by James M. Wall
President Obama has a massive educational task on his hands. In his long-awaited Cairo speech, he addressed a world audience of more than 1.2 billion Muslims, an estimated 22% of the world’s population, second only to Christianity, which has an estimated 33% of the world’s inhabitants.
Obama chose a university campus in Cairo, Egypt to give his address, a city historically identified as a major center of Arab culture. Complicating his task is the fact that only 12% of the world’s Muslim population is Arab.
Beirut journalist Rami Khouri notes that while The Speech will no doubt inspire, its true impact will finally be judged by how it affects Muslims who live in Gaza, Jenin, Ramallah, Beruit or Riyadh. Can the leader of what is currently the world’s major superpower take his Cairo show on the road to Jerusalem?
Khouri is editor at large of the Beirut-based Daily Star, published throughout the Middle East with the International Herald Tribune. He points Obama to three significant issues he must act upon and suggests a focus for his actions:
. . . the Arab-Israeli conflict, the “resistance front” headed by Syria, Iran, Hizbullah and Hamas, and the lack of democratic, rule-of-law-based governance systems in most Arab countries. . . .
. . . As he wanders in Arab-Islamic lands this week, he should be guided less by the ghastly images of the 9/11 attacks, and more by his two seminal experiences in Chicago as a community organizer and a law professor. Law and rights, not terror and revenge, should be the lenses through which he encounters the Arab-Islamic world this week.
It will be his existential awareness of “law and rights” that will provide him with the “lenses” through which his experience as a community organizer and law professor will allow him to see the Middle East in all its Niebuhrian complexity.
He did not preach to south Chicagoans about the depth and wealth of African-American culture or the power of Christianity and Islam; he worked for housing loans, quality education, safe streets and other policy issues that affirm the equal rights of all Americans, and that matter to men and women who live in south Chicago.
Public speeches are not good platforms for policy-making. They are suitable for articulating one’s values, though. No offense, but nobody really cares about Obama’s ancestors or youth years, or his views on other religions. What we care about — and what he should explain clearly on this trip — is whether the United States government believes that habeas corpus and the 4th Geneva Convention, for example, apply with equal force to Arabs as to Israelis.
This weekend, Lebanon’s parliamentary election, carefully watched, by the way, by a team of monitors lead by former President Jimmy Carter, could very well produce an even larger victory for Hezbollah than it has achieved in previous elections.
This would present President Obama with an immediate challenge: Will the United States government slavishly follow Israel’s script, branding Hezbollah and Hamas as “terrorist” organizations?
Tony Karon is a South African-born Jewish journalist now writing for Time magazine. On his own blog, Rootless Cosmopolitan, Karon echoes Rami Khouri with this perceptive advance observation on the Obama speech:
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.
Karon also worries that the Obama White House has yet to move away from the Bush embrace of Israel’s failed policy of isolating Hamas.
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.
Karon also points to a major article in the New York Review of Books, by Middle East analysts Hussein Agha and Robert Malley, that finds that for Obama, the starting point . . .
. . . . should be recognition of some uncomfortable, brutal realities. These include the depth of inherited anti-American animus; of cynicism toward old plans and tired formulas; of popular estrangement from the regional leaders on whom Washington has come to depend; and of popular attraction to militant activists, militant behavior, and a radical worldview.
The consequence is that some well-worn recipes cannot work. Claiming eagerness to end the Arab–Israeli conflict or reach a two-state solution has become stale by dint of sterile repetition. President Bush did so, possibly more passionately and fervently than any predecessor. Yet few listened because few believed in what he said, least of all the Palestinians who were his supposed audience.
Agha and Malley conclude
The broader point is this: 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.
Is Obama serious? We have to believe he is. The important thing is, can he demonstrate his seriousness to the child in Jenin and the young woman shopping in in the Old City market in Jerusalem. Can he reassure the mother in Tel Aviv that she has not been abandoned by Israel’s long time American ally?
Not to put too much of a burden on Barack Obama, but lets face it, if he can’t do it, who could?