December 3, 2023

In 1953, the Swiss novelist Max Frisch published a play called The Arsonists. It’s a pitch dark comedy about a small town ravaged by a group of maniacs disguised as traveling salesmen, who sweet-talk their way into people’s homes and then set them on fire. Its protagonist is a dolt called Biedermann—bieder being German for honest, respectable, and upright. He’s aware of the danger, and yet, when the arsonists knock, he lets them in. The tragedy, Frisch argues, is that he almost has no other choice: The arsonists are such smooth talkers that it’s easy, when listening to them, to ignore the large drums of kerosene and the matches they’re holding in their hands.

I thought of The Arsonists this week when I heard snippets of a podcast interview featuring former president Barack Obama on the Middle East. “Nobody’s hands are clean,” Obama said. “All of us are complicit.”

Nah, man. Not all of us are complicit. It’s just you.

It’s you, because you’re the one who gave that stentorian speech about red lines in Syria and then sat by and did nothing as those red lines were crossed and Assad continued to slaughter his own people, allowing the Iranians and the Russians to creep in and fill the vacuum left by your devastating lack of leadership.

It’s you, because you’re the one who came up with the idea of empowering Iran, the world’s premiere exporter of terrorism, Holocaust denial, and chaos, all the while telling the American people you were merely trying to stop Teheran from getting a nuclear bomb. Billions of dollars and thousands of dead later, we can all see how well this idea—which you, with the eloquence only a professor could muster, called “regional integration”—is working.

It’s you, because you’re the one who delivered a parting gift to the region, ending your final term as president by reversing four decades of American bipartisan support of Israel and abstaining from a U.N. vote condemning Israeli settlements, while funneling $400 million in annual payments to the despotic Palestinian Authority, which then promptly used this money to fund its pay-for-slay program, doling out large cash payments to any Palestinian who murdered Jews.

So, please, Mr. President: Spare us your opinions.

Former President Barack Obama speaks to attendees at the Obama Foundation Democracy Forum on November 03, 2023 in Chicago, Illinois. Obama spoke about economic inclusion is fundamental to safeguarding and expanding democracies in countries around the world.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

Lest anyone is tempted to think that Obama’s words and actions as president are somehow par for the course, just the muddled messaging that American presidents are forced to deliver when speaking about very complicated questions like Middle East politics, consider his successors and predecessors alike.

Calling Hamas “cold-blooded killers,” former president George W. Bush left little room for ambiguity in a recent interview. “My view is: One side is guilty,” he said. “And it’s not Israel.”

Bill Clinton? Just as clear: “Now is a time for the world to rally against terrorism and support Israeli democracy,” he said on social media two days after Hamas’s horrific attacks. “I stand with the government of Israel and all Israelis.”

President Joe Biden—once Obama’s vice president—delivered both a rousing speech in defense of Israel and, more importantly, the military might that may be needed to fight what is very clearly a much larger conflict than merely a skirmish between Israel and a small terrorist organization in the Gaza Strip.

Which pretty much makes Obama an outlier, the lone voice making very different arguments than those advanced by his Democrat or Republican peers.

It hardly takes a political scientist—or a good therapist—to understand why. Study the 44th president’s record, to say nothing of his extensive writing and speeches, and a clear ideology emerges, the sort of gauzy anti-Imperialist fantasy so trendy in graduate seminar rooms that eschews American power and dreams that the wretched of the earth will rise up to the full measure of their native glory.

Only a mind gripped by the erotic pull of theory would look at the 2009 demonstrations in Iran—the so-called Green Revolution—and decide that America ought to side not with the huddled masses yearning to breathe free but with their jailers, the murderous mullahs who beat women to death for not wearing proper head coverings, execute gays, and kidnap Americans for ransom like common criminals.

It would be so tempting to tune Obama out, to argue that there’s no reason to listen to yet another actor who’d played his part and then stepped down from history’s brightly-lit stage. But Obama, alas, cannot be ignored, because the Democrat Party he’d left behind is still very much his creation and his machinery to control.

It’s no coincidence that Obama is the first person since Woodrow Wilson to remain in Washington, D.C., and the 28th president didn’t leave only because he had suffered a stroke and wasn’t mobile. And it’s a very loosely guarded secret that most of the people in the current administration are much more attuned to Obama’s wishes than to those of the Octogenarian Commander-in-Chief.

But the Obama interview isn’t all bad. Now that college campuses have spiraled into orgies of Jew-hatred; now that Hamas supporters set fire to Brooklyn blocks, turning our neighborhoods into American banlieues; and now that the same Palestinian leaders Obama so fiercely championed appear uninterested in anything but shedding the blood of innocent Israelis, the former president’s twaddle strikes a very different chord.

Maybe we can finally see Obama for what he truly is: The man who set the world on fire.

Liel Leibovitz is editor at large at Tablet Magazine and the author of How the Talmud Can Change Your Life: Surprisingly Modern Advice from a Very Old Book.

The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.