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Under the cover of continuity, President Obama has effected a revolution in American foreign policy. As a result, America’s position as a world superpower well may have peaked in 2008, and its long-term decline to a status better resembling Britain. But unlike Britain’s misery, America’s decline will be a willful withdrawal from a leading position in world affairs, an act without obvious precedent in world history. Were this to occur”and that is the present trajectory”Obama will have had a decisive role in bringing it to pass. What motivates the president? The answer, I believe, should be sought in the tragic circumstances of the Muslim nations.

What a master of the hot button, though, this president is. Jews invest a great deal of their emotional energy in the Holocaust, and he pressed their button at Buchenwald. Jewish voters, almost eighty percent of whom supported Obama last November, are more susceptible to the sucker punch than other denizens of a cynical world, and Obama is its master practitioner.

Amidst general adulation, Jewish protests sound shrill. The Zionist Organization of America denounced the address as “inimical to Israel” and warned that Obama “may become the most hostile President to Israel ever.” One can read the thought bubble above the average reader of East Coast newspapers: “Aren’t the Jews ever satisfied? Can’t they ever split things down the middle?” Churlish as it may sound, the ZOA statement is the most accurate characterization of the Cairo address I have seen.

Many analysts (including this one ) have called attention to the inaccuracies and half-truths that infest the Cairo speech. They are too numerous to recount here. Psychological truth, though, often lurks behind the lies. That is true for the most offensive gaffe of all, namely Obama’s trivialization of the Holocaust. The president said, “Six million Jews were killed . . . . Denying that fact is baseless, ignorant, and hateful. Threatening Israel with destruction”or repeating vile stereotypes about Jews”is deeply wrong, and only serves to evoke in the minds of Israelis this most painful of memories while preventing the peace that the people of this region deserve. On the other hand, it is also undeniable that the Palestinian people”Muslims and Christians”have suffered in pursuit of a homeland. For more than sixty years they have endured the pain of dislocation.”

As many Jewish critics protested, it is distasteful in the extreme to equate a camp in which a Jew is gassed to death, and a camp in which an Arab is fed, clothed, housed, and educated, in most cases far better than before. Through Western eyes, the comparison seems odious. Palestinian living standards rose sharply after 1948 thanks to the largesse of the United Nations, and remain much higher than those of neighboring Arab countries. Per capital income of Palestinian Arabs on the West Bank and Gaza strip is estimated at eight dollars a day. By contrast, half of Egyptians live on two dollars a day or less. Living standards among Palestinian refugees (no where else in history have the great-great-grandchildren of refugees been classified as refugees) are considerably better than those in Egypt and other Arab countries without substantial oil exports. Foreign aid per capita of $300 per year is the highest in the world.

Millions died in other population exchanges of the twentieth century”Greece and Turkey in the early 1920s, Germany, Poland, and Czechoslovakia in 1945, India in 1947”but virtually no Palestinian Arabs died in the population exchange of 1947“1948. Over 800,000 Jews were expelled from Arab countries, which is why the majority of Israelis today come not from Europe but from the Arab world, a fact Obama did not see fit to mention. It is not quite true that the Arab countries kept the refugees captive in the camps as political hostages against Israel; many of them remain there because their living standard is far better than in Egypt, the Arab country most able to absorb them in large numbers.

Obama’s speech, though, did not address truth, but rather psychological truth. In Arab eyes, the humiliation of the Palestinians is just as grave a crime as the Nazi murder of six million Jews, because humiliation means death. It would be facile to ascribe such an attitude to the exaggerated sense of honor in tribal society, or for that matter to Islam’s emphasis upon worldly success. Not only illiterate people earning two dollars a day believe such things. During the 1930s, mainstream German opinion held that a Jewish conspiracy was close to exterminating the Aryan race through miscegenation and syphilis. One thinks in this context of Muslim belief that polio vaccine is a Western plot to sterilize Muslim girls has stopped vaccinations in large parts of West Africa, resulting in the return of a disease that nearly had been eradicated”a fact of which Obama made indirect mention in Cairo.

Obama is a man of the third world, and he understands how fragile the thread of existence looks to third world eyes. An obsession with national death dominates the Arab dialogue, which is accessible to Westerns with a modicum of curiosity in widely available English-language sources. Ali Allawi, a leading politician in Iraq’s American-backed government, wrote this year in a widely reviewed book , “The much heralded Islamic awakening of recent times will not be a prelude to the rebirth of an Islamic civilization; it will be another episode in its decline. The revolt of Islam becomes instead the final act of the end of a civilization.” The Syrian poet “Adonis” (Ali Ahmad Said), the only Arab writer on the Nobel Prize shortlist, warns, “We [Arabs] have become extinct . . . . We have the masses of people, but a people becomes extinct when it no longer has a creative capacity, and the capacity to change its world . . . The great Sumerians became extinct, the great Greeks became extinct, and the Pharaohs became extinct.”

Western observers stuck on the stereotype of Arab hordes overrunning a depopulated Western Europe may find this strange, but the much-vaunted Muslim womb is failing. Iran’s fertility decline is the fastest ever observed, and by some accounts has fallen below the level of 1.9 births per female registered in the 2006 census to only 1.6, barely above Germany’s. Collapsing fertility is accompanied by social pathologies, including rates of drug addiction and prostitution an order of magnitude greater than in any Western country. Of the fifteen countries that show the biggest drop in population growth since 1980, eight are in the Middle East, and the head of the United Nations population division calls the collapse of Islamic population growth “amazing.” Underlying this demographic revolution, I have argued in the past, is a crisis of faith in the Muslim world.

As Obama said, “The sweeping change brought by modernity and globalization led many Muslims to view the West as hostile to the traditions of Islam.” But it is even worse: Modernity and globalization are killing the Muslim countries. Wealthy countries such as Europe and Japan barely can avoid national bankruptcy due to rapid aging of the population; for third world countries, the outcome is apocalyptic. The collapse of fertility, so perceptible from one generation to another, may not yet portend the demographic death faced by Estonia or Georgia, but it brings with it the stench of the sepulcher. Political Islam is a response to the death of traditional Muslim society, as the Islamists have emphasized since Sayyid Qutb formulated modern Islamism in the 1940s.

Obama is the son of a Kenyan Muslim father, the stepson of an Indonesian Muslim, and the child, most of all, of an American anthropologist who identified passionately with the fragile, threatened lives of marginal people in the Indonesian marketplace. His mother Ann Dunham’s doctoral dissertation, “Peasant blacksmithing in Indonesia: surviving against all odds,” celebrated traditional cultures hanging on desperately in the face of the global economic marketplace. As a man of the third world, Obama knows that existential angst is more than a joke in a Woody Allen film for most of the peoples of the world. Deracination and loss of identity are the first symptoms of a disease that is invariably fatal to tribes and peoples, and whose onset instills a terrible presentiment of death in all its adherents.

Ann Dunham’s dissertation prefigured her son’s political view. Consider this description of the Jakarta of his childhood from Obama’s autobiography, Dreams of My Father : “And yet for all that poverty [in the Indonesian marketplace], there remained in their lives a discernible order, a tapestry of trading routes and middlemen, bribes to pay and customs to observe, the habits of a generation played out every day beneath the bargaining and the noise and the swirling dust. It was the absence of such coherence that made a place like [the Chicago housing projects] so desperate.” Obama had chance to compare the orderliness and regularity of traditional life with the rough-and-tumble of American capitalism, and chose to identify with the former.

Americans shield themselves from the horror of national death. In the eyes of the third world, the Holocaust is of no special consequence. Every tribe and nation will face its own Holocaust, that is, its own extinction. The world is in the midst of a Great Extinction of peoples, in which between half and nine-tenths of the world’s 6,000 languages will be silent forever during the next century. Americans shield their eyes from the horror that pervades life in the Muslim world, the sense of looming extinction that lies upon ordinary life like an unending plague of darkness. As Franz Rosenzweig wrote , “Just as every individual must reckon with his eventual death, the peoples of the world foresee their eventual extinction, be it however distant in time. Indeed, the love of the peoples for their own nationhood is sweet and pregnant with the presentiment of death. Thus the peoples of the world foresee a time when their land with its rivers and mountains still lies under heaven as it does today, but other people dwell there; when their language is entombed in books, and their laws and customers have lost their living power.”

At one level, the Palestinian belief that the cozy settlements of their exile are the equivalent of the Nazi death camps is delusional. At a deeper level, it is true, for the Palestinians Arabs are dying of shame and humiliation, that is, of their incapacity to adapt to the modern world. They are not dying quite so fast as their Persian coreligionists, but they are dying nonetheless. They know they are dying. They make a virtue of it in the slogan, “You love life: we love death.” They fight like men with nothing to lose, because they have nothing to lose in fact.

It used to be the conservatives who stood athwart history, shouting “Stop!” Now it is the president of the United States. As the son, stepson, and half-sibling of Muslims, Obama’s identification with the Muslim predicament runs deep. Contrary to some benign interpretations, I do not believe that Obama has made a well-meaning or naive gesture towards the so-called Muslim world. On the contrary, his opinions were long in formation, and his actions precisely calculated. But he is cleverer by far than his American critics. He understands the various tribes of American politics as cultures to be profiled and manipulated. He is the political equivalent of an alien species against which Americans have no natural defense.

As I wrote early in 2008, Obama profiles Americans the way anthropologists interact with primitive peoples. He holds his own view in reserve and emphatically draws out the feelings of others; that is how friends and colleagues describe his modus operandi since his days at the Harvard Law Review , through his years as a community activist in Chicago, and in national politics. Anthropologists, though, proceed from resentment against the devouring culture of America and sympathy with the endangered cultures of the primitive world. Obama inverts the anthropological model: He applies the tools of cultural manipulation out of resentment against America.

Unfortunately, the facts are consistent with the Zionist Organization of America’s warning that the Cairo speech points towards a renunciation of America’s alliance with Israel. Superficially, it may seem a small concession to require a stop to construction in Israel’s West Bank settlements. But that is not what the Muslim countries heard. Obama said, “The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements,” an ambiguous formulation which states that the existence of settlements itself is illegitimate. That is a first step towards making Israel indefensible.

Like a chessboard on which the two players have an equal number of pieces, the battle lines on the West Bank may appear stable. In fact, the front is extremely unstable. Under Iranian tutelage, Hizbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza propose to make large parts of Israel effectively uninhabitable by subjecting them to rocket fire. The rockets are hidden in densely populated civilian areas, such that efforts to eliminate them as in Lebanon in August 2006 or in Gaza earlier this year cause considerable distress to non-combatants. In fact, the rockets are employed as a provocation to draw the Israelis into military operations that cause a large number of civilian casualties.

By withdrawing unilaterally from Lebanon and Gaza, Israel opened itself to the slow erosion of its sovereignty through rocket attacks. The settlements in the West Bank, with about 300,000 residents, constitute a buffer against a similar threat against Israel’s biggest population concentrations in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

On the chessboard of the Middle East, Obama’s policy turn threatens to put Israel into a double bind. Squeezing out the settlements brings Palestinian rocketry within range of Israeli’s largest cities. Iranian patronage enables Hamas and Hizbollah to threaten Israel, but Obama’s unconditional engagement of Iran rules out Israeli military pressure on the sponsors of its local adversaries. His concession of “peaceful nuclear power” to Teheran was universally read as a one-sided concession to the Iranian mullahs.

Together, the conciliation of Iran and the pressure on Israel’s West Bank buffer constitute a formula for eventual Israeli defeat, and Jerusalem is right to be alarmed over the latest turn of events. How long it will take the complacent, gullible majority of American Jews to notice that they have been sucker-punched is another matter. The center of Jewish opinion in America is close to the extreme left wing in Israel, whose commitment to the Oslo process has resulted in their virtual exclusion from Israel’s body politic.

Obama’s embrace of a declining culture and his abandonment of America’s principal ally in the Middle East are gestures without precedent in American history. The consequences are incalculable; the only certainty is that the outcome will be very different than the one for which the president hopes. In the meantime, American Jews have the opportunity to consider how easily manipulated they were, and how complacent in their exercise of influence. Obama won them over with token gestures, including a Passover Seder at the White House. But he has thrown them under the bus on the only real issue of substance for Jews, namely the security of the state of Israel.

David P. Goldman is associate editor of First Things .

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