Biographer John Milton Cooper tells the story that just after winning the presidential election of 1912, Woodrow Wilson returned triumphantly to his boyhood home.
This was the standard American local-boy-makes-good tour that traditionally includes a bevy of photographers, a handful of swooning relatives and one or two lost but wide-eyed friends. In Wilson’s case, the swooning relative was his elderly (and failing) Aunt Janie, who remembered Woodrow as "Tommy", his boyhood name.
"Well, Tommy, what are you doing now?" she asked, as the photographers pressed forward. "I’ve been elected president, Aunt Janie," Wilson said. "Well, well," she answered, "president of what?"
American historians have an uneasy relationship with Wilson. They extol his ideals and quote his speeches, but view him as impressively ineffective. At key points in his presidency (particularly at its end), Wilson proved incapable of transforming his ideas into political programs. An avowed anti-colonialist, he issued a menu of international principles (his "Fourteen Points") that committed America to the spread of democracy and support for self-determination.
It was his greatest moment, but it was only a moment: arriving in Versailles for the conference he hoped would endorse his program, Wilson spent his time slumming with imperialists. They listened carefully to his fine talk on self-determination then sent him packing. Having misjudged Europe, Wilson then misjudged America, supposing his fellow citizens would agree to his vision for a new international order.
Wilson’s campaign to make America the guarantor of this new order failed, destroying first his health and then his legacy. Misjudging others is forgivable, misjudging your own people is not. Woodrow Wilson was president alright but he didn’t know of what.
Thus Wilson and perhaps Barack Obama.
In mid-April, the Obama administration held a first-ever nuclear security summit in Washington to "establish a more cohesive international legal framework that would make it easier to prevent nuclear terrorism." Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu refused to attend, citing concerns that he would come under pressure to sign the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Then, when President Obama urged all nations to sign the NPT, Israel (in a statement issued by Ehud Barak, Israel’s defense minister) said it would refuse.
It’s important to note that Israel is not the only nuclear "refusenik". It is joined by Pakistan and India. A fourth country, North Korea, acceded to the treaty, then broke it. That is to say, while it might seem politically wise to promote an equal standard for all states on the nuclear issue, the simple truth is that simply signing the NPT will not guarantee compliance, or limit proliferation. Iran (for instance) has signed the treaty, but it is unclear whether the Iranians are in the process of breaching it.
But what Israel has done is different. Pakistan and India have told the world of their weapons, while North Korea at least had the good sense to withdraw from an agreement it would not keep. Israel refuses to speak of its nuclear stockpile, refuses to be a part of the treaty and avows that it is a special case. Additionally, Israel’s defense of its position suggests that it believes that signing a flawed treaty is worse than not signing one at all. Put another way, Israel argues that since other nations ignore (or violate) agreements, it gives them the right to do the same.
"Israel has never threatened to destroy other countries or nations," Barak said, "whereas Iran today, and in the past also Syria, Libya and Iraq that have signed the treaty, have broken it systematically with explicit threats on Israel’s existence."
This is casuistry. Israel doesn’t need to threaten other countries. It has a nuclear bomb.
What is Barack Obama to do? During the mid-April nuclear security summit, President Obama was invited to critique Israel’s position on the NPT and nuclear weapons. He refused. "As far as Israel goes, I’m not going to comment on their program," he said.
This was not a surprise. The Obama administration has regularly refrained from overt criticism of Israel in apparent fear of Israel’s political power on Capitol Hill and with American voters. The result has been a series of foreign policy retreats: on settlements, the peace process, Israel’s flotilla adventure and, now, the NPT.
It’s a mistake. Like "Tommy" Wilson, Barack Obama is misreading the American public. The publication of Mearsheimer and Walt’s "The Israel Lobby", Jimmy Carter’s "Peace Not Apartheid", the 2008 bombing of Gaza, General David Petreaus’ statement that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict "foments anti-American sentiment" in the Middle East, and the killing of a 19-year-old American (or, "a person holding an American passport", as the Washington Post describes him) aboard the Gaza flotilla have all contributed to a growing sense of unease, even resentment, of Israel among the US public. There is in America a growing, significant, palpable and undeniable belief that Israel and America’s views of the world are incompatible and worse: that Israeli actions are actually undermining America’s international goals.
It is possible for Obama to reverse Wilson’s misreading of the American public, reforge the damaged Israeli-American relationship and stay true to his ideals. The American public will applaud a painful but necessary "reset" of America’s relationship with Israel and a clear enunciation of American ideals.
The message from Obama can be a restatement of his important (but overlooked) May 22 address to the graduating class at West Point, where he emphasized America’s commitment to rebuilding international institutions, reemphasized our nation’s commitment to international law and recognized the right of sovereign states to peace and security. The message is simple: the fact that some nations flout international law does not give Israel the same right; that there are criminals in the world does not give Israel the right to be one.
The perfect should not be the enemy of the good.-
Mark Perry is the author of "Partners in Command, George Marshall and Dwight Eisenhower in War and Peace". His most recent book is "Talking To Terrorists" (Basic Books, 2010). This commentary is published by DAILY NEWS EGYPT in collaboration with bitterlemons-international.org.