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The professor-in-chief returns

Barack Obama’s sanctimonious lecture on the Middle East downplays the grave evil of Hamas


Barack Obama speaks during the Obama Foundation Democracy Forum in Chicago on Nov. 3. Associated Press/Pat Nabong/Chicago Sun-Times

The professor-in-chief returns
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A decade ago during the Barack Obama presidency, I wrote an article titled “Why Professors Don’t Make Good Presidents.” In it I criticized President Obama’s hapless Middle East policies, which at the time had the effect of allowing Iran, Syria, and their terrorist proxies to gain advantage over the United States and our partners such as Israel in the Middle East. I particularly bemoaned that Obama’s background as a professor left him prone to “the vacillations, the hand-wringing, the endless second-guessing, the sanctimonious lecturing, the odd detachment from decisions of tremendous consequence—all of these are worthy more of the faculty lounge than the commander in chief.” (I also noted that, as a professor myself, I recognize these proclivities all too well).

Well, old habits die hard. The former president is once again indulging his professorial pontifications. Earlier this month, Obama delivered a sanctimonious mini-lecture about Hamas’ current war on Israel and the conflagration in the Middle East. Specifically, Obama pronounced that to understand the situation,you have to take in the whole truth, and you then have to admit nobody’s hands are clean—that all of us are complicit to some degree.”

On one level Christians can agree that the pervasiveness of sin leaves no person or no action untarnished in our fallen world. On another level, Obama’s moral equivocation amounts to a downplaying of Hamas’ grave evil and a counsel of policy paralysis rather than firm support for Israel during its time of peril.

Obama seems to draw a moral equivalence between Hamas’ genocidal extermination campaign against Israeli civilians and … what, exactly? On this he is unclear, but he implies that any past or present American support for Israel, or Israeli government policies on disputed land, or the Iraq War, or something else entirely, renders all parties equally guilty and makes the entire situation tragic and altogether too complex.

The faux-sophistication of this “both-sides-ism” is appalling in its moral obtuseness. Since Obama equivocates, let me be clear: One side (Hamas) deliberately rapes and tortures innocent women and butchers infants, while urging the extermination of the Jewish people. The other side (Israel) does not.

Rather, by spreading around the attenuated guilt, Obama partly exonerates those who are in fact most guilty and most deserving of condemnation and punishment: the Hamas terrorists and their sponsors in the Iranian clerical regime.

The other outrage in Obama’s statement is his implicit self-absolution about the role that his eight years as president played in fueling the current crisis. Others of us do not forget how Obama’s policies emboldened our enemies, imperiled Israel, and weakened the United States in the Middle East.

This was the core strategic error in Obama’s Middle East policies: the belief that with enough inducements, Iran would become a stabilizing presence in the Middle East.

Consider what Obama conveniently obfuscates:

  • In 2009, as the Iranian people rose up in their courageous “Green Movement” to free themselves from the oppression of their tyrannical government, Obama ignored their appeals for American support and instead pursued his conciliatory nuclear agreement with the Iranian regime.
  • In 2011, Obama ignored the counsel of his military, intelligence, and diplomatic advisors, and dogmatically withdrew the residual American troops from Iraq—leading directly to the rise of the Islamic State terrorist caliphate, the slaughter of thousands of innocent civilians, and an emboldened Iran.
  • In 2013, Obama abandoned his own “red line” and refused to punish the Assad regime in Syria for its use of chemical weapons to murder hundreds, perhaps thousands, of its own people—which also further emboldened Iran.
  • In 2015, Obama implicitly welcomed Russia’s intervention in Syria to prop up the Assad regime, leading to the deaths of thousands more Syrian civilians, the expansion of Iranian power, and the erosion of American influence.
  • That same year, Obama signed the “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action” with Iran, the ill-fated agreement that released some $100 billion in frozen assets to Iran and provided relief from further sanctions in exchange for Tehran’s illusory promises to suspend its nuclear weapons program (all while ignoring Tehran’s other malign mischief such as its ballistic missile program and sponsorship of terrorism).

Undergirding this serial conciliation of the Iranian regime was Obama’s hope that Iran would become a responsible regional power. As he declaimed in a 2016 interview towards the end of his presidency, the tension in the region “requires us to say to our friends as well as to the Iranians that they need to find an effective way to share the neighborhood.”

This was the core strategic error in Obama’s Middle East policies: the belief that with enough inducements, Iran would become a stabilizing presence in the Middle East. Instead, rather than “sharing the neighborhood,” Iran and its terrorist proxies Hezbollah and Hamas sought then and seek now to dominate the neighborhood and destroy Israel.

For that reason and many others, the United States should continue to support Israel in its quest to destroy Hamas and to deter Iran.


William Inboden

William Inboden is professor and director of the Hamilton Center for Classical and Civic Education at the University of Florida. He previously served as executive director and William Powers Jr. chair at the William P. Clements Jr. Center for National Security at the University of Texas at Austin. He has also served as senior director for strategic planning on the National Security Council at the White House, and at the Department of State as a member of the Policy Planning Staff and a special adviser in the Office of International Religious Freedom.


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