

This is not to say that the Obama administration hasn’t made mistakes in its management of the Israel file or that the president has a sufficiently cynical, or realistic, view of the nature of those who oppose Israel’s existence. As a hyper-rational person, he doesn’t seem to fully understand — as was on display in my latest interview with him — that anti-Semites actually believe the dangerous and idiotic things they say.

Concerning America’s troubled, and troublesome, Arab allies, you write: “Might a bad Obama record in the region be the death knell for idealism and mark a return to U.S. policies in which we embrace autocrats and just hope they keep a lid on things by hook or by crook?”

Well, it looks to me that we are already embracing autocrats, hoping that they keep a lid on things. The Camp David summit was all about making a group of potentates feel good about the state of their friendship with America. In Egypt, the United States is moving toward a fuller reconciliation with an autocratic government as well. All of this is very difficult for Obama, who has been on record since at least 2002 questioning why the United States does so much to prop up “so-called” allies in the Arab world. He has made the correct observations about the Arab Spring, I think: Democracy does not naturally follow popular upheaval in the Arab world, just as it did not follow the removal of an odious dictator in Iraq. And so his distaste for anti-democratic, sometimes-despotic regimes is outweighed by his understanding that the forces that would replace these regimes are far worse than what he has today.

Photoillustration by FP

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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A girl stands atop a destroyed Russian tank.
A girl stands atop a destroyed Russian tank.

Russia’s Boom Business Goes Bust

Moscow’s arms exports have fallen to levels not seen since the Soviet Union’s collapse.