by Noam Chomsky
A CNN headline, reporting Obama's plans for his June 4 Cairo address, reads 'Obama looks to reach the soul of the Muslim world.' Perhaps that captures his intent, but more significant is the content hidden in the rhetorical stance, or more accurately, omitted.
Keeping just to Israel-Palestine — there was nothing substantive about anything else — Obama called on Arabs and Israelis not to 'point fingers' at each other or to 'see this conflict only from one side or the other.' There is, however, a third side, that of the United States, which has played a decisive role in sustaining the current conflict. Obama gave no indication that its role should change or even be considered.
Those familiar with the history will rationally conclude, then, that Obama will continue in the path of unilateral U.S. rejectionism.
Obama once again praised the Arab Peace Initiative, saying only that Arabs should see it as 'an important beginning, but not the end of their responsibilities.' How should the Obama administration see it? Obama and his advisers are surely aware that the Initiative reiterates the long-standing international consensus calling for a two-state settlement on the international (pre-June '67) border, perhaps with 'minor and mutual modifications,' to borrow U.S. government usage before it departed sharply from world opinion in the 1970s, vetoing a Security Council resolution backed by the Arab 'confrontation states' (Egypt, Iran, Syria), and tacitly by the PLO, with the same essential content as the Arab Peace Initiative except that the latter goes beyond by calling on Arab states to normalize relations with Israel in the context of this political settlement. Obama has called on the Arab states to proceed with normalization, studiously ignoring, however, the crucial political settlement that is its precondition. The Initiative cannot be a 'beginning' if the U.S. continues to refuse to accept its core principles, even to acknowledge them.
In the background is the Obama administration's goal, enunciated most clearly by Senator John Kerry, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, to forge an alliance of Israel and the 'moderate' Arab states against Iran. The term 'moderate' has nothing to do with the character of the state, but rather signals its willingness to conform to U.S. demands.
What is Israel to do in return for Arab steps to normalize relations? The strongest position so far enunciated by the Obama administration is that Israel should conform to Phase I of the 2003 Road Map, which states: 'Israel freezes all settlement activity (including natural growth of settlements).' All sides claim to accept the Road Map, overlooking the fact that Israel instantly added 14 reservations that render it inoperable.
Overlooked in the debate over settlements is that even if Israel were to accept Phase I of the Road Map, that would leave in place the entire settlement project that has already been developed, with decisive U.S. support, to ensure that Israel will take over the valuable land within the illegal 'separation wall' (including the primary water supplies of the region) as well as the Jordan Valley, thus imprisoning what is left, which is being broken up into cantons by settlement/infrastructure salients extending far to the East. Unmentioned as well is that Israel is taking over Greater Jerusalem, the site of its major current development programs, displacing many Arabs, so that what remains to Palestinians will be separated from the center of their cultural, economic, and sociopolitical life. Also unmentioned is that all of this is in violation of international law, as conceded by the government of Israel after the 1967 conquest, and reaffirmed by Security Council resolutions and the International Court of Justice. Also unmentioned are Israel's successful operations since 1991 to separate the West Bank from Gaza, since turned into a prison where survival is barely possible, further undermining the hopes for a viable Palestinian state.
It is worth remembering that there has been one break in U.S.-Israeli rejectionism. President Clinton recognized that the terms he had offered at the failed 2000 Camp David meetings were not acceptable to any Palestinians, and in December, proposed his 'parameters,' vague but more forthcoming. He then announced that both sides had accepted the parameters, though both had reservations. Israeli and Palestinian negotiators met in Taba, Egypt to iron out the differences, and made considerable progress. A full resolution could have been reached in a few more days, they announced in their final joint press conference. But Israel called off the negotiations prematurely, and they have not been formally resumed. The single exception indicates that if an American president is willing to tolerate a meaningful diplomatic settlement, it can very likely be reached.
It is also worth remembering that the Bush I administration went a bit beyond words in objecting to illegal Israeli settlement projects, namely, by withholding U.S. economic support for them. In contrast, Obama administration officials stated that such measures are 'not under discussion' and that any pressures on Israel to conform to the Road Map will be 'largely symbolic,' so the New York Times reported (Helene Cooper, June 1).
There is more to say, but it does not relieve the grim picture that Obama has been painting, with a few extra touches in his widely-heralded address to the Muslim World in Cairo on June 4.
Noam Chomsky is Institute Professor (retired) at MIT. He is the author of many books and articles on international affairs and social-political issues, and a long-time participant in activist movements. His most recent books include: Failed States , What We Say Goes (with David Barsamian), Hegemony or Survival , and the Essential Chomsky .
Article printed from www.CommonDreams.org
Robert Fisk: Words that could heal wounds of centuries
President Obama reaches out to the Islamic world in a landmark speech
Friday, 5 June 2009
President Obama's speech reached out to the Islamic world
Preacher, historian, economist, moralist, schoolteacher, critic, warrior, imam, emperor. Sometimes you even forgot Barack Obama was the President of the United States of America.
Will his lecture to a carefully chosen audience at Cairo University “re-imagine the world” and heal the wounds of centuries between Muslims and Christians? Will it resolve the Arab-Israeli tragedy after more than 60 years? If words could do the job, perhaps…
It was a clever speech we heard from Obama yesterday, as gentle and as ruthless as any audience could wish for – and we were all his audience. He praised Islam. He loved Islam. He admired Islam. He loved Christianity. And he admired America. Did we know that there were seven million Muslims in America, that there were mosques in every state of the Union, that Morocco was the first nation to recognise the United States and that our duty is to fight against stereotypes of Muslims just as Muslims must fight against stereotypes of America?
But much of the truth was there, albeit softened to avoid hurting feelings in Israel. To deny the facts of the Jewish Holocaust was “baseless, ignorant and hateful”, he said, a remark obviously aimed at Iran. And Israel deserved security and “Palestinians must abandon violence…”
The United States demanded a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He told the Israelis there had to be a total end to their colonisation in the West Bank. “The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements.”
The Palestinians had suffered without a homeland. “The situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable,” Obama said and the US would not turn its back on the “legitimate Palestinian aspiration for a state of their own”. Israel had to take “concrete steps” to give the Palestinians progress in their daily lives as part of a road to peace. Israel needed to acknowledge Palestinian suffering and the Palestinian right to exist. Wow. Not for a generation has Israel had to take this kind of criticism from a US President. It sounded like the end of the Zionist dream. Did George Bush ever exist?
Alas, he did. Indeed, at times, the Obama address sounded like the Bush General Repair Company, visiting the Muslim world to sweep up mountains of broken chandeliers and shredded flesh. The President of the United States – and this was awesome – admitted his country's failures, its over-reaction to 9/11, its creation of Guantanamo which, Obama reminded us all again, he is closing down. Not bad, Obama…
We got to Iran. One state trying to acquire nuclear weapons would lead to a “dangerous path” for all of us, especially in the Middle East. We must prevent a nuclear arms race. But Iran as a nation must be treated with dignity. More extraordinarily, Obama reminded us that the US had connived to overthrow the democratically elected Mossadeq government of Iran in the Fifties. It was “hard to overcome decades of distrust”.
There was more; democracy, women's rights, the economy, a few good quotes from the Koran (“Whoever kills an innocent, it is as if he has killed all mankind”.) Governments must respect “all their people” and their minorities. He mentioned the Christian Copts of Egypt; even the Christian Maronites of Lebanon got a look in.
And when Obama said that some governments, “once in power, are ruthless in suppressing the rights of others”, there was a roar of applause from the supposedly obedient audience. No wonder the Egyptian government wanted to select which bits of Obama's speech would be suitable for the Egyptian people. They were clearly very, very unhappy with the police-state regime of Hosni Mubarak. Indeed, Obama did not once mention Mubarak's name.
Over and again, one kept saying to oneself: Obama hasn't mentioned Iraq – and then he did (“a war of choice… our combat brigades will be leaving”). But he hasn't mentioned Afghanistan – and then he did (“we do not want to keep our troops in Afghanistan… we will gladly bring every one of our troops home”). When he started talking about the “coalition of 46 countries” in Afghanistan – a very dodgy statistic – he began to sound like his predecessor. And here, of course, we encountered an inevitable problem. As the Palestinian intellectual Marwan Bishara pointed out yesterday, it is easy to be “dazzled” by presidents. This was a dazzling performance. But if one searched the text, there were things missing.
There was no mention – during or after his kindly excoriation of Iran – of Israel's estimated 264 nuclear warheads. He admonished the Palestinians for their violence – for “shooting rockets at sleeping children or blowing up old women in a bus”. But there was no mention of Israel's violence in Gaza, just of the “continuing humanitarian crisis in Gaza”. Nor was there a mention of Israel's bombing of civilians in Lebanon, of its repeated invasions of Lebanon (17,500 dead in the 1982 invasion alone). Obama told Muslims not to live in the past, but cut the Israelis out of this. The Holocaust loomed out of his speech and he reminded us that he was going to the site of the Buchenwald concentration camp today.
For a man who is sending thousands more US troops into Afghanistan – a certain disaster-to-come in the eyes of Arabs and Westerners – there was something brazen about all this. When he talked about the debt that all Westerners owed to Islam – the “light of learning” in Andalusia, algebra, the magnetic compass, religious tolerance, it was like a cat being gently stroked before a visit to the vet. And the vet, of course, lectured the Muslims on the dangers of extremism, on “cycles of suspicion and discord” – even if America and Islam shared “common principles” which turned out to be “justice, progress and the dignity of all human beings”.
There was one merciful omission: a speech of nearly 6,000 words did not include the lethal word “terror”. “Terror” or “terrorism” have become punctuation marks for every Israeli government and became part of the obscene grammar of the Bush era.
An intelligent guy, then, Obama. Not exactly Gettysburg. Not exactly Churchill, but not bad. One could only remember Churchill's observations: “Words are easy and many, while great deeds are difficult and rare.”
Obama In Cairo: A New Face For Imperialism
By Patrick Martin
05 June, 2009
The speech delivered by US President Barack Obama in Cairo yesterday was riddled with contradictions. He declared his opposition to the “killing of innocent men, women, and children,” but defended the ongoing US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the US proxy war in Pakistan, while remaining silent on the most recent Israeli slaughter of Palestinians in Gaza. These wars have killed at least one million Iraqis and tens of thousands in Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Palestinian territories.
Obama declared his support for democracy, human rights and women’s rights, after two days of meetings with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, two of the most notorious tyrants in the Middle East. He said nothing in his speech about the complete absence of democratic rights in Saudi Arabia, or about the ongoing repression under Mubarak’s military dictatorship. In the days before the US president’s arrival at Al-Azhar University, the campus was raided by Egyptian secret police who detained more than 200 foreign students. Before leaving on his Mideast trip, Obama praised Mubarak as a “steadfast ally.”
While posturing as the advocate of universal peace and understanding, Obama diplomatically omitted any reference to his order to escalate the war in Afghanistan with the dispatch of an additional 17,000 US troops. And he tacitly embraced the policy of his predecessor in Iraq, declaring, “I believe the Iraqi people are ultimately better off without the tyranny of Saddam Hussein.” He even seemed to hedge on the withdrawal deadline of December 2011 negotiated by the Bush administration, which he described as a pledge “to remove all our troops from Iraq by 2012.”
Obama rejected the charge that America is “a self-interested empire”—a perfectly apt characterization—and denied that the United States was seeking bases, territory or access to natural resources in the Muslim world. He claimed that the war in Afghanistan was a “war of necessity” provoked by the 9/11 terrorist attacks. This is the same argument made by the Bush-Cheney administration at the time, which deliberately conceals the real material interests at stake. The war in Afghanistan is part of the drive by US imperialism to dominate the world’s two most important sources of oil and gas, the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Basin.
There was of course a distinct shift in the rhetorical tone from the bullying “you’re either with or against us” of George W. Bush to the reassuring “we’re all in this together” of Obama. But as several commentators noted (the New Republic compared the speech line-for-line to that given by Bush to the United Nations on September 16, 2006), if you turned off the picture and the sound and simply read the prepared text, the words are very similar to speeches delivered by Bush, Condoleezza Rice and other officials of the previous administration.
The vague and flowery rhetoric, the verbal tributes to Islamic culture and the equal rights of nations, constitute an adjustment of the language being used to cloak the policy of US imperialism, not a change in substance. Obama made not a single concrete proposal to redress the grievances of the oppressed peoples of the Middle East. That is because the fundamental source of this oppression is the profit system and the domination of the world by imperialism, of which American imperialism is the most ruthless.
Obama made one passing reference to colonialism, and to the US role in the overthrow of the democratically elected Mossadegh government in Iran in 1953. But in his litany of “sources of tension” in the region, he offered the same checklist as his predecessor, with the first place given to “violent extremism”, Obama’s rhetorical substitute for Bush’s “terrorism.”
The reaction to the Obama speech in the American media was across-the-board enthusiasm. Liberal David Corn of Mother Jones magazine said Obama’s great advantages were “his personal history, his non-Bushness, his recognition of US errors, his willingness to at least talk as if he wants to be an honest broker in the Mideast.”
Michael Crowley wrote in the pro-war liberal magazine New Republic, “to see him unfold his biography, to cut such an unfamiliar profile to the world, is to appreciate how much America will benefit from presenting this new face to the world.”
Perhaps most revealing was the comment by Max Boot, a neoconservative arch-defender of the war in Iraq, who wrote: “I thought he did a more effective job of making America’s case to the Muslim world. No question: He is a more effective salesman than his predecessor was.”
In his speech in Cairo, Obama was playing the role for which he was drafted and promoted by a decisive section of the US financial elite and the military and foreign policy apparatus. This role is to provide a new face for US imperialism as part of a shift in the tactics, but not the strategy, of Washington’s drive for world domination.
Nearly two years ago, former US national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski gave his public backing to the presidential candidacy of a still-obscure senator from Illinois, holding out the prospect that as an African-American with family ties to the Muslim world, Obama would improve the worldwide image of the United States.
Brzezinski was the leading hawk in the administration of Democrat Jimmy Carter and helped instigate the political upheavals in Afghanistan in the hopes of inciting a Soviet invasion that would trap the Moscow bureaucracy in a Vietnam-style quagmire. He has remained steadily focused on what he calls the “great chessboard” of Eurasia, and particularly on oil-rich Central Asia, where a struggle for influence now rages between the United States, Russia, China and Iran.
According to Brzezinski in August 2007, Obama “recognizes that the challenge is a new face, a new sense of direction, a new definition of America’s role in the world… Obama is clearly more effective and has the upper hand. He has a sense of what is historically relevant and what is needed from the United States in relationship to the world.”
Brzezinski, a ruthless defender of the interests of US imperialism, has issuing warnings to the American ruling elite of the danger of what he calls the “global political awakening.”
In one particularly pointed comment, he told the German magazine Der Spiegel, only months before he endorsed Obama, that the vast majority of humanity “will no longer tolerate the enormous disparities in the human condition. That could well be the collective danger we will have to face in the next decades.”
To call it by its right name, what the more perceptive elements in the US ruling class fear is world revolution. The effort to prevent such a social upheaval is what impelled them to install Obama in the White House and what set him on his pilgrimage to Cairo.
Copyright © 1998-2009 World Socialist Web Site
OBAMA IN CAIRO
From the desk of Reuven Kaminer June 5, 2009
The Constantly Widening Gap Between Words and Deeds
There are political circles and commentators who live from minute to minute. For them, every squeak from a world leader is a virtual earthquake, a real revolution. This is especially true now that we are dealing with a US president, who is handsome, articulate and even eloquent. The present level of manipulated excitement stems from the non-revelation that Barak Obama is against settlements and for the two state solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He also sees importance in improving the tainted image of the United States in the Arab and Moslem worlds. Now who can ask for anything more?
It is not that I disregard the significance of declarations but these must be carefully sifted so as to distinguish changes in the usual discourse. Repetition of old and pious wishes means little, while the appearance or disappearance of different formulations and elements is worth attention. But even before seeing how Obama is stacking up to his recent declarations, seen in Israel as criticism of Israeli policy, there is one new Obama element which demands urgent analysis.
The Normalization Gambit
Obama has added a new, problematic, and dangerous dimension to the formula for the solution of the conflict. He has called on both the Palestinians and the Arab countries to take immediate steps, before the conclusion of peace with Israel, so as to normalize their relations with Israel. Now this demand is quite embarrassing for the so-called moderate pro-USA, Arab countries which already maintain a high level of geo-political coordination with Israel despite the occupation. Moreover, Obama’s demand that an occupied people, the Palestinians, who are denied the most basic of rights to their very existence, should take steps normalizing their relations with the occupying power as a condition for reaching a peace agreement is ludicrous, to say the least. This idea, coming from Obama, may indicate a certain lack of understanding of the conflict. Any expression of moderation by the Palestinians has always been interpreted by Israel and its allies as a sign of weakness, and full scale normalization in the region before peace will become the ultimate proof for the Israeli argument that the occupation is no barrier to peace.
This scandalous demand for pre-peace normalization is cause for concern that regional normalization meets, first and foremost the requirements of US policy, and if normalization before peace and as a condition for peace is inimical to the interests of Israeli-Palestinian peace, then the Palestinians will just have to wait…
The Israeli right has already drawn up a long list of confidence measures that it will demand immediately from the Arab world and from the Palestinians. These will be pre conditions for moving forward and Obama will be called on to pay the bill. Is this accidental, or just another escape route from peace that must be available in case of need.
The Outposts Farce – Who is Mocking Whom?
Obama, just like Bush, is against settlements since they are quickly destroying the dwindling territorial base for the establishment of a Palestinian entity. The area under discussion is a mere 22% of Palestine and choking it with literally hundreds of towns and villages is designed to wipe out a country and a people, literally to wipe it off the map. The Netanyahu government, like the Olmert government, is a coalition of enthusiastic annexationists, who exploit every opportunity to grab land and drive out the local population. The recent US protests against the settlements should be seen as a request that Israel stop embarrassing Obama on a daily basis, especially when he is busy trying to improve the US image in the Muslim world.
The latest phase of the settlement drive, which resulted in the establishment of a spate of tens of illegal outposts, is spearheaded by groups of crazed, young religious fanatics, known in Israel as “the hilltop youth.” They carry IDF issued weapons and recognize no secular authority as they pursue their goal and simply rebuild any of the shanty sites torn down by the IDF. They are enthusiastically backed by the rabbis in the West Bank, who happen to be government employees, and they are the darlings of the right wing politicians. The IDF acts under the assumption that sheet-metal and lumber are the guilty party. The army bulldozes the shanties, declares victory and goes home. The “hilltop youth” rebuild the shanties and are practically immune from prosecution as long as they stick to shanty building (on Arab land) and serial pogroms against the Palestinian farmers in the area.
A few weeks ago, peace activists from the New Profile underwent a degrading police investigation on suspicion that they were encouraging youngsters to question their conscription to an army of occupation and national oppression. The settler rabbis inspire lawlessness and violence against the state, and the settler provocations go on without arrests.
Asides from statements, there is no sign that Obama intends any action against Israeli responsibility for the outposts and the “natural growth” of the established settlements.
At this point, we have to go back to square one. In its essence, the occupation is not a purely Israeli affair, but a joint US-Israeli project. Indeed, the management is local, but ownership belongs to the US as the financial backer and the provider of the political and military cover for the operation. The United States owns this occupation and is morally and politically responsible for the continued violent repression of the most basic Palestinian rights.
At this point, Netanyahu still fears the settlers more than he fears Obama, unless Obama gets serious. He may move against the outposts only to demonstrate that this is a tremendously difficult and politically costly action. He has reasonable hopes of modifying Obama’s ban on natural growth, as long as Obama is not clear that the settlements themselves must be dismantled and not “regulated.” The very existence of any settlement over the 1967 border is illegal, and should be summarily dismantled. This would solve the natural growth dilemma.
So far, Netanyahu is a bit worried, along with Barak. His plan it to drag out the whole matter until the US loses interest or prefers to avoid any confrontation with Israel. This tactic, it must be noted, has succeeded in the past.
Obama in Cairo
It is to be feared that Obama’s “dramatic” speech to the Islamic and Arab worlds has more to do with cosmetics than with politics. Obama is certainly right about the need to improve the image of the United States but, alas, this is not a matter of rhetoric.
The Washington DC, Riyad, Cairo triangle is one of those decaying power alliances that holds the fort for the United States. Obama’s Middle East partners are not squeamish about torture and jail for their opponents who dare to act up. Mubarak and the Saudi king, Abdullah, are the heads of reactionary, brutal regimes. Of course, they are bastards but they are Obama’s bastards – so what else is new? Even speechwise, there was very little of new substance in the Cairo spiel. Especially, if you were at Annapolis.
Once again, we are struck with the gap beween words and action. Obama’s propaganda team is working overtime to present the current problems in a limited and almost meaningless framework. So let’s get it clear for the n’th time. The twenty-two outposts are not the problem, nor is the need to restrict the “natural growth” in the more established settlements. The problem is not the lack of an indeterminate, endless peace process. The problem is not even the need that Netanyahu adopt the Olmert-Bush two state formula. Are we to become excited at the prospect that Obama might nudge Netanyahu back to the negotiating table? Aw, come on!
Even in his strongest suit, rhetoric, Obama is way off base. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not a conflict between two overzealous national formations that must learn manners and civility from the international community and its leader. Israel, based on the unique advantages of the military, political and economic support of the United States has been skimming off Palestinian rights and land for more than forty years as commission for its pro-US services. Obama is not an honest broker, he is not even a biased broker. He is a side to the conflict and he will be one until he, openly and clearly, makes a commitment to cut off the funds and the guns which implement policies that he opposes – ostensibly.
[Middle East News Service comments: Not surprisingly there is a large amount of comment on the Internet on President Obama’s speech last night. Time permitting I will attempt to provide a compilation of some of the most important points raised by a selection of these. But a fair few of these points are already listed below. As usual Daniel Levy does an exceptional job in drawing the pertinent issues – Sol Salbe.]
[The independent Middle East News Service concentrates on providing alternative information chiefly from Israeli sources. It is sponsored by the Australian Jewish Democratic Society. The views expressed here are not necessarily those of the AJDS. These are expressed in its own statements
Please note that while our own comments are not copyrighted we do appreciate acknowledgement. Items forwarded may be copyrighted and are forwarded to alert you of their existence.]
June 4, 2009
This piece was also published at TPM Café .
The Obama team’s remarkable wordsmithery and the president’s unparalleled capacity for delivery were exquisitely on display again today in Cairo. But this speech should perhaps be remembered as much for what was not said. Gone was the arrogance and lecturing: there was no lavishing of praise on Egypt’s undemocratic leader – the word ‘Mubarak’ was not even mentioned once. Out too was the purple finger version of democratization and even the traditional American condescension toward the Palestinian narrative. But perhaps most remarkably of all, the words ‘terror’ or ‘terrorism’ did not pass the president’s lips. Here was a leader and a team around him smart enough to acknowledge that certain words have become too tainted, too laden with baggage, their use has become counter-productive, today the Global War on Terror framing was truly laid to rest.
Particularly striking was that President Obama almost certainly has emerged from the Cairo speech having accumulated additional capital rather than expending it, with greater popularity, traction, and respect among not only his ostensible target audience, the Muslim world, but also globally, including at home in America and even in Israel and with the world’s Jewish community. His future leverage across a range of issues has been enhanced.
It’s true that whenever the speech descended from the lofty heights of 30,000 feet to the 100-feet resolution of policy specifics and details, the magic dust seemed to dissipate as it emerged from the clouds, and those details were too often more autopilot than reset. But this was a big picture speech, and there is room later to make those course corrections on policy detail.
Here then are ten quick thoughts:
1. The Mother of All Resets
The president’s speech literally in one fell swoop will have much of the Muslim world and certainly elites, opinion leaders, and activists scratching their heads and recalibrating their stance toward America. Yes, for everyone the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, what comes next and whether policy changes on specific issues. The immediate effect though is to buy America space and time. It gives those who share an affinity with American values a new lease of life, causes the majority who are not hostile to the US but deeply skeptical of its intentions to reconsider and suspend judgment, and it will induce in America’s enemies a splitting headache.
At a most basic level, the president managed to connect. He spoke humbly and touched on buzz words for this audience, discussing dignity, justice, and the truths we hold in our hearts. He even uttered the word colonialism and mentioned denial of rights and cold-ward proxies. Obama evoked Islam’s contribution to the world and to America, and yes, he quoted the Quran. Above all, he restored balance, confining the label of enemy only to those violent extremists who threaten America’s security, while opening up to the vast majority of practicing Muslims, including, I would argue, Islamist movements.
2. In Cairo the Conversation with Political Islam Began
By narrowly focusing on al-Qaeda as the enemy and apparently articulating an understanding of the non-al-Qaeda Islamist narrative, the president seemed to extend a tentative but visibly unclenched fist to mainstream political Islam. It is those Islamist movements that we should be most closely watching in the weeks and months ahead as they begin to work through their own responses to the new administration.
Obama seemed to implicitly accept the legitimacy of political Islam and its role in the democratic process while challenging it to unequivocally reject violence against civilians. There was a stark contrast, for instance, between the president’s message to al-Qaeda (we will defeat you if you threaten us) as compared to his message to Hamas (whom he addressed directly as having a role to fulfill Palestinian aspirations and unify the Palestinian people).
The president’s historical analogies may not have been the best ones. In discussing the nonviolent resistance of black America to the “lash of the whip” in achieving equal rights he obviously made a powerful and reasonable point but one that may be more relevant to a Palestinian struggle for a one-state democracy rather than for national liberation and de-occupation. By claiming that the same story can be told in South Africa and elsewhere, he simply rewrote history – the ANC did of course use armed resistance in their struggle as did so many other successful liberation movements.
That said, Obama’s effort to carry the argument in somewhat sympathetic terms to the Palestinian resistance–“violence…rockets…is not how moral authority is claimed; that is how it is surrendered”–was a valiant one and should be encouraged, not least in Israel. I might be reading too much into this but the speech could be seen as an acknowledgement that a process that engages Hamas is more likely to produce results than one that does not.
Responding immediately on al-Jazeera, Ahmed Yusuf, advisor to Gaza Prime Minister Haniyeh, lavished praised on Obama’s “Martin Luther King-like speech” and his rejection of the clash of civilizations discourse while defensively questioning his call for Hamas to accept the international community’s three preconditions (end violence, accept past agreements, recognize Israel).The distinction though was clear and the years of wrong-headedly lumping together the Salafist jihadis of al-Qaeda with the Muslim Brothers of Hamas or the Hezbollah movement is over.
3. Regaining the Moral Clarity of 9/11
Almost eight years on, there it was, an American president explaining to the world what happened on that day and the war of necessity against al-Qaeda that was launched in its wake. It was an important moment in resetting and reconfiguring for international and Muslim public opinion what happened then and has happened since. It is also perhaps the most damning indictment of all for the Bush presidency that in 2009 such a reiteration by an American president is so necessary.
President Obama also reissued a clear statement of America’s interests across a range of issues from getting out of Iraq and achieving a Palestinian state to its goals in Afghanistan, and shared values with so much of the Muslim world in promoting basic freedoms, religious pluralism, women’s rights, and development.
4. Finally a President Who Can Talk to Palestinians
Obama’s words on the Palestinian situation were not remarkable for his advocacy of a two-state solution, his mentioning of Palestine, or his opposition to the settlements. All of that we have heard before, and in fact, the speech gave precious little by way of actually articulating a plan for Palestinian de-occupation and statehood. But that was also its strength.
The idea of a Palestinian state, even before it exists, has lost much of its luster and appeal for Palestinians precisely because American and Israeli leaders talked about statehood as a technical fix for a Palestinian problem, in exclusively economic, governance, and security terms. In so doing, they ignored or demeaned and denied the Palestinian narrative and made the whole arrangement sound rather unappetizing.
Today, President Obama began to redress that. PA capacity and economic opportunities were something of a footnote. And thankfully, the building of Palestinian security forces was not even mentioned.
Instead Obama spoke a language that actual Palestinians could relate to, recalling the 60-year “pain of dislocation,” the “wait in refugee camps” (without in the same breath emasculating the refugees of any rights). He spoke of humiliation, occupation, and an intolerable situation – in other words, Palestinian daily reality. Only after recognizing the Palestinian experience did he chart the course for achieving “the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity,” namely, via a Palestinian state. This shift in discourse may be lost on most American ears, not so for Palestinians and in the Arab and Muslim world, and it begins to give Obama a moral authority that will allow him to address this issue in speaking directly to the Palestinian people above the heads of their divided leadership.
5. Shimon Peres Could Not Have Done a Better Job
In what is becoming classical Obama, he at the same time presented perhaps the most compelling justification and explanation of Israel’s rights and its existence ever spoken in an Arab and Muslim capital. No Israeli has ever done a better job, he is a true friend. In the most unequivocal of terms and in a speech that so captured Muslim world attention, Obama placed the notions of threatening Israel’s destruction, stereotypes of Jews, and Holocaust denial, as being irredeemably beyond the pale and unacceptable. And he reaffirmed America’s “unbreakable bond with Israel.”
Tellingly, if unsurprisingly, it is these messages that are leading the Israeli news coverage of the speech. While the government of Benjamin Netanyahu may be squirming in discomfort at Obama’s reasoned and repeated calls for a settlement freeze, for reopening Gaza, and for Palestinian statehood, the Israeli public will, I think, be both reassured and keen to believe in the hope for change and a better future for them also.
One imagines too that the day is not so far off for an honest, empathetic, and home-truths Obama speech to Israel and the Jewish world. Expect that speech to be not only well-received but also to bring us dramatically closer to finally ending the Arab-Israeli conflict and achieving that two-state solution. Obama’s use of the phrase, “align American policies with those who pursue peace,” will also be noted in Jerusalem. Finally, by referring to “Jewish homeland” rather than a Jewish state, Obama, I think, studiously avoided giving succor to the slew of racist laws being presented in the new Israeli Knesset.
6. Policy Details – More Auto-Pilot Than Reset.
In a speech that I genuinely think carries game-changing potential for so many issues that America and the Muslim world are caught up in, there was virtually nothing new in detailed policy terms. That is very probably due to the nature of the speech, and the detailed policy changes might follow in the coming months. But if they don’t, Cairo will go down as a moment of unrequited promise and opportunity.
On Israel-Palestine, we dusted off the Road Map (yet again), a Bush relic that should have long ago been filed in the trash can, and the Afghanistan and Iraq plans still do not sound too convincing. It’s unclear how even Obama’s more sophisticated version of democratization will be advanced with America’s staunchest and most democracy-resistant allies, and the way forward with Iran remains opaque. Noteworthy, too, was that in a speech stating that America has no designs on maintaining military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, the continued American military footprint elsewhere in the Arab and Muslim world was not touched upon.
7. Hosni Mubarak and the Perils of Playing Host
Egypt’s rulers would no doubt have been mortified had this speech taken place anywhere else in the Arab or Muslim world. There is an understandable Egyptian sense of pride in their history and sense of longing to still be considered the region’s leading power. Having landed those hosting rights, Mubarak’s regime today had to live with the consequences. Obama spoke to his audience and to the Egyptian people, and in an interesting break from past practice, his presidential host Mr. Mubarak was not even mentioned let alone lavished with praise. It will not go unnoticed.
Obama did mention Egypt’s Christian Coptic minority and of course spoke to human rights and people choosing their own governments to loud applause. So much for all the neocon bleating before the speech about Obama being a valueless realist ready to sell freedom-spirited Egyptians down the river. I was not there, but a sense of being empowered almost seemed to echo around the room at Cairo University and well beyond, and it might have major implications for Egypt and the region that will be played out in the coming years.
And finally, we have an American president who avoided the Pavlovian repetition of how American support for the Egyptian regime is so linked to Egypt’s historic peace with Israel. The way that linkage has played out – that America goes soft of non-democratic tendencies in the Arab world as long as they are pro-Israel – has done a great disservice to the public perception of not only peace but also of America and even Israel.
8. More Hand Less Fist on Iran
There was even some encouragement for Obama’s Iran policy in today’s speech. It was beginning to look disturbingly like the Obama administration would be brandishing the stick of sanctions in one hand and the stopwatch of deadlines in the other, thereby leaving no hand free to shake any prospective Iranian unclenched fist. Obama moved beyond that. Many will point to his acknowledgement of history: “The United States played a role in the overthrow of a democratically elected Iranian government,” as being the money line. It’s true that is a big deal and goes further than what was said in his Norouz message. However, I think this was more important, if not entirely new: “any nation- including Iran – should have the right to access peaceful nuclear power if it complies with its responsibilities under the NPT.”
The president also had this intriguing chestnut to share on nuclear nonproliferation: “I understand those who protest that some countries have weapons that others do not.” Now I may be a bit Israelocentric in how I look at the world but this sounds like a not too subtle hint to me. Might this be a kind of “yes – we acknowledge there is a double standard here regarding the Israeli nuclear issue, and eventually we will get to that too.” It won’t be a headline, Israel will officially ignore it, and when asked Obama’s spokespeople will obfuscate but in more than a few capitals, including Jerusalem, a parsing industry will grow up around those few words.
9. Giving a Finger to the Purple Finger Theory of Democratization
Obama did it. He reclaimed the democratization agenda by placing it in a broader context as a set of rights and freedoms, and by going on to address religious pluralism, women’s rights, and the challenge of adapting economic development and modernity to traditional values. To be honest, it’s not a particularly difficult one to pull off, but to give him his fair dues, Barack Obama does do it better than anyone else. And there’s something of a new policy here, timely with the Lebanese election elections next week: “…we will welcome all elected, peaceful governments – provided they govern with respect for all their people.”
The genius was in the pivot. Obama respected Islamic tradition and religious piety, and for instance, a woman’s right to wear the hijab, and he then pivoted that into a broader discussion of the values of female education and women’s rights, placing those things in seamless harmony rather than in contradiction. After an American president who was perceived as doing so much to sow division in the Muslim world, one of Obama’s most powerful lines was undoubtedly, “fault-lines must be closed among Muslims… the divisions between Sunni and Shia have led to tragic violence,” and all this couched in a constant appeal to young people.
10. And He Was Also Speaking to the American Public
After years of fear-mongering, Islamofascist awareness weeks on campuses, and tens of millions of copies of the vile “Obsession” DVD appearing in newspapers and mailboxes, yet another, no less important, reset button was pressed today. The president will no doubt be accused of apologetics and moral relativism, but he decided to face this head-on, to go to Cairo, speak with respect and honesty to the Muslim world, and to do what was best for America’s national security interests.
In so doing, he was also broadcasting a message back home. Most American Muslims will no doubt be feeling a great sense of pride and inspiration from this speech. The rest of America was given a timely and even touching reminder of the contributions that American Muslims have made to this country and that Muslims have given the world in general. Oh, and there might have even been a little message in there upping the ante, for Congress and even for his own party–“I have ordered the prison at Guantanamo Bay closed by early next year.”
US President Barack Obama speaking at Cairo University, 4 June 2009. (Chuck Kennedy/White House Photo)
Hezbollah official: Muslims don't need sermons from Obama
|By News Agencies|
|Tags: Israel News, Haaretz TV|
A lawmaker belonging to the Hezbollah militant organization on Thursday dismissed a speech given by United States President Barack Obama earlier in Cairo as being like a “sermon,” without signaling real change.
“The Islamic world does not need moral or political sermons. It needs a fundamental change in American policy,” said Lebanese MP Hassan Fadlallah.
In the address, Obama said he sought a “new beginning” in relations between the United States and the Muslim world on Thursday, addressing grievances over the Arab-Israeli conflict, two U.S.-led wars and tensions over Iran.
A spokesman for Hamas, however, said there was change in tone in the address. But he complained that Obama did not specifically mention the suffering in Gaza following the Israeli offensive against the Islamist group this year that killed more than 1,000 Palestinians.
“There is a change between the language of President Obama and previous
Meanwhile, a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said that Obama's speech to the Muslim world was a “good start” towards a new U.S. policy in the Middle East,.
“His call for stopping settlement and for the establishment of a Palestinian state, and his reference to the suffering of Palestinians … is a clear message to Israel that a just peace is built on the foundations of a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital,” said the spokesman, Nabil Abu Rudeineh.
“President Obama's speech is a good start and an important step towards a new American policy,” he said.
Mahmoud Ramahi, a legislator from Abbas rival Hamas, offered qualified praise for the speech.
“I have followed the speech closely. There are many positive points,” he said.
“There is a difference between his policy and Bush's policy. I see a change in the U.S. foreign policy discourse. But the problem is still on the ground.”
“Would they achieve a Palestinian independent state? If he does that, that would be a relief and good for all parties.”
Iraq welcomed Obama's comments.
“The speech was historic and important and reflects a positive direction for the new administration [in Washington] and it is a new start,” Iraqi government spokesperson Ali Al-Dabbagh said.
“The use of Koranic sayings plays a big part in a positive change of picture, but there is a necessity for action.”
“The government of Iraq is comfortable with the clarity of the president in respecting commitments to Iraq and the timetable for withdrawal stipulated in the security pact.”
“I think there is clear support of a right for a Palestinian state, and their right for a life, but Arabs are waiting for pressure to be exerted on Israel so it can stop its violations in Gaza and the West Bank.”
Iranian leader: Speeches alone won't change U.S. image
Iran on Thursday said speeches alone would not change the image of the United States in the Middle East.
“Changes should be made in practice and not by making nice speeches to world Muslims,” Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said hours before Obama's Cairo address.
Khamenei, who has the final say on all state affairs in Iran, said that Middle East nations “deeply hate” the United States for its policies in recent years, such as military attacks, political interference and discrimination.
“The new U.S. administration wants to change this image, but I'm telling them that this does not become feasible just by giving speeches,” he said at a ceremony marking the 20th anniversary of the death of Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the supreme leader of the 1979 Islamic revolution.
The ceremony was also attended by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his main challenger in the June 12 election, Mir-Hossein Moussavi.
Both Ahmadinejad and Moussavi want to resume talks with the Obama administration but have called on the U.S. president to prove his promised changes in practice.