We Need Policy, Not Respect
This column was published on The New York Times' Room for Debate on 4 June 2009.
For many Arabs still prepared to sit through an address by an American leader, Barack Obama’s words are likely to have gone down well. Unlike his predecessor, this president speaks in coherent sentences, radiates intelligence and exudes empathy, and when not discussing Israel manages to avoid the imperial hectoring and irrational histrionics that were the stock in trade of the Bush administration. Together with President Obama’s earlier Turkish address, Washington’s intention to restart relations with the “Muslim World” seems off to a good start.
The problem with this “Ctrl+Alt+Del” operation is that U.S. Middle East policy is being rebooted into the same decrepit operating system, whereas nothing short of a wholesale replacement will suffice. As President Obama’s trip and speech demonstrate, it’s the same wars, same autocratic friends and discredited allies, same strategic objective of hegemony and domination. Only the failed methods and self-defeating rhetoric are being adjusted — and not by all that much.
For President Obama too, it seems, the world is neatly divisible into the “West” and “Islam” — convenient Manichean categories popular in neoconservative and radical jihadi circles because they gloss over a host of critical regional differences and local diversities, and a very long history of interpenetration.
In this respect, the president’s plea for cooperation in pursuit of common interests is — as any cold warrior will readily attest — hardly revolutionary. The devil, rather, is in the details: What kind of cooperation, and what interests? Cooperation, in other words, with whom among the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims?
On U.S. Middle East policy, a subject far more important to any Arab audience than an American president’s views on Islam or ability to cite the occasional Quranic passage, President Obama missed two golden opportunities. On Iraq, he could have issued a formal apology for an illegitimate war and the unspeakable reigns of terror presided over by the U.S. occupation, or noted his own early opposition to the U.S. invasion, or said nothing. Instead, he chose to make the ludicrous claim that Iraq today is a better place than in 2003.
On Palestine, he confirmed once again that American elites are more pro-Israel than Israel itself. Lengthy denunciations of Palestinian violence (Israeli violence was left unmentioned and presumed nonexistent); detailed exposition of the (European) Holocaust, an appropriate excursion into the conflict’s background which, however, becomes improper when simultaneously pretending Palestinians were transformed into a dispossessed and stateless people by a freakish act of nature; pre-conditions solely for Palestinians; and a determination to hawk damaged goods in the form of worthless initiatives long past their sell-by date. It’s the Occupation, Stupid! And that’s not a reference to Tel Aviv.
In sum, great presentation, mediocre substance and a seeming failure to recognize it’s all about policy, not respect. And when it comes to the U.S., policy is about much more than an initiative to promote female literacy.