Right Web

Tracking militarists’ efforts to influence U.S. foreign policy

Obama’s Paradigm Shift in U.S. – Mideast Relations

President Obama's Cairo speech represented a significant shift away from the ideological framework that shaped the Bush administration's policy towards the Middle East, but there’s a long way to go before the rhetoric becomes policy.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

President Barack Obama’s June 4 speech in Cairo reflected a significant shift away from the ideological framework of militarism and unilateralism that shaped the Bush administration’s policy towards the Arab and Muslim worlds.

The shift away from Bush’s approach was perhaps most sharply evident in Obama’s public denunciation of the Iraq War as a “war of choice.” His call for a “new beginning” based on “the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive and need not be in competition” was followed by a move to shift the official U.S. discourse towards something closer to internationalism.

Obama accomplished this primarily by pointing to parallels between historical (and some contemporary) grievances and portraying them as equivalent. This included his reference to the U.S. “role in the overthrow of a democratically elected Iranian government,” along with Iran’s “role in acts of hostage-taking and violence against U.S. troops and civilians.”

Certainly, the equivalences were limited. Equating Palestinians and Israelis as “two peoples with legitimate aspirations, each with a painful history” doesn’t reflect the reality that Israel is an occupying power with specific obligations under the Geneva Convention, while Palestinians living under occupation are a protected population under international law. But after decades of U.S. privileging only Israeli suffering, equating the two was a major step forward.

As expected, Obama focused first on the historic contributions of Arabs and Muslims to global civilization and to U.S. culture and history. He articulated U.S. policy—and particularly U.S. obligations—on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan only in broad strokes, although he provided more detail regarding Iran.

Obama’s acknowledgment of the impact of colonialism on the Muslim world was unprecedented. The overall shift in discourse—away from justifying reckless imperial hubris, unilateralism and militarism and towards a more cooperative and potentially even internationalist approach—was potent. The actual policy shifts were less so.

It remains the work of mobilized people across the United States—starting with the millions who mobilized to build a movement capable of electing Barack Hussein Obama as president—to turn that new language into new policies: reversing the escalation and moving towards ending Obama’s war in Afghanistan and Pakistan; ending the occupation of Iraq immediately rather than years from now; ending U.S. military aid to Israel and creating a policy based on an end to occupation and equality for all; launching new negotiations with Iran not based on military threats; implementing U.S. nuclear disarmament obligations, and more.

That’s the next step.

The Wars

Obama began by framing Washington’s regional wars in the context of “violent extremism.” He pointed to Iraq as a reminder of the need to “use diplomacy and build international consensus to resolve our problems,” though he undercut that claim with the added “whenever possible.” He did reiterate the claim that “we pursue no bases, and no claim on their territory or resources” in Iraq, and said his administration will honor the agreement with Iraq “to remove combat troops from Iraqi cities by July, and to remove all of our troops from Iraq by 2012.”

But on Afghanistan, Obama’s own war, he continued to claim that “Afghanistan demonstrates America’s goals,” and that the United States invaded Afghanistan “because of necessity.” He claimed, “we do not want to keep our troops in Afghanistan” and “we seek no military bases there.” But he explained that U.S. troops are there because there are “violent extremists in Afghanistan and now Pakistan determined to kill as many Americans as they possibly can.”

This was a clear statement that the Obama administration intends to remain occupying or militarily engaged in those countries for a long time to come. As an after-thought, Obama added that “military power alone is not going to solve the problems” and bragged of a plan to invest $1.5 billion a year in Pakistan for schools, hospitals, and refugee assistance, and provide “more than $2.8 billion to help Afghans develop their economy.” These claims would have more legitimacy if they represented more than a tiny pittance of the current $97 billion of war-funding the Obama administration has requested for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars just through September.

Israel-Palestine

Obama began this part of his speech with a reassertion of the “unbreakable” bond between the United States and Israel. He traced the history of Jewish persecution “around the world,” but despite his focus on the Islamic world, made no mention of the history of Jews finding refuge and welcome in Muslim lands during some of the worst periods of anti-Semitism. (He did refer to Islam’s “proud tradition of tolerance … in the history of Andalusia and Cordoba during the Inquisition” but did not mention Islam’s protection of Jews.)

He said that 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.” Although he did not specifically refer to ending so-called “natural growth” in the settlements, the reference to “earlier agreements” was clearly designed to remind the audience of Israel’s 2003 agreement to freeze all settlement expansion including “natural growth.”

Obama’s overall language on Israel-Palestine was stronger than any previous U.S. president’s: Israel “must acknowledge that just as Israel’s right to exist cannot be denied, neither can Palestine’s.” His description of Palestinian suffering also went beyond earlier U.S. accounts, including references to 60 years of “the pain of dislocation” and “the displacement brought about by Israel’s founding.” And he described the Palestinians’ situation as “intolerable.” His definition of the “legitimate Palestinian aspiration,” however, was limited to “dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own,” and despite the reference to Palestinian refugees and 60 years of dislocation, he did not mention Palestinians’ right of return.

Obama mentioned Israel’s obligations only as statements: “Israel must also live up to its obligation”; “Israel must acknowledge”; etc. In the crucial weakness of the speech, he did not make any commitment to ensuring that compliance—such as conditioning all or even part of the $3 billion annual U.S. military aid to Israel on a complete settlement freeze or other adherence to U.S. or international law.

Similarly, regarding the Arab peace initiative, Obama ignored the reality that the initiative’s starting point—a complete Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders—has never been implemented. Instead he demanded that Arab countries “recognize that the Arab Peace Initiative was an important beginning, but not the end of their responsibilities.” He called on Arab states 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”—implying that what stands in the way of Palestinian statehood are the actions of Palestinians rather than the continuing Israeli occupation and apartheid.

Obama did move the discourse significantly by linking the Palestinian struggle with the U.S. civil rights movement and South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement. While Obama referred only to the nonviolent nature of those struggles, and didn’t explicitly describe the Palestinian struggle for human rights as a civil rights or anti-apartheid struggle, those parallels are now part of the U.S. framework for understanding the fight for Palestinian rights. This gives new legitimacy to the anti-apartheid and “BDS” (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) movements that shape the global civil society mobilizations in support of Palestinian equality.

Iran

The Iran discussion was perhaps the most significant in actual policy terms. Obama again turned to his pattern of equivalence, describing the U.S. “role in the overthrow of a democratically elected Iranian government” and Iran’s role in “acts of hostage-taking and violence against U.S. troops and civilians.” While that’s hardly a balanced comparison, it’s a huge step forward for a U.S. president to take full responsibility for the overthrow of a government and link it to Iran’s later actions.

And on the prospects for diplomacy, Obama used language that parallels almost word-for-word the way Iranian intellectuals, diplomats, and government officials describe what Iran is looking for in future negotiations: “we are willing to move forward without preconditions on the basis of mutual respect.” That commitment to respect, and the lack of preliminary U.S. demands for what Iran must acquiesce to, could be the hallmarks of a new diplomatic tack. Unfortunately, Obama did not call for a regional peace conference involving all countries in the region including Iran, to replace his current call for Arab governments to join the United States and Israel in a regional anti-Iran alliance.

Importantly, Obama did restate the U.S. commitment “to seek a world in which no nations hold nuclear weapons.” And he explicitly stated that “any nation—including Iran—should have the right to access peaceful nuclear power if it complies with its responsibilities under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.” Regrettably, Obama simultaneously indicated an old-style unilateralist superpower approach to U.S. and international obligations to that treaty (NPT). He described the “core of the treaty” as the commitments of those nations wanting access to peaceful nuclear power not to seek nuclear weapons—Article IV of the NPT. But he made no mention of the reciprocal and at least equally (if not more) important Article VI, which requires the recognized nuclear weapons states—including the United States—to move towards comprehensive nuclear disarmament. Thus, Obama failed to link his own commitment to “seeking” nuclear abolition to Washington’s actual treaty obligation to dismantle the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

He also didn’t call for a Middle East-wide nuclear weapons-free and weapons of mass destruction-free zone, as called for in the U.S.-backed Article 14 of Security Council resolution 687, which ended the 1991 Gulf War. Such a call would have included the need to disarm Israel’s estimated 100-300 nuclear weapons, and at least tacitly recognized that Israel’s nuclear arsenal is a destabilizing force that is fomenting a Mideast arms race.

Democracy

Obama took an important step in acknowledging that the war in Iraq, and specifically the Bush administration’s claim that it was a war “for democracy,” has undermined the U.S. claim of supporting democracy. He said “no system of government can or should be imposed by one nation by any other.”

He went on to say that Washington “would not presume to pick the outcome of a peaceful election” and that “we will welcome all elected, peaceful governments—provided they govern with respect for all their people.”

Good positions—but ones that ignore the reality of Washington’s continuing heavy-handed stance in the Arab world. Certainly the January 2006 Palestinian election—deemed “free and fair” by U.S. and European monitors—that brought Hamas to majority power in the parliament was not “welcomed” by the United States. And quite recently, Vice President Joe Biden told Lebanon in no uncertain terms that future U.S. support would depend on the outcome of their election—an unmistakable reference to U.S. intentions of cutting aid if Hezbollah, already the second-largest party in Lebanon’s parliament, had achieved greater elected power in the recent elections there. In this, unfortunately, the Obama administration is channeling President George H.W. Bush’s 1990 position regarding Nicaragua—telling the population that if they voted for the Sandinistas they would face years of continuing war, while a victory for the U.S.-backed opposition would lead to new economic assistance.

Phyllis Bennis directs the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C. Her latest books are Ending the Iraq War: A Primerand Understanding the US-Iran Crisis: A Primer. A slightly different version of this article first appeared at http://www.ips-dc.org/articles/obama_in_egypt_changing_the_discourse.

Share RightWeb

Featured Profiles

Former Vice President Dick Cheney was a leading framer of the “global war on terror” and a staunch supporter of aggressive U.S. military action around the world.


Mike Pompeo, the Trump administration’s second secretary of state, is a long time foreign policy hawk and has led the public charge for an aggressive policy toward Iran.


Right Web readers will be familiar with Mr. Fleitz, the former CIA officer who once threatened to take “legal action” against Right Web for publicizing reports of controversies he was associated with in the George W. Bush administration. Fleitz recently left his job at the conspiracy-mongering Center for Security Policy to become chief of staff to John Bolton at the National Security Council.


Norm Coleman is chair of the Republican Jewish Coalition and a former senator from Minnesota known for his hawkish views on foreign policy.


Billionaire hedge fund mogul Paul Singer is known for his predatory business practices and support for neoconservative causes.


Keith Kellogg, national security adviser to Vice President Mike Pence, is a passionate supporter of Trump’s foreign policy.


Christians United for Israel (CUFI), the largest “pro-Israel” advocacy group in the United States, is known for its zealous Christian Zionism and its growing influence in the Republican Party.


For media inquiries,
email rightwebproject@gmail.com

From the Wires

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

The Trumpian new regional order in the Middle East is predicated on strongman rule, disregard for human rights, Sunni primacy over Iran and other Shia centers of power, continued military support for pro-American warring parties regardless of the unlawfulness of such wars, and Israeli hegemony.


Print Friendly, PDF & Email

A comparison of U.S. nuclear diplomacy with Iran and the current version with North Korea puts the former in a good light and makes the latter look disappointing. Those with an interest in curbing the dangers of proliferating nuclear weapons should hope that the North Korea picture will improve with time. But whether it does or not, the process has put into perspective how badly mistaken was the Trump administration’s trashing of the Iran nuclear agreement.


Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Numerous high profile Trump administration officials maintain close ties with anti-Muslim conspiracy theorists. In today’s America, disparaging Islam is acceptable in ways that disparaging other religions is not. Given the continuing well-funded campaigns by the Islamophobes and continuing support from their enablers in the Trump administration, starting with the president himself, it seems unlikely that this trend will be reversed any time soon.


Print Friendly, PDF & Email

The Trump administration’s nuclear proliferation policy is now in meltdown, one which no threat of “steely resolve”—in Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s words—will easily contain. It is hemorrhaging in part because the administration has yet to forge a strategy that consistently and credibly signals a feasible bottom line that includes living with—rather than destroying—regimes it despises or fears. Political leaders on both sides of the aisle must call for a new model that has some reasonable hope of restraining America’s foes and bringing security to its Middle East allies.


Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Congressional midterm elections are just months away and another presidential election already looms. Who will be the political leader with the courage and presence of mind to declare: “Enough! Stop this madness!” Man or woman, straight or gay, black, brown, or white, that person will deserve the nation’s gratitude and the support of the electorate. Until that occurs, however, the American penchant for war will stretch on toward infinity.


Print Friendly, PDF & Email

To bolster the president’s arguments for cutting back immigration, the administration recently released a fear-mongering report about future terrorist threats. Among the potential threats: a Sudanese national who, in 2016, “pleaded guilty to attempting to provide material support to ISIS”; an Uzbek who “posted a threat on an Uzbek-language website to kill President Obama in an act of martyrdom on behalf of ISIS”; a Syrian who, in a plea agreement, “admitted that he knew a member of ISIS and that while in Syria he participated in a battle against the Syrian regime, including shooting at others, in coordination with Al Nusrah,” an al-Qaeda offshoot.


Print Friendly, PDF & Email

The recent appointment of purveyors of anti-Muslim rhetoric to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom exposes the cynical approach Republicans have taken in promoting religious freedom.


RightWeb
share