Memo to Obama: Three Strikes and You’re Out

I believe Obama’s schtick during his campaign for president was to subtly encourage his adversaries to impale themselves of the horns of their own contradictions.  This kind of strategy can be particularly effective in the all-important moral dimension of an election, or indeed, any other kind of conflict. To be sure, Obama had the help of widespread disgust with Bush, as well as an exquisitely timed, terrible financial meltdown, but the parallels in his campaigns against Hillary Clinton and John McCain suggest he had an instinctive feel for gaining leverage by using what reformers in the Pentagon called the Motherhood and Mismatch, or M&M, strategy. (See my CounterPunch essay on that theme.) But to date, his strategy for governance has failed utterly to live up to that brilliance.  He blew at least two stunning opportunities that seemed designed in heaven for a decisive M&M strategy.  He capitulated to a moral bankrupt establishment by bailing out the banksters and then caving in to the insurance companies on health care reform.

Obama now has a third opportunity, and like his campaigns against Clinton and McCain, it is partly the result of his own making, be it accidental or deliberate.  As Ira Chernus shows in a persuasively argued 19 October essay Israel’s hypocrisy in the so-called peace process has reached stunning proportions.  The Palestinians are going out of their way to accommodate Israel in the so-called peace talks, but each time the Palestinians sell out their patrimony by caving in to a new Israeli demand — like recognizing Israel as a Jewish state as opposed to recognition of Israel per se, the Israelis up the ante by inserting poison pills aimed at queering any deal — like saying that settlement expansion in East Jerusalem will not be part of a settlement freeze because East Jerusalem is a part of Israel, a claim not recognized by international law, the United States, or Europe, and then acting as if Israel is the injured party.

Chernus lays out a persuasive case, though it could have been even stronger, had he described the details of the ridiculously generous and horrendously expensive (to be financed by increasingly strapped US taxpayers) security guarantees, which Obama made to buy Israel’s acquiescence to a Palestinian State in the West Bank.  Chernus says nothing about Gaza, which seems off the table, and it is beginning to look like the Israelis are maneuvering to hand off that intractable problem of their own making to Egypt or by making Gaza a ward of the UN.  Despite Obama’s offer, Netanyahu and the Israeli government seem intent on stuffing it to Obama, and by extension the United States, accompanied again by the absurd claim that Israel is the injured party, because it cannot find a partner for peace.

Even some of Israel’s unabashed supporters in the United States are becoming nervous because of Israel’s outrageous behavior — see, for example, “Just Knock It Off,” a weird op-ed by a clearly distraught Thomas Friedman in the New York Times on 20 October.

Chernus concludes that Israel may have gone too far this time and may have handed Obama the leverage to force a settlement after the election, even if the Democrats get hammered in November.  If Chernus is correct, it would be an outcome entirely consistent with the M&M strategy that served Obama so well during his election campaign. During the election, however, Obama did not have much personally at risk; he would have won a place in history and in the future — politically and economically — had he lost by a landslide.  Now, his risks are enormous.

Personally, I do not share Chernus’s optimism.  The M&M leverage is certainly there, but nothing in Obama’s performance as President to date suggests he has the moral character to accept the risks that are a central part of exploiting that leverage.  He had the same kind of leverage with the banksters and the insurance companies, but he failed to step up to the plate and swing the heavy bat.  If he fails to swing a third time, again at a fat slow ball coming straight and true,  he’s out — for the worst of all reasons: pusillanimity or hypocrisy or both.

Franklin “Chuck” Spinney is a former military analyst for the Pentagon. He currently lives on a sailboat in the Mediterranean and can be reached at

Franklin “Chuck” Spinney is a former military analyst for the Pentagon and a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. He be reached at