Israel, Gaza, and the False Face of Barack Obama
“False face must hide what the false heart doth know….To show an unfelt sorrow is an office
Which the false man does easy”
— William Shakespeare, Macbeth, 1.7.83; 2.3.136-37
If there’s one thing I’ve learned over many years of following the political career of United States’ President Barack Obama it is to never underestimate his false-faced cynicism. Examples could fill volumes. Here I highlight a small number of instances relating to recent, ongoing, and terrible events in the Middle East.
“Trying to Put Iraq Back Together”
During the 2008 presidential campaign, Obama repeatedly told voters that “it’s time to stop spending billions of dollars a week trying to put Iraq back together and start spending the money putting [the US of] America back together” (Janesville, Wisconsin, February 15, 2008). The candidate was far too knowledgeable and intelligent to have honestly believed that the US was engaged in a benevolent nation-building project in Iraq. He was too smart not to have understood that the criminal US invasion of that country had killed hundreds of thousands and destroyed vast swaths of social and technical infrastructure and fanned the flames of violent sectarian conflict there. (The horrible consequences of the US invasion are evident in current news reports from devastated Iraq – reports that rarely if ever acknowledge Washington’s critical role in the crippling of Mesopotamia.)
His statement was a cynical ploy for votes from citizens who had long been lied about the real nature and purposes of US foreign policy.
“The Streets of Fallujah”
In late 2006, the all-but-declared presidential candidate Obama made a remarkable statement in support of his claim in a speech to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs – a speech where he falsely claimed that most US citizens supported US “victory” in Ira. He proclaimed that “The American people have been extraordinarily resolved. They have seen their sons and daughters killed or wounded in the streets of Fallujah” (Barack Obama, “A Way Forward in Iraq,” Chicago Council on Global Affairs, November 20, 2006).
It was an extraordinarily cynical, cold-blooded selection of locales. Obama certainly knew that Fallujah was the site of colossal U.S. war crimes, including the indiscriminate murder of thousands of civilians, the targeting of ambulances and hospitals, and the practical leveling of an entire city in April and November of 2004. Obama certainly knew also that majority US public opinion was opposed to the one-sided “Iraq War” (the ongoing US imperial assault on Iraq) when he spoke.
“One President at a Time” (2008-09)
Two months after he was first elected to the White House but before his Inauguration, the powerful US-funded and US-equipped military state of Israel unleashed its lethal force on the open-air Israel-imposed prison called the Gaza Strip. Palestinians of Gaza. Israel’s grossly “disproportional response” to alleged provocations by the Palestinian group Hamas included the bombing of hospitals, ambulances, playgrounds, and schools. Israeli forces engaged in “the shooting of civilians holding white flags, the deliberate and unjustifiable targeting of UN shelters and the killing of over 300 children while the Israeli Army had at their disposal the most precise weaponry in the world.” I quote here from a 2009 United Nations Human Rights Council fact-finding report on “the Gaza War” of 2008-09 – the “Goldstone Report.”
What did the supposedly antiwar man of peace who had just ascended to the highest war-making office on Earth have to say about these outrages? The Palestinians and their many supporters in the Middle East and around the world watched in disgust as the famously wordy President-Elect stood curiously mute in relation to Israel’s dreadful massacre of civilians. Obama claimed that “institutional constraints” prevented him from commenting on “the Gaza War.” The US can only have “one president at a time,” Obama said. Meanwhile, however, he gave regular proto-presidential speeches on the US economy and forthrightly condemned the terrible Islamic terrorist action that took place in Mumbai, India, in late November of 2008. As Noam Chomsky noted at the time:
“To [Israel’s] crimes Obama’s response has been silence – unlike, say, the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, which he was quick to denounce, along with the ‘hateful ideology’ that lies behind it. In the case of Gaza, his spokespersons hide behind the mantra that ‘there is one president at a time,’ and repeated his support for Israeli actions when he visited the Israeli town of Sderot in July : ‘If missiles were falling where my two daughters sleep, I would do everything in order to stop that.’ But he will do nothing, not even make a statement, when US jets and helicopters with Israeli pilots are causing incomparable worse suffering to Palestinian children (emphasis added).” (Noam Chomsky, “Elections 2008 and Obama’s Vision,” Z Magazine, February 2008)
Even worse, the New Yorker’s Seymour Hersh disclosed that US “smart bombs” and “other high-tech ordnance” used in the attack on Gaza were re-supplied after “the Obama team let it be known that it would not object.” (S. Hersh, “Syria Calling,” New Yorker, April 6, 2009).
“To Touch the Muslim Soul” (Cairo 2009)
Five months after his first Inauguration, Obama gave a much-ballyhooed speech “to touch the Muslim soul” in Cairo. He called for Arab governments to “normalize” relations with Israel in accord with the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative (API). The call was transparently cynical, however, for it ignored key Israel action required by the plan. The API, approved by 22 Arab League nations, offered “normalization” only in exchange for Israel’s withdrawal to its pre-1967 borders, the sharing of Jerusalem between Israel and a new Palestinian state, a fair resolution of the Palestinian refugee crisis in accord with international law, and more. But so what? The freshly elected “new” top false man from Washington simply ignored Israel’s obligation under the initiative. This was consistent with his deafening silence on Israel’s crimes against Gaza and with his deletion of Israel from his Inaugural Address call for leaders around the world “to unclench your fist.”
When the UN Goldstone report came out in September of 2009, the Obama White House used its power to bury the document, smearing it as (in the words of US UN Ambassador Susan Rice) “unbalanced” and “deeply flawed.” Palestinian rights activist Sonja Karkar was later struck by how empty Obama’s promise of “change” already seemed to Palestinians people: “If you would only give us more than words. Perhaps from where you stand, Mr. President, you don’t hear how hollow they sound…Yet, it is in that very same hollow space that more and more people can hear the keening sounds of silence from Gaza and the rapidly fading echoes of your ‘Yes we can.’” (“Letter to Obama,” ZNet, October 13, 2009)
The US fist has hardly unclenched under Obama. He may have been tasked with winding down Washington’s failed ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (the same job would have fallen to a President McCain), but he has drastically expanded the scale, intensity, and scope of US drone warfare (the killer of 951 civilians in Pakistan alone under Obama) and the presence of US Special Forces troops around the world. Obama kept the US imperial “machine set on kill” (Allan Nairn).
“Nothing More Shameful Than Attacking Sleeping Children”
During the most recent “Gaza fighting” (“mainstream” US media’s deceptive term for Israel’s latest one-sided and mass-murderous assault on the Gaza prison strip), Israel has killed more than 1900 Palestinians, 70 percent of them civilians, including hundreds of children. Israel’s crimes have again included the bombing and shelling of schools, hospitals, ambulances, and UN shelters. Gaza’s main power plant was bombed (as usual), “sharply curtailing the already very limited electricity and worse yet, reducing still further the minimal availability of fresh water” (Noam Chomsky). The openly criminal savagery has occurred in full view of the world, most of which is appalled by the vicious, even sociopathic carnage inflicted on the defenseless and trapped people of Gaza by the “Most Moral Army in the World”: US planes, tanks, and helicopters with Israeli pilots and commanders.
Israel is creating a “no man’s land” in Gaza, shrinking the outdoor prison by more than 40 percent. The Daily Beast’s Jesse Rosenfeld reports that
“This narrow strip of land that used to be called ‘the Gaza Strip,’ already one of the more densely populated places on Earth, is growing dramatically smaller. The Israeli military, relentlessly and methodically, is driving people out of the 3-kilometer (1.8 mile) buffer zone it says it needs to protect against Hamas rockets and tunnels. According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the buffer zone eats up about 44 percent of Gaza’s territory… Apartment blocks are fields of rubble, and as I move through this hostile landscape the phrase that keeps ringing in my head is ‘scorched earth.’” (“Israel Creates ‘No Man’s Land in Gaza,” Daily Beast, July 28, 2014).
“The world stands disgraced” – so said United Nations Relief and Works Agency Commission-General Pierre Kraehenbuehl after Tel Aviv bombed a UN shelter filled with more than 3000 refugees on July 30th. Many of the 16 killed were women and children. The usually restrained Secretary-General of the UN Ban Ki-moon has condemned Israel’s latest sociopathic attack on Gaza “in the strongest possible terms…Nothing,” the Secretary-General added, “is more shameful than attacking sleeping children.” Ban Ki-moon noted that the precise location of this school had been communicated to the Israeli military authorities 17 times.
Unfelt Sorrow: No Honest Broker
Thanks to publicly available images of open Israeli state crimes that have shocked the world, including many in the US, Obama has had to make sounds of humanitarian concern this time. At an August 1st press conference, Obama said it was “heartbreaking to see what’s happening in Gaza.” He said he “want[ed] to see everything possible done to ensure Palestinian civilians aren’t killed.” A White House spokesperson said “We are extremely concerned that thousands of internally displaced Palestinians who have been called on by the Israeli military to evacuate their homes are not safe in UN designated shelters in Gaza.”
These and other US “condemnations” of some of Israel’s more egregious war crimes against Palestinian humanity would seem a bit more genuine if they didn’t come at the same time as the Administration directs the Pentagon to release more weaponry to Israel. And if they weren’t accompanied by the usual US statements of sympathy for Israelis (who have lost a grand total of three civilians in the latest “Gaza fighting”) combined with the customary claims that Hamas is largely responsible for Palestinian civilians deaths, the standard sham expressions of distress for Palestinians “caught in the crossfire,” and the regular strong backing for Israel’s “right to defend itself.” What crossfire? Where? And of course, as far as the US is concerned, “Palestinians…have no right to defend themselves, surely not when Israel is on good behavior, keeping to the norm of quiet-for-quiet: stealing their land, driving them out of their homes, subjecting them to a savage siege, and regularly attacking them with weapons provided by their protector….Palestinians,” Noam Chomsky notes, “are like black Africans, the Namibian refugees in the Cassinga camp for example, all terrorists for whom the right of defense does not exist.” (Noam Chomsky, “Outrage,” ZNet, August 2, 2014)
The Administration’s expressions of worry for Palestinian lives are right out of Shakespeare’s Macbeth: “False face,” the great playwright noted, “must hide what the false heart doth know.” (Macbeth, 1.7.83) “To show an unfelt sorrow,” Shakespeare added “is an office Which the false man does easy” (Macbeth, 2.3.136-37).
Obama is not naïve or stupid. He knows very well that the US is actively helping Israel in its racist and sociopathic war on Gaza by: sharing raw signals intelligence with the Israeli military; “continually replenishing Israel’s ammunition; diplomatically supporting Israel’s economic blockade of Gaza; exporting vast supplies of weapons and munitions and other military technology to Israel each year; opposing the designation of Palestine as a “nonmember observer state” in the UN (thereby preventing Palestinians from enlisting the International Criminal Court in its struggle against Israel’s theft of their land. As Juan Cole notes, “The US cannot serve as honest broker in Israel-Palestine negotiations because its government is overwhelming committed to and identified with Israel, including in this war. That is why President Obama keeps mouthing propaganda like that Israel has a right to defend itself (it doesn’t enjoy an absolute right of that sort– its defense has to be proportionate and within international law).” (J. Cole, “Top 5 Ways US is Israel’s Accomplice in War Crimes in Gaza,” Informed Comment, August 4, 2014).
Nothing is more shameful than attacking sleeping children – nothing except perhaps giving others ordnance, weapons, and intelligence data with which to attack sleeping children and providing blank check diplomatic and political cover for the murderers and acting throughout like you’ve got nothing to do with the horror.
Marrowless Men: “Look Man, I’m a Politician”
Shakespeare again: “Thy bones are marrowless, thy blood is cold.” (Macbeth, 3.4.93). The condemnation applies not just to Obama but to almost the entirety of the US elite political class and imperial establishment, most of which is deeply committed and captive to the savage racist and sociopathic occupation and mass-murder state Israel has become. A recent Daily Beast article is titled “Even Left Wing Democrats Can’t Quit Israel.” Reporter Tim Mak notes that:
“Despite grassroots outrage at Operation Protective Edge, left-wing members of the House and Senate won’t criticize Israel’s ongoing incursion into Gaza. Much of the American left is critical of Israel, particularly since its incursion into Gaza. But in the halls of Congress, even progressive Democrats beloved by grassroots activists are loath to criticize the Jewish State’s ongoing military offensive.”
“A Pew Research Center poll released Monday showed that a plurality of Democrats across the country, 35 percent, and liberals, 44 percent, said that Israel had ‘gone too far’ in its response to its conflict with Hamas. Meanwhile 47 percent of Democrats told Gallup that Israel’s actions during the current conflict were “unjustified…But these opinions are nearly impossible to find in Congress. Democrats, when asked a question about Israeli operations in Gaza, had two standard responses: irritation, or else a statement of their broad support of Israel, without going into specifics. It was as if the very mention of Israel turned the question into a hostile interview.”
“ ‘Look, man, I’m a politician, with multiple constituencies. Why should I alienate one just so that you can write a story?’ Democratic Rep. Keith Ellison angrily told The Daily Beast. Ellison, a stalwart progressive, was the first Muslim-American elected to Congress.”
“Ellison cited a Tuesday op-ed he had written that was critical of the Gaza blockade, but became noticeably agitated when asked to expand on his views. In particular, he did not want to address whether Israel had gone too far during its current operations in the Gaza Strip.”
“Sen. Bernie Sanders, a darling of the left who identifies as a democratic socialist, was curt. His tone changed suddenly when the topic shifted from the Veterans Administration bill that he had been shepherding through Congress to Israel’s operation in Gaza.”
“ ‘That’s not where my mind is right now,” he told the Beast.”(T. Mak, Daily Beast, July 30, 2014)
This is yet another reminder to seriously progressive citizens never to look for “leadership,” moral or otherwise, from politicians. Howard Zinn would have appreciated Rep. Ellison’s remark. “Except for the rare few,” Zinn noted seven years ago, “our representatives are politicians, and will surrender their integrity, claiming to be ‘realistic.’ We are not politicians, but citizens. We have no office to hold on to, only our consciences, which insist on telling the truth. That, history suggests, is the most realistic thing a citizen can do” (H. Zinn, “Are We Politicians or Citizens?” The Progressive, May 2007).
Paul Street is the author of many books, including Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis: A Living Black Chicago History (Rowman & Littlefield, 2007). His next volume is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, September 2014, )