What is the Obama M.O.?
Here is a rough description of how our President does business.
1. Learn the subject matter. Perhaps more than any President in recent memory, Obama tends to acquire a mastery of key policy problems, even delving into details when necessary. That's what you get when you elect an intellectual to the White House.
2. Identify a realistically achievable goal, and craft your plan around it. Given #1 above, Obama can usually figure out both what's the right thing to do, and why (politically) it hasn't been done yet. He therefore sets his sights lower, on something in the right direction, usually more modest than the right thing - but within reach.
3. Acknowledge and even embrace the sensitivities and talking points of adversaries. This part often has us in Obama's progressive base tearing our hairs out in frustration. And sometimes it is overdone. But it also works wonders many times, to disarm, disorient and confuse the adversaries.
4. Gradually narrow the action space of the major actors, converging them towards your planned goal.
5. Achieve the goal planned in advance, +/- some wiggle room.
6. Share the credit far and wide, and walk away nonchalantly without bothering to milk the PR for yourself. Instead, start working on the next thing.
Maybe I left out something, but we've seen this in action over and over. This M.O. is so unusual in politics, that even after nearly 4 years of the Obama Presidency people left and right are still freaked out by it. A classic example is Obamacare, which the Right sees as a Communist takeover while some on the Left see as a corporate-welfare scam painted over as progressive legislation. Of course, it is neither - rather, it is a substantial improvement in many aspects of the healthcare system, a solid base to build on for the future, and politically an achievement that turned from a liability in 2010 to a solid asset in 2012.
Now to Gaza. Many of my dear friends in the anti-war community, couldn't bear to hear the State Department up to Secretary Clinton repeating the Israeli government talking points on this operation. Yes, it was shameful. But I also tuned my ear carefully to what the President said, and he - while still including many of these talking points when speaking about Gaza, always took care to add that he doesn't want civilian casualties and he doesn't want a ground invasion.
Consider the Bibi-Obama relationship. Bibi's political hacks have been hurling propaganda and dog-whistle-laced insults at Obama since 2008 when the latter was only a Presidential candidate. When both took power, Bibi repeatedly defied and fooled Obama's limited attempts to promote some sort of peace process. He often did it in a humiliating manner, earning many points with his right-wing Israeli base. Come 2012, Bibi injected himself into the US campaign to an unprecedented level, actively advocating for Romney.
Now imagine what would have happened, if the White House and State Department started issuing direct criticisms and ultimatums, telling Israel to stop its reckless Gaza operation. Bibi, in the midst of election campaign (of which, make no mistake, the operation was part and parcel), has already banked on fanning the flames of nationalism. He would love Obama to try and chastise him, to give him the chance to defy Obama again. An open Obama-Bibi rift on the operation would have also caused instant mutiny among Jewish Democratic Senators and House members.
Instead, all Bibi got was a hug.
But behind the scenes, the phones were working. In fact, Obama took care to tell the world that he's talking with Bibi on a daily basis. I don't think these talks included threats - again, that's not the Obama style - but there was doubtlessly a gradual narrowing of Bibi's playing field. It became even narrower when Obama sent Hillary over to do shuttle diplomacy between Jerusalem and Cairo, and when it became clear she's not likely to leave without a deal.
I'm not saying it is all Obama and only Obama. There were other key factors at play in preventing an Israeli ground invasion:
The Arab Spring. As flustered Israeli officials leaked after their government's initial ceasefire balk, this is not Mubarak anymore. Hamas is originally an offshoot of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, which is now in power in Egypt and owes the US far less than Mubarak ever did. Egypt and other Arab nations showed far greater involvement from day one. The parade of Arab officials in and out of Gaza helped keep Israeli actions in check, relatively speaking.
The preparedness of Hamas. Just as Obama has an M.O., so does Israel's military. One step on their checklists seems to be "Always underestimate your opponent". They really believed that the initial shock and awe in assassinating Jabari and the accompanying airstrikes, will throw Hamas off balance, and that within a couple of days of such strikes the organization will be in shambles. Didn't happen. Besides increasing the operation's price tag, this preparedness might have raised Israeli suspicions that Hamas might have an effective and intact game plan for ground invasion defense.
The opposition inside Israel. Over the past 12 years, the Israeli public has reliably - and for anti-war gadflies like myself, depressingly - always fallen in line behind all of its leaders' military adventures great and small. So Bibarak might not have even considered the option of internal resistance. The vast majority of Israel's Jews supported the operation. But a significant minority opposed, and was not willing to shut up about it. Most notably, Israel's progressive Zionist party Meretz, led by the brave MK Zehava Gal-On, spoke out against the operation in general and a ground invasion in particular, from day one. Progressives also flooded social media with texts, posts, tweets and memes resisting - and perhaps even more effectively, mocking - the ill-conceived operation. The last time a similar level of resistance was seen during military action was in the 1980's - during the First Lebanon war and then again during the First Intifada. In both cases, once the shit hit the fan (militarily speaking), the resisting minority was quickly joined by half the nation.
But even with the Arab Spring, even with Hamas stronger than expected and internal resistance stronger than expected, the IDF was dominant enough militarily and Bibarak dominant enough politically to carry out the plan as probably intended: air-war shock and awe, call up reserves, and invade 5 days or so after the beginning. Moreover, the massive and criminal Hamas response, namely launching missiles far and wide into civilian Israeli cities and killing 3 civilians on the first day, created a sense of urgency and panic in the Israeli public, which served as pressure on the government to escalate and finish the enemy off. This was a pressure that Bibarak probably anticipated and counted on to push them forward.
Now operationally, head-on from the southeast, Downtown Gaza City is only 4km from the border. Coming along the coast from the northeast, it is 6km over mostly open space. With the huge 75,000 reservist call-up (the IDF later reported it called up "only" 58,000), the IDF had more than enough brute force to think they can try and strike a beeline to downtown from both directions (while blocking the escape route on the southwest), reach the place where Hamas PM Haniyyeh and other political leaders sit, and physically pluck them from there for a humiliating check-mate.
The Israeli rhetoric during the first couple of days gave all signs that this was more-or-less the plan. One senior minister talked about "reformatting Gaza". Another about "returning it to the Middle Ages." Everyone from the top onwards said it is about time to "finish Hamas for good." And they were very confident about it.
They also thought they had a fighting chance to pull this off without major losses. Sure, it was a gamble and the odds were decreasing by the day. But this entire operation was one huge gamble, so why not carry it to the end? Also considering this was launched during an election campaign, the humiliation of stopping short becomes an even greater incentive to up the ante and complete the gamble (and indeed, right now Bibi is facing an opinion backlash from the right and even parts of the center for having come out "the wimp").
As late as Tuesday, even as the Egyptian mediators were reporting that a ceasefire is near, the Israeli air force dropped thousands of leaflets on Gaza's outlying neighborhoods - precisely along the routes I described above. The leaflets told the residents - some 150,000 of them - to leave their homes and concentrate in a prescribed area in downtown Gaza.
Didn't happen. Instead of ground invasion, we got a ceasefire. And Obama more than anyone else is the man who stopped it. There is simply no other logical explanation. Denying this explanation, in my view, is like refusing to revise the theory of matter after the Rutherford Experiment. In that experiment, alpha particles shot at a thin gold leaf bounced almost straight back from the leaf. This meant there was something very massive inside the leaf stopping them, marking the birth of the theory of atomic nuclei.
Like in that experiment, there is simply no force other than the US Presidency, that could have stopped Bibarak's plan from going forward so quickly and so thoroughly. I listed all the other options above, I acknowledge their contribution - but they just don't add up.
Now, here's the sweetest part. In their ceasefire press conference, according to some observers Bibarak and Lieberman, even as they tried to declare victory, looked more like " three sixth-graders called down to the Principal’s Office, counting the minutes until the humiliation was over." And they had to thank the very people who just ran all over them!
First, Egyptian President Morsi. Last year on the Knesset podium, Bibi said of the Arab Spring that it moves the Arab world "not forward, but backward". That his own neocon forecast that the Arab Spring would turn into an "Islamic, anti-Western, anti-liberal, anti-Israeli and anti-democratic wave" turned out to be true. Now Bibi had to thank Morsi personally and describe him as a regional leader.
But that's nothing compared to his words to President Obama, expressed repeatedly both in the presser and on Bibi's Facebook page: (translation mine)
I wish to extend a special thanks to President Barack Obama for his unqualified support for Israel's operation, his support for Israel's right to defend itself, and his support for the "Iron Dome" missile-defense system.
To quote Bubbanomics: HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!
That's the Obama revenge. It is served cold, with no anger, and in style.
Yes, Obama as the sitting US President is complicit in the continuation of Israel's Occupation regime over the Palestinians and in particular in the decades-long imprisonment of Gaza. Like so many other problems, he inherited these problems in an especially bad shape (remember, Cast Lead took place during Bush's lame-duck period and ended days before Obama's inauguration).
Obama still needs to fix that. But this week, he was the man who could stop the slaughter of hundreds of people, maybe even thousands, and he stepped up and did it. He also laid down, for the first time in many years, a practical workable framework for improving the life of Gazans. This gives me more hope for the coming 4 years.
Thank you, President. And a Happy Thanksgiving.
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