On August 1, 2007, at the start of his campaign for President, Barack Obama made a speech to the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, DC where he laid out his plans for transforming American foreign policy to the Muslim world. “We are not at war with Islam… [and] we will stand with those who are willing to stand up for their future,” he declared to a crowd of foreign policy luminaries.
As President, the question before Barack Obama is whether he is prepared to act on those farsighted words.
Declaring his intention to speak at a “major Islamic forum” within his first 100 days in office, using his first morning as President to halt prosecutions at Guantanamo Bay, repeating his desire to “redefine our struggle” against Islamic extremism and “author our own story” about what America really stands for, all demonstrate that Obama understands the importance of changing the symbolic vocabulary governing how the United State talks about the Muslim world.
But symbols can be dangerous, especially when it comes to the Middle East. Not because the people of the region are too easily taken in by them, as Western Orientalists and viceroys have for two centuries claimed about the “Arab mind.” In fact, quite the opposite: The West, and the US in particular, has a habit of taking its symbols too seriously; of assuming that because our leaders claim that we stand for democracy, peace and development, the policies supporting these goals naturally flow from those words.
As many friends in the Muslim world have said to me, America needs to “walk the talk” of supporting democracy, freedom and development if it wants to begin a new chapter in its relations with the region. Doing so, however, will necessitate President Obama navigating a tightrope of competing agendas and hypocrisies, which have long been the stock and trade of foreign policy-making for great powers.
From “Hope” to Reality
Obama’s Democratic predecessor, Bill Clinton, was also a “man from Hope,” promising to refocus American policy towards our highest ideals. Yet when it mattered, he caved in to powerful institutional interests — backing down from his pledge to push China on human rights, allowing Israel to greatly expand its settlements during the peace process he was supposed to shepherd, uttering nary a word as Pakistan built the Taliban into a formidable political and military force, and the region’s autocratic leaders maintained their grip on power, many of them helped by continued US aid.
George W. Bush pushed his “freedom agenda” until his final days in office. But most people stopped listening years ago precisely because his policies so clearly vitiated his noble rhetoric.
And herein lies Obama’s problem: His view that “America must show — through deeds as well as words — that we stand with those who seek a better life” flies in the face of half a century of American policy towards the Middle East. During this time the United States has most always stood not with the people, but with their leaders, regardless of how corrupt, repressive or autocratic they have been.
Americans might be, as Obama eloquently declared, “a compassionate nation that wants a better future for all people.” But like most wealthy countries, the US has rarely helped the world’s poor and oppressed obtain a better future if doing so cost its corporations profits or interfered with its strategic interests.
Similarly, Obama’s desire to focus US support on “helping nations build independent judicial systems and honest police forces” will quickly come up against the harsh reality that most of our allies in the Middle East and North Africa remain in power precisely through shackled judiciaries and corrupt and repressive police forces.
The President wants to open “America Houses” across the Muslim world to educate Muslims about the United States. But Muslims—particularly those with the education and language skills to visit such places—know our history as well as most Americans (a 2007 Newsweek poll concluded that when it came to history, America was a “dunce-cap nation”), certainly better than most when it comes to the history of US engagement in the Middle East.
Obama’s Misreading of History is at the Root of His Policy Dilemmas
There is some evidence that the new President understands this dilemma. In his inaugural speech, Obama explained that “our nation is at war, against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred. Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age.”
A thoughtful, purposeful writer, one can imagine that Obama placed those sentences next to each other because he understands the link between our own greed, irresponsibility and collective failure to understand that an American way of life based on six percent of the world’s population consuming 24% of its resources, is inevitably going to produce violence and hatred among those at at the wrong end of the remaining 94%. As the US Strategic Space Command (whose mission is to dominate space in order to “protect US interests and investment”) explained in 2000 in its Vision for 2020, globalization is producing a zero-sum game of winners and losers, in which American foreign policy must do whatever it takes to “win.”
In that context, does President Obama understand that Muslims have every right to “blame their society’s ills on the West,” at least partly? Well over a century of occupation, imperialism, support for undemocratic leaders and control of local resources, have earned Western governments the opprobrium of the peoples of the Muslim world, and the developing world more broadly.
Indeed, In an inteview with the Dubai-based al-Arabiya network, President Obama argued that “America was not born as a colonial power, and that the same respect and partnership that America had with the Muslim world as recently as 20 or 30 years ago, there’s no reason why we can’t restore that.”
The is a dangerous misreading of US-history, which began, after all, with the thirteen colonies. As most school children will confirm, the westward expansion of the United States could not have occurred without the genocidal confinement of Native Americans, and several wars that severed most of the American southwest, from Texas to California, from Mexico.
Certainly the President well knows these facts; that he cannot acknowledge them publicly does not augur well for the possibility of his administration pursuing an honest dialog with the Muslim world.
Similarly, the idea that the United States had “respect and partnership” with the Muslim world only a few decades ago is also inaccurate. The US government had “successful” (strategically and economically) relations with governments of various countries, almost all of whom were authoritarian and extremely corrupt. But the US government has never supported the rights of the peoples of the region to democratic government, freedom, and autonomous development. Quite the opposite.
If President Obama thinks that turning the clock back 20 or 30 years will improve America’s standing with the masses of people in the Muslim world, he is in for a rude surprise.
A Welcome Focus on the Middle East, But Hard Choices Lie Ahead
It is clear that President Obama has made the Middle East and larger Muslim world the primary foreign policy issue for his first 100 days — the newly updated Whitehouse.gov website lists only Middle Eastern countries, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, and Israel-Palestine, as his main objectives. And in his inaugural address, he exclaimed: “To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”
The words are eloquent, but the reality beneath them will not be easily changed. Does President Obama really expect Hosni Mubarak willingly to take the hand that must usher him off the Egyptian stage if Egypt is to move towards democracy and sustainable development?
Will the leaders of most every other country in the Arab world, from Morocco to Iraq, really reverse their pattern of stifling dissent and hoarding wealth that has long ensured their hold on power, unless compelled to do so?
Judging by his initial conversations with the leaders of the region, the answer to these questions is likely no. According to the White House’s first press release, the President “appreciated the spirit of partnership and warm nature” that characterized is calls to Mubarak, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Jordan’s King Abdullah, and PA President Abbas.
The reality is that a Mideast policy based on the principles Obama outlined at his inauguration will find few partners or warm conversation among the leaders on the other end of the phone line. Indeed, Mubarak, Olmert and Abbas each would have likely hung up the phone cursing.
Sending Special Envoy George Mitchell to the region demonstrates engagement, but not the fundamental rethinking of American policy that is necessary for any change in its relations with the peoples of the Muslim world. Indeed, a look at the text of its Administration’s first press release offers an unsettling glimpse at what the substance of Obama’s policies toward the region might be.
First, there is not a hint of criticism of Israel’s conduct in the war on Gaza (A week later, Secretary of State Clinton similarly refused to criticize Israel during first press conference). Obama “emphasized his determination to work to help consolidate the ceasefire,” but his sole focus will apparently be on stopping Hamas smuggling and supporting the corrupt and ineffective PA President Abbas.
If Obama’s pre-inauguration silence about Israel’s conduct of the Gaza war was troubling to the peoples of the Muslim world, his Administration’s refusal upon taking office to offer any criticism of Israel’s actions (particularly when many Israelis and American Jews are apoplectic at the government’s actions), or to mention the problem of continued settlements, is deafening.
If this silence continues, it will drown out even the most sincere calls for reform, democratization, or moderation in the Muslim world by his Administration. Even the much-anticipated opening of low level discussions with Hamas will not change the dynamic.
Positive Changes Are Apparent, But Will have Limited Impact
More positively, the President’s commitment to change the tenor of American policy towards the Muslim world was demonstrated by the issuing of executive orders that announced the closure of the Guantanamo Bay and other CIA-run prisons, as well as prohibiting the CIA from using coercive interrogation methods.
These measures are extremely important in their own right. But the reality is that they will effect only a few hundred prisoners at most. Far more impactful will be the substance of the Obama Administration’s relations with key allies and adversaries in the region, which will impact hundreds of millions of people. Here the President’s call for “direct and unconditional” negotiations with Iran is welcome, as is his commitment to focus more energy and money on building accountable political and social institutions in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
But moving beyond words to actions will require Obama make some very difficult choices. Despite its current economic problems, Iran is not a particularly poor country. Indeed, with its massive oil and gas reserves (both of which are likely the second largest in the world) it will not be bought off by offers of US aid or foreign investment, no matter how generous.
Iran will not foreswear its nuclear ambitions unless it can claim a prize equal to such a sacrifice. That prize will undoubtedly be a denuclearization of the region that would include Israel’s relinquishing its nuclear weapons. The new Administration in fact is calling for a nuclear-weapon free world, and the Middle East is no doubt among the most important regions for such a process to begin.
But will Obama be willing to pressure Israel to give up its nuclear deterrent for the sake of greater regional, and global stability and security? If Israel’s leaders balk, is he prepared to go over their heads to the Israeli people, and failing that, to place America’s national security interest ahead of the strategic desire of “America’s strongest alley” in the region to maintain its nuclear weapons stockpile?
Will Iraq Set the Pattern?
Obama’s pledge to withdraw all US forces from Iraq was a centerpiece of his presidential campaign. Specifically, Obama’s stated aim was to remove all troops from the country within sixteen months of taking office. The Status of Forces agreement signed between the US and Iraqi governments last November explicitly mandates a full American withdrawal by December 31, 2011.
Yet almost since the moment the agreement was announced, there have been strong indications that American military leaders would do their best to ensure the timeline is not met. The main thrust of their strategy, which was communicated to Obama by Defense Secretary Gates in December, involves reclassifying tens of thousands of combat troops as “support troops,” tasked with continuing to train and support Iraqi forces and “fight al-Qa’eda” in Iraq.
Obama seems to have gotten the message, because the Administration’s plan as described on the White House website states that the US will remove all “combat brigades,” admitting that a “residual force” would remain for an indeterminate period of time. Moreover, while the plan declares that the United States “will not build permanent bases in Iraq,” the reality is that the US doesn’t need to build any permanent bases now because they were already constructed amidst the fog of the first years of the occupation.
In fact, already in 2003 Pentagon officials described the money being spent to build long-term bases as “staggering,” and by 2005 at least four “super bases,” housing upwards of 20,000 soldiers each, were in operation. The White House has said nothing about dismantling them, and if tens of thousands of ambiguously named “support troops” are to remain in Iraq, as the Los Angeles Times reported on Obama’s first full day in office, there will be no reason for it to do so.
If the Obama Administration blinks on carrying out its signature foreign policy commitment, what are the chances that it will show more spine when taking on even more intractable issues, such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or the massive corruption in Afghanistan that has developed under US occupation and tutelage? And who will trust that the United States will keep its word to do so?
Indeed, Obama’s challenge in Iraq points to the reality that the Administration cannot attempt merely to change Israeli, Egyptian, or Iranian policies. At the same time the President must begin a transformation in the very structure of political and economic power in the United States that will inevitably bring him into conflict with some of the most powerful forces in the country.
Israel and Egypt receive well over $5 billion dollars in US aid per year, much of it direct military transfers. This aid is the lynchpin of the larger system of military aid and sales that has been worth many tens of billions of dollars just in the last half decade (only last year, the US signed a $20 billion arms sales agreement with Saudi Arabia, which was promptly followed by a $30 billion agreement with Israel, while allies such as Egypt, Pakistan, and Jordan clamored successfully for increases in their military military assistance packages).
Such massive arms transfers make no sense in a region filled with democratic countries at peace with one another. Rather, they’ve always required a combination of autocratic or repressive governments, manageable levels of conflict with occasional spikes that help ensure sufficiently high oil prices to enable the cycling of petrodollars back and forth between the United State and the region.
In this context, taking on Mideast corruption and authoritarianism will necessitate Obama’s taking on what is likely the most powerful industrial and political coalition in the United States. Israeli economists Jonathan Nitzan and Shimshon Bichler have described this loose grouping as the “Arma-Core Petro-Core coalition,” and for half a century and through at least four wars, it has ensured that the financial and strategic interests of the arms and petroleum industries have profoundly shaped American foreign and security policy—culminating with a Bush-Cheney Administration that was cut whole cloth from these industries.
As the last eight years have shown, peace, democracy and sustainable growth cannot come to the Middle East in such a political-economic environment. But can Obama, or any American President, take on this coalition and win? And if he can’t, what hope is there for substantive change in US policy towards the region?
Obama Must Take Control, Quickly
In her final weeks as Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice predicted that the incoming administration’s policies would show a marked continuity with those of President Bush. If Obama cannot take control of the competing Middle East agendas within the American foreign policy, military and security establishment, they will frustrate and even sabotage his core foreign policy goals.
To assert his leadership across the board, President Obama will have to put aside diplomatic pleasantries in future conversations with the region’s leaders and lay out a clear and unambiguous set of guidelines for US policy. President Mubarak will have to be told in no uncertain terms that he must release political prisoners such as jailed Presidential candidate Ayman Nour and Muslim Brotherhood leaders, and allow a rapid transition to full democracy. Israeli Prime Minister Olmert or his successor must be told that no more US military aid will be forthcoming until Israel begins pulling out of West Bank settlements and commits itself firmly to the creation of a viable Palestinian state.
More broadly, leaders from Morocco to Pakistan, will have to be told that the US is adopting a new standard for judging its relations with the countries of the region. Those countries that fully democratize, put an end to censorship, political imprisonment, torture, and other draconian practices, and respect human, civil and political rights, and work to address growing inequality in their societies, will receive ample support of the United States. Those that don’t, won’t.
Whether its allies such as Israel and Saudi Arabia, or adversaries such as Iran or Syria, the message and policy has to be the same. If they don’t like the terms, they are free to seek aid and support from China or Russia. Governments might find such allies attractive, but their peoples won’t, putting the United States in precisely the position of moral authority that President Obama has said should be a major goal of US foreign policy.
At the same time, such a clear and balanced policy will also free Obama to focus on the all-important goals of addressing the challenges posed by global warming, water and food shortages, while beginning the long term process of transforming a global economic system that forces roughly half the world’s population to live on $2 per day or less, into one that more equitably and sustainably distributes the world’s natural and economic bounties.
Even here, however, the struggle will be far greater than it’s being described now. If, as he pledged in his inaugural address, the President wants to work alongside the world’s poor “to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow”—he will have to take on Archer Daniels Midland, Bechtel, Monsanto and a host of European, Japanese and Chinese competitors who, aided by US-run institutions like the World Bank and USAID, are gobbling up the world’s supplies of fresh water and agricultural land for their own profit, regardless of the social, economic and environmental cost. But their political and financial power is inextricably tied to those supporting the status quo in the Middle East. To win either battle, the President will have to fight both simultaneously.
Obama’s historic rise to the Presidency has demonstrated how the “audacity of hope” can spark profound social and political transformation. The President has the power to help spark a similar transformation in the Middle East. If he has the political courage to do so, he will find millions of people across the region willing to carry the flame. The real question is, will Americans push him — and themselves — to make the hard choices necessary to live up to the lofty ideals his election represents.
Mark LeVine is professor of modern Middle Eastern history, culture, and Islamic studies at the University of California, Irvine, and author of the forthcoming books: Heavy Metal Islam: Rock Religion and the Struggle for the Soul of Islam (Random House/Three Rivers Press, July 8, 2008), and An Impossible Peace: Oslo and the Burdens of History (Zed Books, in press). He is also author of Why They Don’t Hate Us: Lifting the Veil on the Axis of Evil (Oneworld Publications, 2005), and Overthrowing Geography: Jaffa, Tel Aviv and the Struggle for Palestine, 1880-1948 (California, 2005), and co-editor of Reapproaching Borders: New Perspectives on the Study of Israel-Palestine (Rowman Littlefield, 2007), Religion, Social Practices and Contested Hegemonies: Reconstructing the Public Sphere in Muslim Majority Societies (Palgrave, 2005) and with Viggo Mortensen and Pilar Perez, of Twilight of Empire: Responses to Occupation.
Republished with permission from the History News Network.