In his piece yesterday here on newmatilda.com, David Brewster wrote that Obama’s recent speech in Cairo "strip[s]bare some of the most complex international politics of the last 100 years or more". Indeed, that master of honest and direct language, George Orwell, apparently would have enjoyed his speech as a victory for "clear, straight talk", devoid of "weasel words". This is because Obama is supposed to have had "no unspoken agenda", and this speech "directly reflected values Obama has clearly, consistently espoused". There was, Brewster said, no euphemism, only clarity; no obfuscation, only candour.
It is customary for pundits across the media landscape to welcome with excitement almost every speech Obama gives. This is independent of political affiliation, with even Gerard Henderson declaring that "Obama is one of the finest orators of the modern age."
But let us examine some of Obama’s candid honesty in his Cairo speech. We can start with Obama’s claim that he’s setting out to support democracy globally in a more respectful way — as he says, "no system of government can or should be imposed upon one nation by any other." Democracy and human rights, he added, are good things, "not just American ideas".
Let’s put this in perspective. Obama’s speech to the Muslim world was delivered in Cairo, after visiting Saudi Arabia. Egypt is a police state; Saudi Arabia is perhaps the most misogynistic theocracy in the world. The unpopular governments of both are dependent on longstanding US support, which Obama did not threaten in any way.
Indeed, in an interview with the BBC, Obama demonstrated what Brewster applauds as his commitment to "clear, straight talk". When confronted with some of Amnesty’s criticisms of Mubarak, Obama refused to even call Mubarak "authoritarian", instead praising the Egyptian Government as a "stalwart ally", and a "force for stability and good in the region". As Hossam el-Hamalawy wrote, the visit was a "clear endorsement of … the ailing 81-year-old dictator who has ruled with martial law, secret police and torture chambers. No words that Mr. Obama will say can change this perception that Americans are supporting a dictator with their more than US$1 billion in annual aid."
Earlier, in Saudi Arabia, he said he was "struck" by the "wisdom and graciousness" of Saudi King Abdullah. As’ad AbuKhalil wondered if he would next "praise the public beheadings in the kingdom as example[s]of ideal justice".
Not long ago, there was an American politician who took a different view of all this. He took a stand against the war in Iraq before it was launched, and said that the US had other battles that were more important. "You want a fight, President Bush?" he asked. "Let’s fight to make sure our so-called allies in the Middle East, the Saudis and the Egyptians, stop oppressing their own people, and suppressing dissent, and tolerating corruption and inequality, and mismanaging their economies so that their youth grow up without education, without prospects, without hope, the ready recruits of terrorist cells."
The man who denounced these "so-called allies" of America was none other than Barack Obama. Neither government has changed since then. The only observable change has been in Obama during his quest for power. Despite this, Brewster somehow holds that Obama’s Cairo speech reflected the values Obama "has clearly, consistently espoused".
On the issue of Israel and Palestine, the speech was considered by many to be surprisingly pro-Palestinian. Even Gideon Levy was impressed, saying that Obama had spoken "with empathy about Palestinian suffering". However, this is nothing new. US administrations routinely offer some tepid criticism of Israeli expansion of settlements, as part of a pretence of even-handedness. They go on to denounce Palestinian violence, call on Palestinians to accept Israel’s "right to exist", and so on. Throughout this display of rhetorical balance, the US continues to give Israel billions of dollars in aid, which it uses to colonise Palestinian land and beat, kill and torture Palestinians into accepting their oppression.
Obama, of course, mentioned the "daily humiliations" of occupation in his speech. But he did not once mention the actual cause of Palestinian suffering or humiliation. Furthermore, saying Palestinians suffer — and speaking as if their suffering was on par with the suffering of Israelis — isn’t an Obama innovation. For example, Condoleezza Rice is remembered for comparing conditions in the occupation to racism in the American south which she’d grown up with. "I know what it’s like to hear that you can’t use a certain road or pass through a checkpoint because you are a Palestinian. I know what it is like to feel discriminated against and powerless", said Rice, before going on to pretend that Israeli suffering was just as real and pervasive. Objecting to settlements and aspects of the occupation do not signify change in US policy, or even rhetoric.
Declared opposition to Israeli settlements has long been a part of US policy. Meanwhile, actual financial support for the settlements through US aid to Israel has also been a part of US policy. However, according to the New York Times, any idea of the US placing conditions on aid to Israel is "not under discussion". The US plan of showing public disapproval of Israeli settlements will be "largely symbolic". Nevertheless, pundits like Brewster remain impressed at Obama’s empty declarations on this front too.
Meanwhile, Obama called upon the Palestinians — but not Israel — to end all violence. The Palestinians’ armed "resistance … is wrong and does not succeed", as proven, in Obama’s opinion, by US history. Perhaps Palestinians should study US history, and learn of how slavery was abolished through non-violent struggle. Then they could learn of America’s non-violent struggle for independence, and its general pursuit of non-violence and avoidance of military campaigns across the world. As the world knows, Obama is currently engaged in non-violent struggle in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq. Brewster thinks Orwell would have been impressed. So do I.
Significantly in Obama’s Cairo speech, he insisted that the Arab world must "recognise Israel’s legitimacy". This is not simply a call for coexistence. This is how even-handed Obama is: Israel should stop building new settlements (although the Apartheid Wall, which effectively annexes the major settlement blocs, is apparently fine). The Arabs, on the other hand, must end all violence and become Zionists.
Let us also consider one more example of the way Obama is operating, in theory versus practice. In what Brewster considers "clear, straight talk", Obama said no system of government "can or should be imposed upon one nation by any other". In practice, let’s look at the case of Afghanistan. It was supposedly liberated from Taliban rule by the US and the "Coalition of the Willing". The exact nature of the "sovereign government" they installed for the Afghanis was candidly discussed recently in the Washington Post:
"In November 2003 … the Bush administration dispatched Zalmay Khalilzad, its foremost expert on Afghanistan, as ambassador to Kabul … Khalilzad was far more than an ambassador. US diplomats described his role as the country’s chief executive — with Karzai as the figurehead chairman — for the 19 months of his ambassadorship.
"By his own account, Khalilzad ate dinner six nights a week at the presidential palace, where he met with Karzai and his advisers into the evening. No significant decision was made by Karzai in that time without Khalilzad’s involvement, and sometimes his cajoling and prodding, the diplomats said." [Emphasis added.]
When Khalilzad thought the governor of Herat should be transferred, Karzai was reluctant. However, Khalilzad went to visit the governor, and announced that the governor would become a cabinet minister. "A few days later, Karzai issued an edict" announcing this too. "’Karzai was being his usual indecisive self, so Zal drove the steel rod up his spine,’ said a US official." It was because of this "tactic, applied repeatedly", that Karzai "was seen by many Afghans as a puppet of the US".
Quite plainly, Karzai earned this reputation. However, since he started stepping out of line, with such outrages as criticising the US bombing of civilians in his country, the Obama administration has decided Afghanistan needs a new government. According to the New York Times, the new "chief executive officer" of Afghanistan may be none other than Khalilzad. In effect, this new position would mean being "prime minister, except not prime minister because he wouldn’t be responsible to a parliamentary system".
That is, Obama is apparently seeking to impose a former US ambassador to Afghanistan as the new Afghani dictator, overriding the power of any elected officials. Plainly, this is not exactly in line with Obama’s declaration about not imposing a government upon another nation. In fact, one might even marvel at how dishonest the Cairo speech was. However, if we only look at Obama’s rhetoric, without examining his policies, we could end up admiring his speeches, as Brewster does. Brewster says that "all we have is language and guns", and that Obama is doing a good job wielding the former. That’s something we can agree on.
But beyond language and guns, there is actually a third option for winning goodwill in the Muslim world: changing US policies to remove legitimate Muslim grievances against the US. That option includes making the kind of policy changes that Obama used to demand, namely, fighting "to make sure our so-called allies in the Middle East, the Saudis and the Egyptians, stop oppressing their own people, and suppressing dissent, and tolerating corruption and inequality, and mismanaging their economies so that their youth grow up without education, without prospects, without hope, the ready recruits of terrorist cells."
It also includes ending US support for Israeli colonialism and apartheid. But so far in his presidency, Obama — despite the wishful thinking of some pundits — apparently considers this third option too outlandish to pursue.
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