Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Obama and the Muslim world

John Esposito was still writing in October 2009 with qualified hope about the Obama administration's policies toward the Muslim world in a "Letter from the Editor" in Oxford Islamic Studies Online:

Obama and the United States now face a Muslim world in which widespread anti-Americanism has grown exponentially, due not to a clash of religions, values, or cultures, but to American foreign policy. In light of U.S. support for authoritarian Muslim governments, the invasion and occupation of Iraq, human rights abuses at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, and Israel in its military actions in Lebanon and Gaza, many Muslims have deep concerns and grievances. They fear Western intervention and domination and believe that the West—particularly the United States—uses a double standard in its promotion of democracy and human rights. Obama’s message as president—a message of respect, self-criticism, and restraint—resonates with the vast majority of Muslims around the world who, like Americans, want peace not war, security not instability and terrorism, and a partnership based on respect and common interests rather than unilateralism. As a Gallup world poll showed, a majority of Muslims want better relations with the West and desire coexistence not conflict (Esposito and Mogahed, Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think). Most admire America’s basic principles and values of self-determination, freedom, democracy, and human rights.


After only six months in office, Obama has proven highly active and effective in engaging leaders and groups around the world, including the Muslim world. In doing so, however, he has also raised the bar—the very yardstick by which he will be judged. People in the Middle East and the Muslim world are watching closely—many enthusiastic and hopeful, some cynical. A common question and concern reflected in the media and in my recent trips to Cairo and the Gulf is, “If Obama represents a very new and fresh chapter in American politics, why then do so many aspects of his administration smack of the Bush era?” The answer is still to be seen. [my emphasis]
With the latest escalation of the Afghanistan War, the stepping-up of the covert and covert military actions in Yemen (US opens Yemen front Gulf News 12/29/09) and the administration's de facto embrace of the new Israeli government's continued aggressive expansion of settlements in occupied territory (despite the current nominal freeze), hopes for more peaceful relations with the Muslim world seem to have seriously dimmed since October.

See U.S.: Israel plan to build in East Jerusalem harms peace process by Natasha Mozgovaya and Akiva Eldar Haaretz 12/28/09 and 'Okay for new West Bank homes isn't bid to appease settlers' Haaretz 12/19/09 for a look at the cynical way the settlement game is being played at the moment. This isn't fooling anyone who doesn't want to be fooled. The Cheney-Bush administration spent eight years making similarly empty pronouncements as the current White House one against the East Jerusalem settlement expansion. It's not only Muslims who need to be asking that question, "If Obama represents a very new and fresh chapter in American politics, why then do so many aspects of his administration smack of the Bush era?"

Meanwhile, Israel's Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman practically thumbs his nose at the notion that Israel will do anything to further peace negotiations: (Lieberman urges diplomats: Show world Israel has done enough for peace by Barak Ravid Haaretz 12/27/09):

Lieberman told the more than 100 diplomats gathered at his office not to expect the Palestinians to sign a peace agreement with Israel in the next 10 years.

I put the ideology and the politics side by side and try to estimate them in an objective way," he said. "What is the chance for any sort of permanent agreement? We must remember that it all depends on them."

"I've reached the conclusion that even if we do retreat to the 1967 borders, it won't bring an end to the conflict," he declared. "Even if we retreat to the last centimeter, nothing will change."
Our own Joe Lieberman is talking up the idea of a full-blown war in Yemen. And of course our Iran hawks never seem to sleep. They are always happy to see anti-regime demonstrations in Iran because it gives them an excuse to advocate helping the suffering Iranian people by bombing and killing tens or hundreds of thousands of them. You don't have to know anything about Islam to understand why that prospect evokes only a minimum of enthusiasm from the supposed intended beneficiaries.

Meanwhile, Israel's Barak, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, is more-or-less openly threatening a nuclear strike against Iran (New Iran nuclear facility resistant to regular bombs by Jonathan Lis Haaretz 12/27/09). He also cited his supposed sympathy for Iranian dissidents:

Barak also condemned the Islamic regime's crackdown on opposition protesters, a day after at least eight demonstrators were killed across Iran.

"These demonstrators are just looking for a normal life," he said. "It bothers me to say the way the free world is responding to what's going on there? They are crushing civilians from above, there."
Stephen Walt argues that the US should avoid directly meddling in the domestic political unrest in Iran on using it as an excuse for escalating international tension with Iran in On the unrest in Iran: Don't just do something, stand there! Foreign Policy 12/27/09. But Obama seems to be increasingly leaning to far less sober foreign policy advice.

As Walt puts it, "I don’t object to making it clear how much the U.S. government deplores the regime’s repressive measures, but this is one of those moment where we ought to say less than we feel." He cautions against concrete covert action in supposrt of the government opponents. We don't know the full extent of US covert action in Iran, though the existence of such programs is an open secret. Walt writes:

... we do not know enough about internal dynamics in Iran to intervene intelligently, and trying to reinforce or support the Green [pro-democracy] Movement is as likely to hurt them as to help them. So our official position needs to measured and temperate, and to scrupulously avoid any suggestion that we are egging the Greens on or actively backing them with material aid.
And we always need to remember that a fully democratic government in Teheran wouldn't necessarily pursue a foreign policy more to the liking of the United States. We're still dealing with the blowback from our successful intervention in Iran in 1953. A bit of humility about the limits of US power would really be very appropriate in this situation with Iran.

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