Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Apply Obama pragmatism to Mideast

A great use of Deweyan pragmatism at work -- published by my friend and philosopher of education Mordechai Gordon -- published in today's New Haven [CT] Register:

IN the past few weeks, President Barack Obama has emphasized his commitment to being a pragmatist when it comes to tackling the pressing problems our country is facing.

When asked on ABC's "This Week with George Stephanopoulos" how he would respond to the criticism of Democrats about his economic recovery package, Obama said, "If people have better ideas on certain provisions — if they say, you know, this is going to work better than that — then we welcome that." He repeatedly has stated he is open to any creative ideas that would help turn around the recession.

Obama's pragmatic approach is not new. During the campaign, he stressed his intention to review policies of President George W. Bush that had not worked and a willingness to try innovative solutions to ongoing problems. For instance, Obama pointed out that not negotiating directly with Iran and increasing sanctions on it have not helped deter Iran from trying to develop a nuclear bomb. He insisted it is time for the United States to try a different approach. Similar suggestions were made by Obama regarding policy toward Cuba and Pakistan.

Will Obama bring the same pragmatic approach he has advocated for the economy and Iran to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? It is too early to tell, but the initial signs have not been encouraging. Other than his commitment to deal head-on with Gaza and the larger Middle East conflict, we have no indication Obama or his secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, are willing to shift toward a more pragmatic course to solve the Israeli-Palestinian problem. Indeed, the message they give is that the United States will continue to give Israel unconditional support and refuse to negotiate directly with Hamas.

What might a pragmatic approach look like? Clearly, the actions of the Bush and the Clinton administrations, which quietly stood by as Israel continued to build settlements and maintain its occupation of 3.6 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, have not worked. Likewise, the U.S. policy of not negotiating with terrorist groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah or "rogue states" such as Iran and Syria has not helped make the region more secure and stable.

A pragmatic approach entails a fundamental shift in perspective, requiring both Israelis and Palestinians to renounce violence and military solutions and recognize that negotiation and compromise are the only options that can lead to peace.

Such a shift would mean that the United States abandon its historical practice of showing Israel favoritism and giving it unconditional support. For example, the Obama administration should openly denounce Israel's economic blockade of the Gaza Strip and the enormous restrictions it has placed on the rights and liberties of 1.5 million Palestinians. It should meet with the Palestinian leadership in Gaza to try to persuade them firing of rockets aimed at civilian populations in Israel is not only immoral, but counter productive.

One option Obama might consider is calling a peace summit in which the United States would exert significant pressures on all sides to make concessions and reach an agreement.

Such a summit could be modeled after the 1978 Camp David accords and include representatives of Hamas so that all the relevant parties would have to speak to each other and negotiate directly. The guiding principles for this summit would be the creation of an independent Palestinian state side by side with Israel and a lasting peace agreement between the two nations like the one Israel has with Egypt and Jordan.

I suspect Obama's pragmatic approach to solving the economic crisis as well as other national and international problems will be a great asset for him. Adopting such an approach will protect him from being wedded to failed policies, as his predecessor was, that are based on ideological beliefs or falsehoods.

Obama said it best when he stated "you can't simply have the same reaction over and over and expect different results." I would urge Obama to heed his own advice in order to finally stop the cycle of violence in the Middle East and bring about a just and peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Mordechai Gordon served as a paratrooper in the Israeli army during the 1982 war with Lebanon. He is a professor of education at Quinnipiac University, 275 Mount Carmel Ave., Hamden 06518. E-mail:

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