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From Strength to Weakness

By January 1, 2013 No Comments

by John Hubers

My wife and I—along with 250,000 true believers—were part of the massive block party the Obama campaign threw in Grant Park in downtown Chicago on election night 2008. We watched and cheered as the massive screen floating above our heads announced state after state falling into the blue camp. California was the last to go. I will never forget the primal scream that split the night air when that happened as all quarter-million of us released the months of pent-up fear that the improbable election of our first African American president wouldn’t happen. Worship should be like this, I thought. Or maybe it is. Looking around at the ecstatically ebullient faces it wasn’t hard to believe that the messiah had come.

Four years later, clearly the messiah hasn’t come (as though anyone ever actually believed that). Barack Obama’s first four years in office did not bring us to the Promised Land. Not even close. His presidency, like all other presidencies, was and is flawed—horribly flawed for those of us who look to American presidents to use their considerable political capital to push forward a plan to bring peace with justice to the conflicted people of Israel and Palestine. With the Obama victory effectively neutering the Bush neo-cons, there was hope that this might happen. It didn’t. Our president caved, as all other presidents before him have caved, to Israeli expansionism, offering muted protests but little else. In fact, as the 2012 elections drew near, Obama became a cheerleader for the injustice, eager to assure the hard-core Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli prime minister, that America would do anything to make him happy. The settlements expanded and the Palestinians were demonized and demoralized and nothing changed.

So why did I vote for Obama again? The same reason I did before. I voted for his vision, which in my estimation conforms more closely to the contours of the prophetic message of scripture than the GOP alternative. While the Republicans trumpet a muscular American exceptionalism, Obama recognizes the necessary limitations of American power. “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God” (Psalm 20:7) comes to mind.

In a December 31, 2012, Time magazine article, Fareed Zakaria rightly praises Obama for this, noting that it was less what Obama did than what he didn’t do in his first term that makes him one of our better presidents.

Most Presidents gain fame and respect in this realm [foreign policy] because of some large-scale project. . . . While Obama has accomplishments to his credit, the signature trait that has helped him steer the country well—and receive credit for it—is what he has not done. Obama’s foreign policy has, above all, been characterized by strategic restraint. At a time when old orders are changing and new forces are emerging, he has kept the U.S. engaged and at the forefront of these trends, but he has been wary of grand declarations and military interventions.

This explains why, despite my expressed disappointment with Obama’s lack of political backbone in the face of Israeli recalcitrance, I’m alright with what he is about. I have long felt that the best hope for peace with justice lies with the Palestinians and Israelis themselves. A president who avoids seeking grand solutions to complex problems may empower the players themselves. We are already seeing this happen with the Palestinian Authority’s successful bid for United Nations recognition over strong American objections. A humbler, less insistently aggressive American policy may be what is needed to empower the Palestinians and Israelis to negotiate their own destiny.

It is when we are weak that we are strong, says scripture. I’m glad we have a president who seems to understand this.

John Hubers teaches religion at Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa.