In an indispensable commentary on Obama and the Middle East, Rob Malley and Hussein Agha conclude with some important advice to the President who heads to Cairo this week to address “the Muslim world”:
A window exists, short and subject to abrupt closure, during which President Obama can radically upset Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim preconceptions and make it possible for his future plan, whatever and whenever it might be, to get a fair hearing—for American professions of seriousness to be taken seriously. It won’t be done by repackaging the peace process of years past. It won’t be done by seeking to strengthen those leaders viewed by their own people as at best weak, incompetent, and feckless, at worst irresponsible, careless, and reckless. It won’t be done by perpetuating the bogus and unhelpful distinction between extremists and moderates, by isolating the former, reaching out to the latter, and ending up disconnected from the region’s most relevant actors.
It won’t be done by trying to perform better what was performed before. President Bush’s legacy was, in this sense, doubly harmful: he did the wrong things poorly, which now risks creating the false expectation that, somehow, they can be done well.
Since taking office, President Obama has taken great pains, at least rhetorically, to distinguish himself from President Bush. He has vowed to close the prison camp at Guantanamo and abide by the rule of law in the treatment of detainees; he has vowed to end the war in Iraq; he has declared his intention to reach out for talks with Iran; and he has vowed to revive the moribund Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
Obama’s openness to engagement and his legacy of opposition to the Iraq war has gone down well in the Middle East, with opinion polls showing the President having a remarkably high approval rating for a U.S. leader. But it’s hardly majority support, and even those who approve of Obama seem to retain a negative view of the United States. Here lies the rub: Obama has actually raised expectations that he will substantially change the policies that have antagonized much of the Middle East and beyond — expectations that, on current indications, he is unlikely to even come close to satisfying.
And that considerably raises the political peril of his planned speech to “the Muslim world” — I use quote marks in deference to the fact that the singularity of that noun may be more a figment of the jihadist imagination than a reality, but I’ll leave that conversation to others. The greater danger lies in the fact that Obama has no new policies to offer in Cairo. As his Deputy National Security Adviser Dennis McDonough told the Wall Street Journal, the Cairo speech will, instead, attempt to “change the conversation”. Said McDonough, “We want to get back on a shared partnership, back in a conversation that focuses on the shared values.”
The problem, of course, is that the breakdown between the U.S. and “the Muslim world” is not a misunderstanding of values, or a communication failure; it’s entirely about U.S. actions and policies, rather than the rhetoric in which they’re wrapped. People in Muslim countries understand American values, or the values America professes to uphold, and many are passionately attached to some of those same values. What they expect of America is that it apply its own values when dealing with the Middle East. They would like very much, for example, the U.S. to act on that basis of Lincoln’s “self evident truth” that Palestinian men and women were created equal to Israeli men and women — an approach Obama’s own Administration has yet to demonstrate, as my friend Rami Khouri notes.
And it’s all very well to proclaim democracy and government reflecting the popular will as American values, but the dominant feature of U.S. dealings over the past six decades with Muslim countries ranging from Indonesia and Iran to Pakistan, Palestine, Egypt and Algeria, has been to stifle the popular will and its free and democratic expression, by backing dictators who are willing to do Washington’s geopolitical bidding. Even now, now it’s far from clear that Obama is willing to accept the outcome of the democratic process in the Palestinian territories, or in Lebanon, or to suggest that a democratic process may be a good idea in Egypt. Indeed, one of the salient features of the Arab world with which Obama is dealing, is the disconnect between its leaders and its people. And currently, it’s with the leaders that Obama is looking to do business — indeed, as former Bush Mideast policy chief Elliot Abrams recently noted, the purpose of Obama’s speech is really to try and create a public climate that makes it easier for those leaders to cooperate with the U.S.
Let’s not forget that President Bush, and Condi Rice, also went to the Middle East and made lofty speeches about freedom and about how the U.S. was not in conflict with Islam. It was not the rhetoric that failed them; it was the disconnect between the rhetoric and the policies. The same disconnect casts a shadow over Obama’s speech: Despite his changing of the tone, he comes to Cairo as the head of a government that looks likely to keep Guantanamo open for some time yet (his arrival follows days after the news that a Yemeni inmate there committed suicide), while convicting some of its inmates not in courts of law, but in military tribunals — and limiting the probe into torture committed under the Bush Administration. He arrives as the Commander in Chief responsible for two occupations of Muslim countries, Iraq and Afghanistan, neither of which looks likely to end any time soon — and in Afghanistan, U.S. involvement looks likely to increase, and with it civilian casualties from U.S. air strikes. The substance of his Iran policy thus far seems to have not shifted substantially from that of Bush, and it remains to be seen just what he intends with Israel and the Palestinians: He has demanded that Israel freeze settlements, and Israel has said no. Israel’s many friends in both parties on Capitol Hill are growing increasingly uneasy, and moving to restrain the Administration from publicly pressing Israel, even on the settlements issue.
Then, there are the worrying signs that he appears to have endorsed a renewed offensive by Palestinian Authority security forces against Hamas. That would be an unmitigated disaster, although the Israelis would love it — by ramping up their own assassination efforts against Hamas operatives in the West Bank, they seem to be trying to goad Hamas into relaunching its suspended rocket offensive in Gaza, knowing that a new security clash will take peace discussions entirely off the agenda.
And the problem here, of course, is that Obama’s key Arab partners — President Mahmoud Abbas and Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak — for their own domestic political reasons (neither has a democratic mandate, and both would lose free elections to their Islamist challengers), share Israel’s animus towards Hamas, and have been content until now to tacitly back its efforts to destroy the organization. That’s not likely to happen, of course, but it leaves us contemplating a situation in which Obama is trying to build a “peace process” based on the fatally flawed foundations of a decrepit Arab (and Palestinian) political order largely at odds with its own citizenry, and, as Malley and Agha warned, disconnected from the region’s main players. In other words, to borrow from their warning, Obama may be trying to make a better job than Bush did of doing the wrong things.
Like some of his predecessors, Obama may have an exaggerated sense of the power of his own considerable charm to unlock geopolitical stalemates. But he shouldn’t underestimate the impatience of his audience with flowery rhetoric, and their determination to claim their own sovereign voice. What he says in Cairo will make little difference to the way he’s perceived in the Arab world and beyond; he’ll be judged by what he does.