Obama, Choose Your Battles

Photo credit: Amir Farshad Ebrahimi; license http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/deed.en

By Marc Seltzer; originally published on January 9, 2009, at politicsunlocked.com

. .

Obama is undoubtedly feeling the pressure, felt jointly in capitals around the world, to help end the conflict in Gaza, where a fierce Israeli military operation, has resulted in significant death and destruction.

The U.S. has traditionally played a major role in facilitating negotiations throughout Israeli-Palestinian conflicts.  The deeply divisive and longstanding battle goes to the heart of the security and future of the state of Israel and rights to statehood and autonomous homeland for the Palestinian people.

However, despite the best intentions, the conflict in Gaza will not be solved easily.  At this point, President Obama’s involvement risks squandering substantial energy and political momentum desperately needed for domestic reforms.

A lesson from history

Republicans will remember:  The first significant act in office for President William Jefferson Clinton was to revisit the military ban on service by gay soldiers.

It was January 1992, and Clinton took on his own Joint Chiefs to establish a new compromise policy, commonly known as don’t ask, don’t tell.  Merits of the reform aside (which allowed many soldiers serving honorably to continue service) it angered the political right, which took sights on the Clinton Presidency and never looked back.

In retrospect, the action cost the Clinton Presidency dearly.  Despite significant improvements in welfare reform, balanced budgets and economic prosperity during his presidency, the Clinton Presidency never ceased to arouse conservative ire.  The animosity from the right dogged the President in office, played a role in Al Gore’s unsuccessful Presidential bid, and may have lingered into the campaign of Hillary Clinton, eight years later.

All this comes as a warning to President-elect Barack Obama:  Choose your first battles carefully.

Global perspectives

Obama would do well to remember that the U.S. is involved in other conflicts throughout the world, some demanding presidential attention. India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, for example, have a joint population of 1.3 billion people, with robust nuclear arsenals in the first two and an ongoing U.S. military operation in the third.  All have recently been unwilling hosts to tragic terrorist violence directed against civilians.

While sympathetic in their distress, the civilian population of Gaza remains less than 500,000 people. Israel, and the greater Palestinian population number less than 8 million.

Barack Obama has spoken solemnly about his commitment to the faltering U.S. economy, the foundation of this nation’s prosperity and security.  His steady hand convinced voters that he was best candidate to keep a nasty recession from turning into something historic and much worse.  Americans will be looking to President Obama for leadership.

At least at the outset, Obama must avoid any temptation to solve all the world’s problems.  Being drawn into negotiating a cease-fire in Gaza risks squandering the new administration’s goodwill and focus.

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