Friday, September 5, 2014

President Obama: Finding Common Ground

I have to say that the threat posed by ISIS in Syria and Iraq has resulted in some fascinating changes to the dynamics in the Middle East. As we all should know by now, much of the conflict in that region has its roots in the divide between Sunni and Shia Muslims. Countries like Saudi Arabia (dominated by Sunni) have provided support to terrorist groups like ISIS who are fighting against the Shia-ruled countries of Iraq, Syria and Iran.

But then ISIS got out of hand. And now Sunni and Shia have found some common ground and are coming together to fight them. This is creating the possibility of a coalition President Obama is developing as his strategy to defeat ISIS.
American officials are hoping to expand the coalition against ISIS to include as many countries as possible, particularly in the region...

Enlisting the Sunni neighbors of Syria and Iraq is crucial, experts said, because airstrikes alone will not be enough to push back ISIS. The Obama administration is also seeking to pursue a sequential strategy that begins with gathering intelligence, and is followed by targeted airstrikes, more robust and better-coordinated support for moderate rebels, and finally, a political reconciliation process.
This is the Obama Doctrine at work - much as we've seen it create the coalition of countries imposing sanctions that brought Iran to the negotiating table as well as punish Russia for their incursions into Ukraine.  The difference between this example and the others, however, is that the end game is the destruction of ISIS rather than a negotiated settlement of differences.

However, after having worked together to defeat ISIS, you can bet that President Obama will attempt to use that same coalition to develop the "new equilibrium" he discussed with David Remnick that would both prevent extremism and benefit the citizens of their countries.
Ultimately, he envisages a new geopolitical equilibrium, one less turbulent than the current landscape of civil war, terror, and sectarian battle. “It would be profoundly in the interest of citizens throughout the region if Sunnis and Shias weren’t intent on killing each other,” he told me. “And although it would not solve the entire problem, if we were able to get Iran to operate in a responsible could see an equilibrium developing between Sunni, or predominantly Sunni, Gulf states and Iran in which there’s competition, perhaps suspicion, but not an active or proxy warfare...

If you can start unwinding some of that, that creates a new equilibrium. And so I think each individual piece of the puzzle is meant to paint a picture in which conflicts and competition still exist in the region but that it is contained, it is expressed in ways that don’t exact such an enormous toll on the countries involved, and that allow us to work with functioning states to prevent extremists from emerging there."
There is a theme to President Obama's message here that he constantly comes back to. It might best be summarized by this quote from Guatama Buddha:
Holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.
Our shared histories, be it in this country or around the globe, have given us many excuses to be angry.  But hanging on to that anger poisons us. To be able to move forward means letting go of the divisions that anger creates. Here's how President Obama talked about that in Cairo back in 2009.
So long as our relationship is defined by our differences, we will empower those who sow hatred rather than peace, those who promote conflict rather than the cooperation that can help all of our people achieve justice and prosperity. And this cycle of suspicion and discord must end.

I've come here to Cairo to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world, one based on mutual interest and mutual respect, and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive and need not be in competition. Instead, they overlap, and share common principles -- principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings.
He made a similar point in this speech about racism during the 2008 election.
I chose to run for president at this moment in history because I believe deeply that we cannot solve the challenges of our time unless we solve them together, unless we perfect our union by understanding that we may have different stories, but we hold common hopes; that we may not look the same and we may not have come from the same place, but we all want to move in the same direction — toward a better future for our children and our grandchildren.
As he's said many times, this doesn't mean ignoring our history or pretending like the differences don't exist. As a matter of fact, he often tells us that conversations that go on about that behind closed doors need to come out into public view.
But I am convinced that in order to move forward, we must say openly to each other the things we hold in our hearts and that too often are said only behind closed doors. There must be a sustained effort to listen to each other; to learn from each other; to respect one another; and to seek common ground.
Its that "common ground" that is the key for President Obama.  He believes that "what unites us is always greater than what divides us." That's because his own personal journey meant finding that common ground inside himself - the son of a black Kenyan and white Kansan.

Letting go of the old anger and divisions is difficult. A lot of the backlash we see against President Obama is a result of people clinging to that old anger as if their lives depended on it. But one of the most beautiful moments I've heard in the last six years came as Rev. Gordon Stewart described his own personal letting go during the 2009 inauguration ceremony.
They are strange tears, like none other I have ever felt. It confuses me. I wonder what they're about. It feels like joy. A joy I have not felt for a long time. Joy... and hope... that something really new is happening. Joy that all the struggles and all the marches that wore holes in my generation's shoes on behalf of civil rights and peace have brought us to this indescribably holy moment that transcends the old divisions.

For sure, the tears that rise up in me are tears of joy. But they're also about something else. They feel like the convulsing sobs of a prisoner released from prison. They come from a hidden well of poison -- the well of deep grief stuffed away over all the years because of all the marches, all the beatings, all the blood, the well of buried anger -- the silent tears of grief over the America we had almost lost.

Then I realize: Only the appearance of joy and hope can release such deep grief. It was the joy on Yo-Yo Ma's face that finally released the poison locked inside my soul. It is the joy and hope of a new generation that's able to take us where my generation cannot -- free of the taint of sore feet and scars and old grudges the new President says we must move past.
Rev. Stewart recognizes that it is likely up to a new generation - free of the poison from the past - that will be able to lead us to that common ground. This is something that President Obama regularly suggests both at home and abroad. But for us oldies who are interested in letting go of the past so that we can move forward, note that for Rev. Stewart, it was "the appearance of joy and hope" that released the deep grief. That's where we'll find our North Star.  


  1. Well, as long as I never have to hear again that this administration's foreign policy is some sort of realist enterprise and not unmitigated messianism. I tend to think that our enemies are not simple minded children who can be easily tricked and manipulated into abandoning their senses of self and history, and that any time Saudi Arabia is described as a "moderate" force or partner is one time too many.

    So I would instead guess that the Islamic State (being undisguised aggressors in the middle of an open desert aka fish in a barrel) will simply get blown up real good for the next year or so until the Sunnis and the Shiites return to their blood feud and nobody ever bothers rebuilding the Syrian state. Does anybody want to take the other side of that bet?

    1. A patriarchal mindset is always quick to dismiss things like "common ground" and "coalitions" as being all about the arena of simple minded children. You are therefore welcome to wallow in your cynicism while the rest of us move on.

    2. For a thousand years they've all loved their children just as hard. For the Westerner to declare that their differences don't matter is to ultimately annihilate them both.

      That's not cynicism. That's a recognition that the peoples of the world have senses of self and history that matter beyond the Western siren song and random monsters-of-the-week with armored pickups and swords.

    3. That you think anything I've written here suggests that "their differences don't matter" indicates we're not communicating. I'll just leave you with this quote from above:

      There must be a sustained effort to listen to each other; to learn from each other; to respect one another; and to seek common ground.

    4. With the election of Barack Hussein Obama...not once but twice...I have learned that all things are possible.....Hope is better than cynicism

    5. Oh, we were never communicating from the start. That's why you snapped and told me to go wallow. It's cool, I wasn't envisioning a dialogue from you. This comment section isn't just for your eyes only.

      Westerners are absolutely trying to destroy the difference between Islamic traditions and smooth everybody out into solidarity and oneness. Obama himself in that first quote effectively laughs them off as irresponsible crazy people who can't stop killing each other and must instead learn to share and share alike. Because to non-Muslims, sect is a historical artifact or even a lifestyle choice, whereas to Muslim believers it's literally about the last will and testament of the Prophet and a thousand years of parallel traditions and history. Is it really that crazy that people in the Middle East would rather construct their national identities on their faith or ethnicity rather than on sovereignties they had no role in creating or devising?

      It's entirely possible for people to be opposed to both jihadi slaver brigades AND cosmopolitanism. We keep trying to socially engineer them in our own image (as we imagine it) when we still don't really know much about their lives or their histories nor have much respect for any of it. I personally think doing so is the necessary impulse, but I can't say that it's necessarily a good one, born only from good places.

    6. I have no desire to provide you with a place to communicate with yourself. Go start your own blog if that's what you're looking to do. With that, I'll say ta-ta to you.

  2. Reluctance at finding common ground comes from the utter bastardization of it by both MidEast so-called peace people who dismissed Muslim concerns, and the "Common Ground" discussions between anti-abortion, pro-choice that resulted in absolutely nothing.

    That said, the fact is there IS common ground IF all sides are honorable.

    Of course there is fear, Anonymous, that nothing about the U.S. can be trusted (or Europe with its massive colonial past.) But one has to start somewhere if there is to be an end to he slaughter, to the cycles of endless war. The greatest pragmatism of this administration is in looking to find ways for enemies to co-exist and to end the slaughter of innocents. To posit that it's impossible is to deny history and the capacity of human beings to grow and change. It is not a common ground built on capitulation (I'd call that Versailles) but on, as Nancy notes, respect for others even in their differences. The whole of human history is replete with examples of annihilation but also with examples of coexistence for the common good. We have long needed a foreign policy that elevates the latter rather than the former, and this administration is working toward that much superior end.