New Beginning?

Photo by the New York Times

Photo by the New York Times

After so much anticipation, how did President Obama’s “historic” address to the Muslim world actually turn out?  Who knows if it will actually be the “new beginning” that the Obama Administration billed it as, but it seemed to me like it hit all the right notes.

It may not be the most important thing, but Obama seemed to be making a serious effort to ingratiate himself with the Arab world.  He spoke a few words of (sometimes-mangled) Arabic, he quoted from the Qur’an with comfort, he complemented Arab history and scientific innovation.

I was impressed that from the beginning Obama recognized the treacherous legacies of colonialism, the Cold War and globalization in the Middle East.  Those aren’t obvious themes for an American president to take up, but they are important ones and I suspect that they will resonate well in the Arab world.  It also gave me great joy to hear his recognition of the 1953 coup against the democratically elected Iranian government.  If only he had mentioned the Syrian Crisis of 1957…

The best part of the speech, in my opinion, was his discussion of Israel-Palestine.  Marc Lynch sums up my feelings best:

I’m still struggling to grapple with this truly astonishing portion of his speech.  I don’t think I have ever heard any American politician, much less President, so eloquently, empathetically, and directly equate the suffering and aspirations of Israelis and Palestinians. This is the one part which I have to quote:

“Around the world, the Jewish people were persecuted for centuries, and anti-Semitism in Europe culminated in an unprecedented Holocaust. Tomorrow, I will visit Buchenwald, which was part of a network of camps where Jews were enslaved, tortured, shot and gassed to death by the Third Reich. Six million Jews were killed – more than the entire Jewish population of Israel today. 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. Many wait in refugee camps in the West Bank, Gaza, and neighboring lands for a life of peace and security that they have never been able to lead. They endure the daily humiliations – large and small – that come with occupation. So let there be no doubt: the situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable. America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own.

For decades, there has been a stalemate: two peoples with legitimate aspirations, each with a painful history that makes compromise elusive. It is easy to point fingers – for Palestinians to point to the displacement brought by Israel’s founding, and for Israelis to point to the constant hostility and attacks throughout its history from within its borders as well as beyond. But if we see this conflict only from one side or the other, then we will be blind to the truth: the only resolution is for the aspirations of both sides to be met through two states, where Israelis and Palestinians each live in peace and security.”

This is quite possibly the most powerful statement of America’s stake in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the urgent need for justice on both sides that I have ever heard.  He posed sharp challenges to Israelis and Palestinians alike, directly addressing the realities of Palestinian life under occupation and the humanitarian crisis in Gaza while also empathizing with Israeli fears.  He positioned the U.S. as the even-handed broker it needs to be:  “America will align our policies with those who pursue peace, and say in public what we say in private to Israelis and Palestinians and Arabs.” Left unsaid, but clearly in the background, was the fact that he has been matching those words with deeds by forcefully taking on the issue of Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

This won’t satisfy most Arabs, I suspect.  The fact that Obama reaffirmed America’s “unbreakable” bond with the Jewish state will probably alone be enough to leave many with a bad taste.  Regardless, I think it is becoming clear that Obama is taking a more even-handed approach to the Israel-Palestine problem than any American leader before him. Israel is still the United States’ ally–that will not change–but it appears that Obama genuinely believes that securing Palestinian statehood should be a priority and he is willing to commit himself to that.  That’s nothing to scoff at.

Did I have any problems with the speech?  It’s hard to say.  I wish that more emphasis had been given to democracy and rejecting authoritarianism, but I know that that would have been diplomatically dicey after his day with King Abdullah yesterday and meetings with Mubarak today.

I think that if Obama really wanted to score serious points with the Arab street he could have come closer to recognizing the trauma that the United States has inflicted on the Muslim world, particularly over the past few years.  Ali Abunimah, with whom I do not agree on most things, makes this point:

It was disappointing that Obama recycled his predecessor’s notion that “violent extremism” exists in a vacuum, unrelated to America’s (and its proxies’) exponentially greater use of violence before and after September 11, 2001. He dwelled on the “enormous trauma” done to the US when almost 3,000 people were killed that day, but spoke not one word about the hundreds of thousands of orphans and widows left in Iraq – those whom Muntazer al-Zaidi’s flying shoe forced Americans to remember only for a few seconds last year. He ignored the dozens of civilians who die each week in the “necessary” war in Afghanistan, or the millions of refugees fleeing the US-invoked escalation in Pakistan.

The Arab reactions to the speech that I’ve read so far haven’t been  kind, but I think that’s probably because it is mostly well-educated leftists who are blogging/Tweeting in English.  But I think that people are reading Obama wrong.  For example, when Obama called Cairo a “timeless city,” Will from KabobFest asked if the line was “just one of those Orientalist tropes his speechwriter read in some Bernard Lewis book or Egyptian tourism pamphlet?”

President Obama is a former professor, a well-educated liberal who used to read Frantz Fanon when he was in college.  The American president is not listening to Bernard Lewis anymore.  That’s going to be hard for a lot of people to accept–they’ve become so accustomed to dismissing and disdaining American leaders.  But hopefully it is a transformation that will happen soon.

An Egyptian friend of mine suggested that Arab bloggers and analysts are skeptical and angry out of fear that Obama’s charm is part of some elaborate conspiracy.  I suppose, though, that it is in a way an elaborate conspiracy.  The aim of the conspiracy is to make large parts of the world stop hating the United States.

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2 Comments

Filed under Democracy, Diplomacy, History, Israel-Palestine, Terrorism

2 responses to “New Beginning?

  1. zeinab

    reasonable analysis!

  2. I dunno, he talks about the Arab Peace Initiative as if it was all dependent upon the Arab states, but refuses to acknowledge a change in US position that would agree with the Initiative, i.e. consensus for a two-state settlement on the pre-june 67 border. Just leaves me skeptical if the US still refuses to accept the core principles of the Initiative, you know?

    Además, seems like the pressure from Obama on Israel to accept phase 1 of the Road Map, freezing settlements, is mostly symbolic…the “security” wall is still taking valuable land just as much as settlements, including the Jordan Valley and Israeli development projects in Greater Jerusalem.

    I see what you’re saying about his charm and “conspiracy”, but I do tend to think Obama would like to see Arab states more inclined to agree with US demands (obviously), so conspiracy or whatever you call it, there is truth to it. You know, it’s not just Israel-Palestine, it’s Israel-US-Palestine…

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