Rahm Emanuel Has Learned Nothing About Foreign Policy

Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel granted the New Republic's Isaac Chotiner what the magazine describes as a "contentious" interview--and that's putting it mildly. The mayor is highly combative and profane in the interview, showing a contempt for the public that is almost as sharp as his contempt for the media. There are, however, a few policy remarks worth noting, and one of them is Emanuel's pronouncement on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Emanuel refuses to speak to Chotiner on the record about "what went wrong" in the relationship between U.S. President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But he is optimistic, he says, about the prospects for a peace deal now. When Chotiner asks, with an appropriate degree of skepticism, why the mayor thinks peace is any more likely now than it has been in the past two decades, Emanuel responds:

Hamas is as weak as it’s going to be. Abbas is ready to work with Israel. Israel has a security concern involving geography. But geography does not have the same value it did in 1967. And I want to say that there is nothing I just said that major figures in the national security apparatus of the IDF [Israel Defense Forces] and Israel haven’t said publicly. Nothing!

Chotiner then responds (this is the new New Republic, after all) that "Sometimes American politicians can’t say things that have already been said in Israel." Emanuel agrees, enthusiastically.

There are two conclusions to draw from the exchange. One is that Emanuel is decidedly on the left of the debate, in the sense that he believes in pushing Israel to make concessions. That is what citing "things that have already been said in Israel" means. That rhetorical tactic is never applied to what conservative, security-concious Israelis have said about, say, extending Israeli law to the West Bank, but only to the Israeli left's criticism of its government.

The other conclusion is that Emanuel has learned nothing about the Middle East, and foreign policy in general, from recent history. The idea that "geography does not have the same value it did in 1967" was popular in the late 1990s in Israel, when peace seemed around the corner, but the aftermath of the Gaza disengagement ended that notion, and created a strong consensus in Israel around the idea that geography actually matters a great deal.

Note, too, that Emanuel is declaring geography irrelevant in the same arrogant, hubristic tone with which President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have dismissed Vladimir Putin's distinctly "19th century" interest in the Crimea. It is as if recent and ongoing events--never mind things that happened several years or even decades ago--have had no impact at all on the way Emanuel and his political clique think about the world.

We do not need to know how short-sighted Emanuel is to understand the failures of the administration he left behind. But it is an important clue to the thinking of the future administration he may yet hope to join--i.e. the Hillary Clinton administration, where he would take up the same role, albeit with even greater power. A man who thinks geography is irrelevant is as dangerous as a president who thinks Benghazi makes no difference.


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