June 4, 2009

Listening for Shadows

Let's begin at the top and slide down hill. Almost everything President Obama said in his speech at Cairo University was good for the Muslim world to hear. He had to speak of Muslim history, of East and West embracing each other, and of understanding each other through religion. Theoretically he could have said anything, but Obama's options were actually limited. It had to be a lovefest.

His speech was also standard compared to expectations, unreasonably high as they were, and glossed over many critical details with cliches. Of course there was only so much he could say, but Obama never really rocked the boat. Here in America, conservative pundits skewered Obama's position on Palestine. Some returned to the unrealistic argument that the Palestinians are to blame for their own problems. Even if this argument is true, which the author doesn't believe, it does nothing to advance the peace process.

The argument over settlements in the West Bank seems to be contrived pressure on Israel when in fact there is none, and also serves as a flimsy bargaining chip with Hamas. Obama states:

"Hamas does have support among some Palestinians," Obama stated, "but they also have to recognize they have responsibilities. To play a role in fulfilling Palestinian aspirations, to unify the Palestinian people, Hamas must put an end to violence, recognize past agreements, recognize Israel's right to exist.

At the same time, Israelis must acknowledge that just as Israel's right to exist cannot be denied, neither can Palestine's. The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop.

And Israel must also live up to its obligation to ensure that Palestinians can live and work and develop their society. Just as it devastates Palestinian families, the continuing humanitarian crisis in Gaza does not serve Israel's security; neither does the continuing lack of opportunity in the West Bank. Progress in the daily lives of the Palestinian people must be a critical part of a road to peace, and Israel must take concrete steps to enable such progress."

Obama is looking at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as an equation to balance; good in theory, difficult to realistically apply. Hamas is being asked to do three things: end violence, recognize past agreements, and recognize Israel's right to exist. These demands can be extrapolated over the entire Palestinian resistance.

In return, Israel must permanently end settlement expansion, lift the thousands of roadblocks in the West Bank, and dismantle the blockade of Gaza. On the surface this trade may seem equal, but reality demands more from the Palestinians.

In sharp contrast to his speech at AIPAC, where he issued proclamations on Jerusalem’s ownership, the Holy City was found only once in Cairo: "Jerusalem is a secure and lasting home for Jews and Christians and Muslims, and a place for all of the children of Abraham to mingle peacefully together as in the story of Isra."

Translation: Israel will allow free worship during its control of Jerusalem. Palestinians also want an apology in exchange for their blessing, which Israel is reluctant to give.

President Obama claims "to speak the truth as best I can," but he swept Jerusalem, the crown jewel of the conflict, under the rug. Afghanistan received surprisingly similar treatment. After running down a list of the Muslim world's most basic inventions, incredible as some of them are, he spoke of each conflict's history.

Except Afghanistan, which disturbingly was Obama's Bushiest moment - 9/11, 9/11, 9/11. Not a word of America's past history or blunders in the region. Pakistan got two sentences, both about America's aid package that everyone already knows of. Not a word on Kashmir.

Obama's policy is strongest on Iraq, though withdrawing all American troops by the 2012 deadline could be problematic. He must be ready to react to any delay.

Obama committed his most serious errors with Iran. I don't believe, as many American pundits apparently do, that Obama's reference to the CIA planned coup in 1953 was an apology, groveling or a sign of weakness. It's the truth.

But the only other thing he could think of was the hostage crisis in 1980. If he wanted to demonstrate that America's leadership has truly changed, he would've been more creative with his references. An apology to the flight victims of Iran Air Flight 655, for instance, would have captured Iran's attention.

It would have been political suicide at home though, and Obama’s stance on Iranian nuclear weapons is no safer. His argument appears to be a nuclear free world - starting with Iran. That won't persuade one Iranian atom.

And while Obama speaks of rebuilding trust with Iran, American and Israeli covert operations in Iran are becoming common knowledge. Already a truism outside America, this is the main reason why Obama's peace overtures sound so hollow to Iran. Iran will undoubtedly play gracious so long as Obama does, but it also knows his words juxtapose with the movements of American and Israeli operatives.

President Obama's speech was less than expected. A good start? Sure. Praising Islam’s virtues is a good thing to do as an individual and is the right message from America, and seeking common ground is the correct long-term strategy. Everyone gets it, Bush is gone. It's a new day.

But Obama's hands were also tied, his statements often general and simplistic, and reality blocks his rhetoric at many points. He was almost too cool. Even if he wanted to show more passion, he was constrained by political backlash at home.

Critics of Obama's critics rebuke the notion that words are useless. Give him a chance to act they say, and rightfully so. But Obama has already taken action and he can be judged on that. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak's unannounced visit before Obama left for Cairo, sending Joe Biden to Lebanon, deep interference in Pakistan while tag teaming with India, CIA agents in Iran, Jerusalem under Israeli control...

This is reality, not words, not conjecture. These are shadows of Obama's true policy.

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