September 21, 2011
The Dream That Was Cairo
President Barack Obama first arrived in Cairo to a reception equal to (and possibly greater than) the American jubilation that swept him into office. Despite the warnings signs that all might be as advertised (Afghanistan “the good war,” unilateral action into Pakistan, Israeli boosting), Muslims in general were ecstatic to be rid of George Bush and his shadows. The euphoria inevitably spawned a backlash amongst those fearing a switch of the mask.
Obama admitted that “change cannot happen overnight” and acknowledged the publicity of his arrival in Egypt, but cautioned, “no single speech can eradicate years of mistrust, nor can I answer in the time that I have this afternoon all the complex questions that brought us to this point.” Nevertheless, he found himself on stage at Cairo University precisely to stem the tide of mutual distrust.
“I've come here to Cairo to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world,” he told a cheering audience, “one based on mutual interest and mutual respect, and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive and need not be in competition. Instead, they overlap, and share common principles - principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings.”
Unfortunately Obama has yet to deliver on his global promises, and his administration’s foreign policy suggests that a major realignment is unlikely. While the administration has attempted to reach out through economic initiatives and social media, the core problems in U.S. foreign policy remain unchanged and feed back into a negative media cycle. It would be too easy to draw a distinct line between Cairo 2009 and Obama’s latest speech to the UN General Assembly; he would undersell Afghanistan, oversell Iraq and tilt towards the Israelis in Cairo. A key difference isn’t rhetorical but circumstantial.
After promising false hope in 2009, his administration is now covering up the trail in 2011.
Opening with a Utopian vision, Obama muses on the vast cause-and-effect of history, the ceaseless nature of war and the hardship of peace. His opening could have created a welcoming stage to reject the Palestinians’ bid for statehood, if only he was speaking truthfully. Seemingly taking credit for supporting every revolution in the Arab Spring, Obama also emphasizes progress in Iraq and Afghanistan with the flip of a few sentences. Amid the token warning signs that “peace is hard,” the President spoke as though all was well in his foreign policy.
“I took office at a time of two wars for the United States. Moreover, the violent extremists who drew us into war in the first place - Osama bin Laden, and his al Qaeda organization - remained at large. Today, we've set a new direction. At the end of this year, America’s military operation in Iraq will be over. We will have a normal relationship with a sovereign nation that is a member of the community of nations. That equal partnership will be strengthened by our support for Iraq - for its government and for its security forces, for its people and for their aspirations.”
“So let there be no doubt,” Obama declared. “The tide of war is receding. When I took office, roughly 180,000 Americans were serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. By the end of this year, that number will be cut in half, and it will continue to decline... Moreover, we are poised to end these wars from a position of strength.”
Some of these claims are surviving on technicalities. As of this moment Baghdad hasn’t issued a formal delay of the U.S. withdrawal, but Washington will approve a residual force as soon as politically possible. Few Iraqis believe the U.S. will leave their country as a sovereign nation. Meanwhile U.S. troops are slowly beginning to redeploy from Afghanistan - months after his July deadline - and the war won’t be copying Iraq’s drop in violence any time soon, instead emulating Iraq’s chronic instability at a higher intensity.
That al-Qaeda’s core leadership in Pakistan and Afghanistan has suffered a major blow is evident in the numbers and names. What’s frightening other parts of the world is a new tide of war creeping into their counties. As Obama implores the world to choose peace over war, his administration has leaked a variety of reports on the CIA’s drone grid over Africa and the Indian Ocean. This new counter-terrorism policy isn’t based on sound counterinsurgency - limit troop levels and connect with the local population - but on America’s weakening military and economic position. If the switch to “CT” was genuinely concerned with eliminating terrorism and supporting democratic aspirations, U.S. policy in Yemen would be the opposite of its current state.
Here the administration has blocked the revolution of a peaceful and open-minded people with threats of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Yemenis are eager to rid themselves of al-Qaeda and Ali Abdullah Saleh at the same time, yet both are being forced onto them by external forces.
“Throughout the region, we will have to respond to the calls for change. In Yemen, men, women and children gather by the thousands in towns and city squares every day with the hope that their determination and spilled blood will prevail over a corrupt system. America supports those aspirations. We must work with Yemen’s neighbors and our partners around the world to seek a path that allows for a peaceful transition of power from President Saleh, and a movement to free and fair elections as soon as possible.”
Perhaps Obama is oblivious to the level of animosity towards U.S. policy in Yemen, or he simply doesn’t want to confront widespread disappointment with his personal silence. Shia Bahrainis quickly received the same treatment: forced dialogue meant to suppress their uprising. Few “steps have been taken toward reform and accountability” and Obama’s administration should have little to be “pleased with,” even if “more is required.” To his credit Obama doesn’t hide the fact that “America is a close friend of Bahrain,” unlike his non-mention of support for Saleh’s regime, but still calls for “the main opposition bloc - the Wifaq - to pursue a meaningful dialogue that brings peaceful change that is responsive to the people.”
Many grassroots followers of Al Wefaq are now demanding the end of King Hamad’s monarchy.
On top of highlighting the hypocrisy between Libya and Syria - Egyptians are also unhappy with the White House’s response - these are the shortcuts that Obama is now accusing the Palestinians of taking. After promising to engage the peace process from day one, his administration appointed a number of “Israel-firsters,” getting George Mitchell bounced after a series of humiliating settlement announcements and personal confrontations with Benjamin Netanyahu. Israel’s Prime Minister quickly became Obama’s antagonist, obstructing attempts to make a quick deal in favor of the Israelis. Netanyahu seeks an unconditional surrender from the Palestinians, not a fair two state solution.
Taking their statehood bid to the UN remains a divisive proposition for the Palestinians. With Mahmoud Abbas’s own legitimacy in limbo and Hamas isolated in Gaza, some are of the opinion that the Palestinians should put their own political house in order, then proceed to the UN with increased strength. This thinking is valid and may prove correct in hindsight, but Abbas’s game of chicken could also move the process forward. Spinning negotiations as the only option ignores the lack of progress in direct negotiations, and it’s doubtful that the administration will jumpstart a permanent dialogue after September.
Netanyahu claims that “avoiding these negotiations is bad for Israel, bad for the Palestinians, and bad for peace,” when his ingratitude has drawn the ire of Obama’s own security council.
For the record Abbas has pledged to return to negotiations if a resolution is passed. The Palestinians’ bid, for better and worse, is a proactive step borne out of necessity. Something has gone terribly wrong when the only ones applauding are U.S. lawmakers and Netanyahu, who commended Obama for resisting the “automatic majority against Israel” on a “position of principle.” Netanyahu hailed Obama’s veto of Palestinian statehood as a “badge of honor,” and hoped that “others will follow your example, Mr. President.”
Judging by America’s “unbreakable” commitment to Israel - “stronger than it has ever been” - Netanyahu doesn’t have to worry about his own hope being popped.
Obama would declare that, “each nation must chart its own course to fulfill the aspirations of its people, and America does not expect to agree with every party or person who expresses themselves politically.” He pledges to “always stand up for the universal rights that were embraced by this Assembly.” Except this fallacy is a main cause of misfortune. The Arab revolutions have reinforced the impression that America doesn’t believe in universal rights, putting its interests above those who pursue peace against U.S.-supported regimes.
Obama's bridge to the Muslim world remains a bridge to nowhere. The end result is a speech of conflict, shrouded in historical poetics and a rhetorical style that has expired along with his visions of hope.