Al-Jazeerah: Cross-Cultural Understanding
Opinion Editorials, January 2009
Will Obama policies bring real change for the Muslims?
By Abdus Sattar Ghazali
ccun.org, January 31, 2009
In a bid to repair relations with the Muslim world that were damaged under the Bush administration, President Barack Obama told the Muslim world Tuesday that “Americans are not your enemy.”
In an interview with Al-Arabiya TV channel, Obama said: “My job to the Muslim world is to communicate that the Americans are not your enemy — we sometimes make mistakes — we have not been perfect.”
He spoke about Afghanistan, Iran, the Middle East, Al-Qaeda and Guantanamo Bay Prison. On the Middle East conflict Obama said he believes “that the moment is ripe for both sides to realize that the path that they are on is one that is not going to result in prosperity and security for their people. “Instead, it’s time to return to the negotiating table.” “If we start the steady progress on these issues, I’m absolutely confident that the United States, working in tandem with the European Union, with Russia, with all the Arab states in the region ... can make significant progress,” Obama told the Al-Arabiya TV network. The interview is part of the President’s broader outreach to the Muslim world, which includes a promise to make a major address from the capital of a Muslim nation.
There has been mixed reaction to Obama’s interview. While many in the Muslim and Arab world welcomed the interview but some looked at it differently by pointing out that his interview was rich in rhetoric but poor in content. He did not offer any change of policy and failed to mention the Israeli carnage of Gaza while reaffirming America’s support to Israel: “I will continue to believe that Israel's security is paramount.”
This says a lot to the Arabs and Muslims who have fresh memories of the US-backed 22-day Israeli carnage in Gaza that massacred about 1400 Palestinians, of whom 412 were children and a hundred were women. More than 5,000 were injured, 1,855 of whom were children and 795 were women, according to UN sources.
While the tone appears to have changed quite substantially, Obama has yet to make clear that policy changes on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will follow, according to Jim Lobe of IPS.
A reader of Lebanon’s The Star newspaper described the interview a window dressing: “The fact that Obama gave this interview to the house media of Saudi sheiks and the Egyptian dictator (some "moderates"!) shows that he is insincere. The Arab masses watch and believe in Al Jazeera. By choosing to grant the interview to this State Department allied media company he gave an unmistakable message; he talks only to the discredited Arab elites.”
"We have to lower our expectations that he has a magic wand to solve all our problems," Reuters quoted a Mideast analyst, Mustafa Alani, as saying. "The Arab attitude is basically optimistic that Obama will turn a new page and his inaugural speech reached out to Muslims but the devil is in the detail."
"I heard Obama, his tone is different, but I can't believe that any U.S. president can be different when it comes to the Arab-Israeli conflict," Haytham Rafati, in Ramallah told the Associated Press. "I will believe Obama is different in his approach to the Islamic world only when I see him pulling out his forces from Iraq and pressing Israel on the Palestinian rights."
At least 100 comments were listed on Al-Arabiya TV website about Obama’s interview, most of them welcoming his new approach to the Muslim World but many did not see anything new. The following comment perhaps represents the sentiments of those who do not see any change in Obama’s policies:
“So now Obama expected us to believe that the us is not the enemy and thus we should forget about the millions of dead souls and years of death and destruction at the hands of the Americans directly or through proxy. He was saying: Muslims are not the enemy, it is only Syria, Hezbollah, Hamas and Iran that we are trying to "isolate". My response to him: America is not the enemy, it is only the US Military, the CIA and their proxies that we are trying to get them off our backs. The most ridiculous item in his speech is that while he was trying to please Israel in every step of the speech, he adds insults to injuries by trying the divide Muslims and splitting hair and telling us whom we should support and whom we should not. To me it is the same old sh*t.”
Obama’s Al-Arabiya TV interview came five days after he singed an executive order to close down the Guantanamo Bay prison within a year. That order was one of three the President signed on that day. Another formally bans torture by U.S. interrogators, and the third establishes an interagency task force to set policies for the “apprehension, detention, trial, transfer or release of detainees.” These orders were signed on the first day of his office (January 22) when he also called President of the Palestinian National Authority Mahmoud 'Abbas first, followed by calls to Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime minister, President Mubarak of Egypt, and Jordan's King Abdullah.
On his second day (January 23), the President named former Senator George Mitchell, an Arab American and the architect of the peace accord in Northern Ireland, as special envoy to the Middle East. He also appointed Richard Holbrooke as special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Interestingly, whilst announcing George Mitchell's appointment, the Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did not even mention Palestine and stated that Mr. Mitchell would undertake to negotiate between Israel and the Arab States. It was only after Mr. Mitchell clearly mentioned Palestine as being the key to the region, did Hillary refer to the matter.
Appearing with Mitchell, President Obama made his first substantive comments on the Middle East conflict since Israeli massacre of Palestinians in Gaza. He first mentioned his commitment to Israel’s security, without affirming his commitment to Palestinian security. He condemned Palestinian rocket attacks on southern Israeli towns, but didn’t criticize the US-backed Israeli bombings of densely populated Gaza.
In carefully crafted words, President Obama said: “Let me be clear: America is committed to Israel's security. And we will always support Israel's right to defend itself against legitimate threats.” The President concluded his remarks with an endorsement of the Arab peace initiative saying: “the Arab peace initiative contains constructive elements that could help advance these efforts. Now is the time for Arab states to act on the initiative's promise by supporting the Palestinian government under President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad, taking steps towards normalizing relations with Israel, and by standing up to extremism that threatens us all.”
Obama's remarks warrant examination. To borrow Noam Chomsky: “So the thrust of his remarks, is that Israel has a right to defend itself by force, even though it has peaceful means to defend itself, that the Arabs must—states must move constructively to normalize relations with Israel, very carefully omitting the main part of their proposal was that Israel, which is Israel and the United States, should join the overwhelming international consensus for a two-state settlement. That’s missing.”
In short, both President Obama and Hillary Clinton, to whom Mitchell will report, have made clear their support for the 22-day Israeli onslaught on Gaza.
Mitchell chaired the negotiations in Northern Ireland that led to the landmark 1998 Good Friday agreement, under which the IRA disarmed and Irish Republican politicians have joined the provincial government. He later chaired a commission on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict whose report, delivered in April 2001, was ignored by the incoming Bush administration because it called for a freeze on Israeli settlements on the West Bank.
Noam Chomsky argues that Mitchell did quite a commendable job in Ireland but it was possible because Britain took into account for the first time the grievances of the population and the terror stopped. However, in the case of Israel situation is quite different which can be noticed from the statement of Mitchell. Chomsky says:
He achieved something in Northern Ireland, but of course, in that case there was an objective. The objective was that the British would put an end to the resort to violence in response to IRA terror and would attend to the legitimate grievances that were the source of the terror. He did manage that, Britain did pay attention to the grievances, and the terror stopped- so that was successful. But there is no such outcome sketched in the Middle East, specially the Israel-Palestine problem. I mean, there is a solution, a straightforward solution very similar to the British one. Israel could stop its US-backed crimes in the occupied territories and then presumably the reaction to them would stop. But that's not on the agenda. In fact, President Obama just had a press conference, which was quite interesting in that respect. He praised the parabolic peace initiative, the Saudi initiative endorsed by the Arab League, and said it had constructive elements. It called for the normalization of relation with Israel, and he called on the Arab states to proceed with those "constructive elements," namely the normalization of relations. But that is a gross falsification of the Arab League initiative. The Arab League initiative called for accepting a two-state settlement on the international border, which has been a long-standing international consensus and said if that can be achieved then Arab states can normalize relations with Israel. Well, Obama skipped the first part, the crucial part, the core of the resolution, because that imposes an obligation on the United States. The United States has stood alone for over thirty years in blocking this international consensus, by now it has totally isolated the US and Israel. Europe and now a lot of other countries have accepted it. Hamas has accepted it for years, the Palestinian Authority of course, the Arab League now for many years [have accepted it]. The US and Israel block it, not just in words, but they are blocking it in actions constantly, (this is) happening every day in the occupied territories and also in the siege of Gaza and other atrocities. So when he skips that it is purposeful. That entails that the US is not going to join the world in seeking to implement a diplomatic settlement, and if that is the case, Mitchell's mission is vacuous.
This is some of what Mitchell had to say: The Secretary of State has just talked about our long-term objective, and the President himself has said that his administration—and I quote—“will make a sustained push, working with Israelis and Palestinians to achieve the goal of two states: a Jewish state in Israel and a Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security.”
Chomsky told the Democracy Now Radio: “He (Mitchell) says, “Yes, we want to have a Palestinian state.” Where? OK? He said not a word about — lots of pleasantries about everyone should live in peace, and so on, but where is the Palestinian state? Nothing said about the US-backed actions continuing every day, which are undermining any possibility for a viable Palestinian state: the takeover of the territory; the annexation wall, which is what it is; the takeover of the Jordan Valley; the salients that cut through the West Bank and effectively trisect it; the hundreds of mostly arbitrary checkpoints designed to make Palestinian life impossible—all going on, not a word about them.”
Mitchell had nothing to say about a Palestinian state. “He carefully avoided what he knows for certain is the core problem: the illegal, totally illegal, the criminal US-backed actions, which are systematically taking over the West Bank, just as they did under Clinton, and are undermining the possibility for a viable state,” Chomsky went on to say.
Apparently, President Obama is giving very little room for Mr. Mitchell to involve all the representative forces within Palestine. Obama still believes that President Mahmoud Abbas, whose constitutional term expired on 9th January 2009, enjoys the support of his people. To borrow Robert Fisk, as every Arab knows, except perhaps Mr Abbas, he is the leader of a ghost government, a near-corpse only kept alive with the blood transfusion of international support and the "full partnership" Obama has apparently offered him. The Palestine Authority is in tatters due to the Israeli intransigence and yet Obama wants to exclude the democratically elected Hamas government from the dialogue. This is a sure recipe for a guaranteed disaster and will only serve to reduce any space for maneuver for Mr. Mitchell who faces the most daunting and onerous task.
US special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke is a hawk and is currently part of the neoconservative organization, United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI). He has co-authored a statement with the extreme hawk and Neocon, Dennis Ross that openly threatens military action against Iran. Holbrooke has also been part of the National Endowment for Democracy that advocates "regime change". Holbrooke is also part of the "Council for Foreign Relations" which is the bastion of the influential Israeli lobby.
Richard Holbrooke, is best known as the architect of the 1995 Dayton peace accords that ended three years of war in Bosnia. According to BBC, nicknamed "the Bulldozer", Holbrooke has gained a reputation for confronting warring leaders to get them to come to the negotiating table. These skills will be tested again in his new role as US envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Holbrooke has long served as one of the most ruthless American diplomat, going all the way back to his early days in the Foreign Service in Vietnam. He came to public notice as the leader of the US diplomatic team at the 1995 talks on the crisis in the former Yugoslavia, held in Dayton, Ohio, that concluded with a US-imposed settlement in the civil war in Bosnia.
Tellingly, in his encouragement of ethnic cleansing by the Croatian regime of Franjo Tudjman, which drove a quarter million Serbs out of the Krajina region of southern Croatia in a 1995 offensive, Holbrooke could deservedly face war crimes charges. He later boasted, in his memoir of the Dayton talks: "Tudjman wanted clarification of the American position. He bluntly asked for my personal views. I indicated my general support for the offensive ... I told Tudjman the offensive had great value to the negotiations. It would be much easier to retain at the table what had been won on the battlefield than to get the Serbs to give up territory they had controlled for several years."
Holbrooke was fully aware at the time of the Dayton talks that the Croatian Army was carrying out atrocities against the Serbs, and was later quoted saying, "We ‘hired' these guys to be our junkyard dogs because we were desperate. We need to try to ‘control' them. But this is no time to get squeamish about things."
Clinton said that Holbrooke's mandate would be to "coordinate across the entire government an effort to achieve United States' strategic goals in the region." These goals have little to do with the remnants of Al Qaeda hiding out in the mountains along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. The real focus of the intervention, under Obama as much as under Bush, is to establish the United States as the principal power in the oil-rich region of Central Asia.
A pipeline from the Dauletabad gas field of Turkmenistan through to Herat and Qandahar then Multan in Pakistan and on to the Indian Ocean remains a strategic goal for Washington. Caspian Sea oil and gas are the near-equivalent in potential value to the Persian Gulf resources, but surrounded by Iran and Russia. A pipeline from Azerbaijan reaches through Georgia to end on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast, but in a time of crisis Russia could easily seal it off. The international contract for pipeline construction was signed shortly after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, but work has not been feasible because the construction site is largely under Taliban control. The desire the area around Qandahar for this purpose is probably a factor in the troop increase.
According to Prof. Gary Leupp of Tufts University, Holbrooke will argue that more needs to be done to stop attacks on Afghanistan from Pakistan, and will justify the continuing U.S. policy of violating Pakistan’s sovereignty with missile attacks. “Holbrooke will engineer Afghan President Karzai’s ouster, work with Gen. David McKiernan to make Afghanistan the center of the “war on terror,” try to pacify the country enough to build a pipeline. Meanwhile, he’ll keep the pressure on Pakistan to go after the Taliban, even as the Taliban and their supporters and imitators proliferate, while the U.S. continues to bomb Pakistan, insulting its national pride, violating international law, outraging its legislators, provoking official protests and mass demonstrations.”
It was pretty clear that Obama has accepted the Bush doctrine that the United States can bomb Pakistan freely. On January 23, the third day of this office, President Obama gave the go-ahead for the twin US missile strikes against targets in Pakistan’s FATA region that killed 21 innocent civilians. Since August, of the 38 drone strikes in Pakistan that have killed nearly 150 people. The militants have responded by killing dozens of alleged US spies in the area.
President Obama told Al-Arabiya that the US would in the next few months lay out a general framework of policy towards Tehran. “It is very important for us to make sure that we are using all the tools of US power, including diplomacy, in our relationship with Iran…. As I said in my inauguration speech, if countries like Iran are willing to unclench their fist, they will find an extended hand from us. ”
Obama had been expected to appoint former ambassador Dennis Ross, president Bill Clinton's special Middle East envoy, to a third post that would handle US relations with Iran. But Ross's aggressive campaign for the post, as well as his close association with key groups that make up the Israel Lobby, appears to have incited a backlash among key Obama advisers, reportedly including Clinton herself, that may have delayed his appointment, according to Jim Lob.
Dennis Ross, an Iran baiter, has supported the war on Iraq which Obama has opposed. Ross has also served with the pro-Israel think tank, Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP) as well as with the Jerusalem-based "Jewish People Policy Planning Institute" (JPPPI).
Dennis Ross has co-authored the report "Meeting the Challenge: US Policy towards Iranian Nuclear Development". This report alludes to an Iranian nuclear program that has been debunked by the CIA National Intelligence Report (Nov 2007) that said that the Iran nuclear program was on hold. The report calls for the military encirclement of Iran, pressure on Iran to abrogate its nuclear programme and thus leading to its logical extension where "war becomes inevitable".
To borrow Prof. Gary Leupp, “by appointing Dennis Ross, Obama is sending the Iranian leaders a clear message. He is associating himself with the most extreme alarmist positions currently articulated, including those of Norman Podhoretz.”
Ross co-authored an op-ed with Richard Holbrooke, R. James Woolsey, and Mark D. Wallace entitled, “Everybody Needs to Worry About Iran.” The op-ed published in the Wall Street Journal Sept. 22, 2008, stated: “Iran is now edging closer to being armed with nuclear weapons, and it continues to develop a ballistic-missile capability.” As Prof Gary Leupp sated:
“This contradicts the conclusion of all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies (Central Intelligence Agency, Army Military Intelligence, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, the National Reconnaissance Office, the National Security Agency, etc.) as of November 2007. Those authors reported: “We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program.” In other words, in the world of empirical methods, critical thinking and analysis–the world of hundreds of trained professionals who’ve actually researched Iran’s nuclear program, with access to spy satellite data, reports from agents in the field, electronic surveillance–Iran has no nuclear program. Mohamed ElBaradei and IAEA staffers on the ground have consistently said that Iran has been thoroughly cooperative and that there are no signs of any diversion for a military program But in the world of this Chicken Little group Iran is edging ever nearer to nukes.”
The editorial describes the nuclear program as “destabilizing” (while noting that Russia, China, India, Pakistan and Israel all have nuclear weapons) and repeats the old Cheneyism that since Iran has so much oil it can’t have any possible real need for a civilian program. (The Iranian nuclear program was encouraged by the Nixon, Ford and Carter administrations when the Shah was in power and supported by General Electric and other U.S. firms.) It repeats the old charge that Iran’s President Ahmadinejad has threatened to wipe Israel off the map (adding that he’s said it could be done with one nuke) and generally assembles all the Bush-era anti-Iran talking-points: Iran sponsors Hizbollah and Hama terrorism, the regime’s repressive towards women and homosexuals, Iran could shut off the Strait of Hormuz, etc.
In conclusion the authors announce their establishment “along with other policy advocates from across the political spectrum” of the nonpartisan group United Against Nuclear Iran.
Prof. Gary Leupp says Ross is known to favor the recommendations of a September 2008 report by something called the Bipartisan Policy Center. These include forcing Iran to suspend uranium enrichment and meet other demands by imposing blockades on Iranian gas imports and oil exports (acts of war) as well as striking “not only Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, but also its conventional military infrastructure in order to suppress an Iranian response.” So it looks like the official Obama line towards Iran, at least for the beginning, will be the Cheney-neocon line. And that is worrisome.
So what foreign policy change is expected by the Obama administration? State policy does not change with the changing of politicians, but is laid out years in advance. This is more clear in the case of Obama because of the deep expectations of change; and probably change there will be none. This message was also brought home by the former president of Pakistan Parwez Musharraf. Commenting on the latest US missile attacks on Pakistan, Musharraf told the CNN:
"But as far as this issue of the new president -- President Obama having taken over and this continuing -- but I have always been saying that policies don't change with personalities; policies have national interest, and policies depend on an environment. So the environment and national interest of the United States being the same, I thought policies will remain constant."
Obama’s election has aroused optimism in the Muslim world that he would reverse the Bush administration policies that created negative image of America and fomented anti-American feelings throughout the world. President Obama said in his Al-Arabiya interview that ultimately, people are going to judge me not by my words but by my actions and my administration's actions. Let us hope that his policies will bring peace to all.
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