Al-Jazeerah: Cross-Cultural Understanding
Opinion Editorials, June 2009
Obama's Cairo Speech:
Well-Crafted, with Little Substance for Muslims
By Abdus Sattar Ghazali
ccun.org, June 14, 2009
"Words are easy and many, while great deeds are difficult and rare."
British Primer Minister Winston Churchill
Just before the well-orchestrated Obama speech, the leading Cairo newspaper Al-Ahram asked me: Do you think Obama’s messages of reconciliation are part of a media stunt — an attempt to achieve political gains — or a sincere attempt to bridge gaps with the Muslim world?
My response was: I am afraid that his repeated reconciliation messages may prove a media stunt if they are not followed by changes in his administration’s policies towards the Muslim World in general and Afghanistan, Iraq and the Palestine issue in particular.
Now what we find in his image-building speech? It was well crafted and rich with good gestures. Its tone was striking. It was very carefully worded, non-committal and lacking substance. But the much hyped speech did not amount to a breakaway from American policies that have created the deep divide between the United States and the Muslim World since 9/11. Vague and flowery rhetoric was used as an adjustment of the language to cloak the US policy.
Contrary to the expectations aroused by the White House about his outreach speech to the Muslim world, Obama continues long war against terror which he has renamed as “violent extremism.” He described extremism (read terrorism) as the first issue. “The first issue that we have to confront is violent extremism in all of its forms.” Unlike his predecessor, George Bush, he did not mentioned terrorism a single time during his 55 minute speech.
However, Obama's decision to close the infamous Guantanamo Bay military prison is seen merely as a move that appeared to symbolically separate his administration from Bush's. Tellingly, in a court filing, the Justice Department has argued that the president has the authority to detain terrorism suspects without criminal charges, much as the Bush administration asserted. It provided a broad definition of those who can be held, which was not significantly different from the one used by Bush.
At the same time, the US detention facility at Bagram, in Afghanistan, is being expanded -- nearly doubled in size -- in order, possibly, to accommodate 200- plus detainees from Guantanamo, as well as future POWs from Obama's expanded war on Afghanistan.
Perhaps most important part of his image-building speech in which he tackled seven issues ("violent extremism" (read terrorism); the Israeli-Arab conflict; nuclear weapons and Iran; democracy in the Muslim world; religious freedom in the Muslim world; women’s rights; and "development and opportunity") was what he did not say:
Obama ignored the dozens of civilians who die each day in the "necessary" war in Afghanistan, or the millions of refugees fleeing the US-invoked escalation in Pakistan. About three millions people have been displaced in recent weeks in the US proxy war launched by the Pakistani army against its own people.
Obama omitted any mention of the four million Iraqi refugees created by the US invasion of that country because of the “war of choice.”
And not a single word about the Israeli massacre of Palestinians in the landlocked Gaza. In Israel’s 22 day last December-January rampage against the unarmed population killed over 1,400 Palestinians - 85% of whom were civilians - including over 400 children. However, Obama admonished the Palestinians for their violence – for "shooting rockets at sleeping children or blowing up old women in a bus."
Contrary to the perception in the Muslim world, for Obama the Middle East conflict is the second source of tension between the US and the Muslim world. “The second major source of tension that we need to discuss is the situation between Israelis, Palestinians and the Arab world,” he said.
Taking a leaf from his predecessor George Bush’s policy, Obama declared that the two-state solution was the only solution. “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.”
The so called “Bush vision” of the two-state solution was adopted by the policy makers of the “Quartet”, a formulation that had been created by the US, Russia, the EU and the UN to help reach a peaceful resolution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The Quartet launched a “Roadmap” plan in April 2003 that envisages a “Two-State” solution. However, Israel virtually rejected the two-state solution when it said that it would be implemented subject to fourteen political and security reservations including that neither the Saudi initiative nor the Arab initiative serve as a basis for the political process and the Palestinians should publicly declare their “renunciation of the right of return” and accept Israel’s right “to exist as a Jewish state”.
Obama said that he was opposed to the new Jewish settlements but he did not oppose the existing settlements. Interestingly, one day after Obama’s speech a new settlement was erected on the occupied West Bank and mockingly named “Obama Hut.”
Not surprisingly, he indirectly urged the Arab states to recognize Israel when he said: the Arab-Israeli conflict “must be a cause for action to help the Palestinian people develop the institutions that will sustain their state, to recognize Israel's legitimacy, and to choose progress over a self-defeating focus on the past.”
The Arab-Israeli conflict is the main source of contention between the West and the Muslim and Arab worlds. Israeli massacres of unarmed Palestinians in Gaza are fresh in their memories. The Arab and Muslim worlds were awaiting a bold initiative by President Obama on the Arab-Israeli issue.
Democracy was the fourth issue tackled by Obama. Ironically he was speaking in the capital of Egypt which has one of the most autocratic Muslim rulers since October 1981, Air Force General Hosni Mubarak, who is America's closest ally in the Middle East after Israel. Tellingly, President Obama, like his predecessors, waves the flag of democracy but whether it is Palestine or Afghanistan, its legitimacy in his eyes, depends on its pro-American stance. The United States did not recognize the legitimacy of the crushing Hamas win over Fatah in the US-backed and closely monitored 2006 Palestinian elections. Ever since its parliamentary victory, Hamas has been isolated and demonized by the West.
Obama qualified his reference to democracy by saying: “America respects the right of all peaceful and law-abiding voices to be heard around the world, even if we disagree with them.” This is not explicitly spelled out, but the context makes it clear that what he is really saying is that the United States is justified in refusing to talk to the democratically elected Hamas because it is not a peaceful government. Interestingly, Palestinians were only party that was called to end violence but he ignored the daily Israeli atrocities against the Palestinians.
On another important Middle East issue, Iran’s nuclear program, Obama argued that it is about preventing a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. However he did not talk about Israel’s estimated 264 nuclear warheads.
Surprisingly, Obama became the first U.S. president to admit the U.S. role in the 1953 CIA-led coup of Iran's elected prime minister Mohammed Mossadegh. "In the middle of the Cold War, the United States played a role in the overthrow of a democratically-elected Iranian government," he said, alluding to the coup. Until now, the most senior U.S. official to express regret for the coup was Madeleine Albright in 2000 when she was secretary of State.
There can be hardly two opinions on the fact that few world leaders today can match Obama's eloquence and charisma at the podium but words cannot bring change. Only real change in policies will bring change and banish the mutual suspicion between the Muslims and the West. Alexander Cockburn is perhaps right when he says there are facts on the ground as one 1000-pound bomb or remote-controlled drone trumps 10,000 words on rhetoric about peace.
Abdus Sattar Ghazali is the Executive Editor of the online magazine American Muslim Perspective:
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