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Elliot Abrams, who served in foreign policy positions for Reagan and the Bushes, reviews Michael Oren’s book Ally. It is a long read, but provides an ‘inside baseball’ look at relations with one of our most important allies.
… Presumably Netanyahu decided not to send a Likudnik to Washington in 2009 because in the newly elected Congress, both houses had strong Democratic majorities and the new president was a liberal Democrat himself. The choice of Oren was a gesture and a hope: Dispatch an academic, an intellectual, who might develop better relationships with Democratic politicians in Congress, with Obama and his new team, with the liberals (many of them liberal Jews) in the media, and with the overwhelmingly liberal American Jewish community.
Oren has now told the tale of his four years in Washington in Ally: My Journey Across the American-Israeli Divide. (Random House, 432 pages) The first thing to say about the book is that it should not have been published—not before January 2017, that is. Oren writes about Netanyahu, Obama, and many other people who are still in power, and he writes about issues and problems over which they are still fighting. Revealing such matters while Netanyahu and Obama are still in office complicates their relationship. …
… Ally is very well written, engaging, and enormously interesting. Beginning with his own youth in New Jersey, and going chronologically through his aliyah to Israel, education, military service, and writing career, Oren then takes us almost day by day through his four years as ambassador. What emerges is an absolutely devastating portrait of Barack Obama and his minions, whose distaste for Israel infects the president’s thinking, his diplomatic activities, and by the end even his willingness to send Israel badly needed military supplies.
Oren began his posting by reading everything by and about Obama he could get his hands on. What he read alarmed him, and that included the portrait of the United States in Obama’s memoir: “Vainly, I scoured Dreams From My Father for some expression of reverence, even respect, for the country its author would someday lead.” …
… Adding insults to the injury of serious policy disagreements over Iran, Israel was handled shabbily month after month. Oren cites one small incident as revelatory of the Obama treatment: Haiti. When a terrible earthquake struck there in January 2010, Israel was—as usual after natural disasters around the globe—first on the scene with assistance, sending a field hospital. The day after the quake, 220 Israeli doctors, nurses, and rescue workers landed. Three days later, President Obama issued a statement: “Help continues to flow in, not just from the United States but from Brazil, Mexico, Canada, France, Colombia, and the Dominican Republic.” Can anyone believe this omission of Israel, which had already made a far larger contribution, is anything but a deliberate slight? …
… Oren also describes the unprecedented personal attacks on Netanyahu, which clearly amazed him. These culminated in Netanyahu’s being called a “chickenshit” by an administration official who was speaking to Atlantic correspondent Jeffrey Goldberg. He does not note, but it is important to remember, that the comment was not made off the record. It was meant for publication (as long as the reporter kept the speaker’s name out of the story). This was not only a shocking breach of elementary protocol on the part of the administration, but also a blow to the foreign-policy purposes of the United States. “An America that slanders the democratically elected leader of its ally,” Oren writes wisely, “is one that is respected neither by its friends nor its enemies.” …
… Oren’s portrait of Obama is extremely tough. The president “seemed to prefer contemplation to leadership” and “ideas to hands-on action.” Even worse was his “coldness” and “insularity,” and Oren says that “a similar chill distanced him from traditional American allies—not only Israel—whose ambassadors complained to me of the administration’s unprecedented aloofness.” In fact, Oren quotes an unnamed European ambassador as saying “Obama’s problem is not a tin ear, it’s a tin heart.” …
… Oren describes Netanyahu as “one of the world’s most complex, seasoned, divisive, and hounded leaders, and perhaps its loneliest.” And he draws Netanyahu’s personality as “part commando, part politico, and thoroughly predatory.” Those words are not as nasty as they might appear, given the context of Israel’s rough-and-tumble politics—and Israel’s own history and current security challenges. Netanyahu rejected, on several occasions, Oren’s advice “to conciliate rather than confront Obama,” but on the evidence Oren himself provides in this book, Netanyahu had the better of the argument between them. After all, selecting Oren was itself a conciliatory gesture, as were the decisions to apologize to Turkey at Obama’s insistence, and to impose a 10-month (partial) moratorium on construction in settlements. From these it seems Netanyahu learned that conciliation would gain him little in the Obama White House, which had fixed and unalterable views on Israel—and on its prime minister.
In truth, it is not all that uncommon for individual leaders to dislike each other. What is striking in Oren’s book is that the Obama team did not view this mutual aversion as a problem to be alleviated but as a license to further the assault on Netanyahu, his government, and his country. When I was an official in the George W. Bush White House, we found that the president and French President Jacques Chirac cordially despised each other. So we worked around that to maintain the alliance and solve any problems our nations faced. The French national-security adviser flew over to Washington every few weeks, and he and the French ambassador in Washington would meet with the secretary of state, the national-security adviser, and several of us handling key issues. We managed despite the hostility at the top. But Obama’s and Netanyahu’s dislike for each other was exacerbated, not alleviated, by Obama’s staff, who happily cursed out Netanyahu to the press and threw around threats about how this or that move would permanently damage the bilateral relationship.
This phenomenon was worsened by matters of style that are frankly shocking to someone like me, who worked in previous administrations. White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel called Oren before dawn about some development and began the call by saying: “I don’t like this fucking shit.” At a reception following a Netanyahu visit to the White House, Emanuel poked his finger into Oren’s chest and said, “You do not fucking come to the White House and fucking lecture the president of the United States.” Deputy Secretary of State Tom Nides, worried about legislation that would call for defunding any UN agency that recognizes Palestine as a state, told Oren, “You don’t want the fucking UN to collapse because of your fucking conflict with the Palestinians.” Oren went into the State Department to see Deputy Secretary Jim Steinberg, and was dressed down and read a list of demands (including, of course, a total construction freeze in East Jerusalem as well as the West Bank) in a tone Oren describes as “furious.” But Oren adds that he later heard that this was less of a private conversation than an anti-Israel rally: Via an open phone line or hidden microphone, “department staffers listened in on our conversation and cheered.”
These matters of language and comportment could be viewed as trivial, but they are not. They suggest an attitude toward Israel’s government that is quite simply contemptuous, disrespectful, and hostile. It is unlikely that such treatment was accorded to the British or French ambassadors, even by people like Emanuel who appear to equate vulgarity with strength or persuasiveness. Nor, as we have been seeing week after week, was such treatment ever accorded to the vicious Communist dictatorship in Cuba or to the brutal theocracy in Iran. …
The mess created by obama in foreign affairs has a carbon copy in domestic affairs. Phil Gramm describes how the “transformation” has a foundation of sand.
… The Obama transformation was achieved by laws granting unparalleled discretionary power to the executive branch—but where the law gave no discretion Mr. Obama refused to abide by the law. Whether the law mandated action, such as income verification for ObamaCare, or inaction, such as immigration reform without congressional support, Mr. Obama willfully overrode the law. Stretching executive powers beyond their historic limits, he claimed the Federal Communications Commission had authority over the Internet and exerted Environmental Protection Agency control over power plants to reduce carbon emissions.
When Obama empowered himself to declare Congress in “recess” to make illegal appointments that the courts later ruled unconstitutional, he was undeterred. In an action that Lyndon Johnson or Richard Nixon would have never undertaken, Mr. Obama pushed Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid to “nuke” the rights of minority Senators to filibuster judicial nominees and executive appointments by changing the long-standing 60-vote supermajority needed for cloture to a simple majority.
American democracy has historically relied on three basic constraints: a shared commitment to the primacy of the constitutional process over any political agenda, the general necessity to achieve bipartisan support to make significant policy changes, and the natural desire of leaders to be popular by delivering peace and prosperity. Mr. Obama has transformed America by refusing to accept these constraints. The lock-step support of the Democrats’ supermajority in the 111th Congress freed him from having to compromise as other presidents, including Reagan and Mr. Clinton, have had to do.
While the Obama program has transformed America, no one is singing “Happy Days Are Here Again” or claiming it’s “morning in America.” Despite a doubling of the national debt and the most massive monetary expansion since the Civil War, America’s powerhouse economy has withered along with the rule of law.
The means by which Mr. Obama wrought his transformation imperil its ability to stand the test of time. All of his executive orders can be overturned by a new president. ObamaCare and Dodd-Frank can be largely circumvented using exactly the same discretionary powers Mr. Obama used to implement them in the first place. Republicans, who never supported his program, are now united in their commitment to repeal it.
Most important, the American people, who came to embrace the Roosevelt and Reagan transformations, have yet to buy into the Obama transformation. For all of these reasons it appears that the Obama legacy rests on a foundation of sand.