It’s a mistake to see President Obama’s June 4 speech in Cairo merely as a repudiation of George W. Bush’s wrecking-ball approach to the Middle East.
It’s certainly true that during the eight years of the Bush administration, the United States lost a great deal. Bush’s War on Terror, which in a moment of candor he called a Crusade, was widely viewed by Arabs, Iranians, Afghans, Pakistanis, and others as an assault on Islam itself, a conclusion that was reinforced by right-wing US Christian denunciations of Islam as a religion of violence and by neoconservative and pro-Israeli efforts to exaggerate the importance of Al Qaeda in the broader Muslim world. The Bush administration’s policy of regime change — applied in its ugliest form in Iraq — was originally intended to include Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Yemen, Libya, and Sudan, as well, creating the image of the United States as a born-again imperial power in a region still recovering from the British, French, Italian, and other colonial powers that exited the region only recently. And Bush and Co. lumped together all of the region’s anti-Western political forces, rolling Al Qaeda, the Taliban, Iran’s Shiite clergy, Saddam Hussein, Hezbollah, Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood, Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabis, and the Syrian Baath party into one big “Islamofascist” ball of wax.
It is, of course, easy to find advocates for all of that, still, in the neocon-linked thinktanks and in the pages of the National Review, the Weekly Standard, the New Republic, and the Wall Street Journal editorial pages.
So the first thing Obama can do is to officially renounce that, all of it. If I were writing the speech, here’s a line I’d put in it. “There is no Clash of Civilizations. There never was. Instead, I suggest that, working together, we can create a Partnership of Civilizations.”
But Obama will have to do a lot more than be not-Bush.
The tricky part of Obama’s speech is navigate the intricate relationship between (1) the need for the United States to establish strong, state-to-state relationships with autocratic and less-than-democratic leaders in the region, from pro-Western military strongmen like Egypt’s Mubarak to the conservative and kleptocratic Arab royal families of the Persian Gulf to Syria’s secular regime and Iran’s clerical one; (2) the challenge posed by the rise of political Islam, from the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Jordan, and Kuwait to the power of Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine to Iraq’s Shiite fundamentalist government and on to Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan; and (3) the question of democracy, elections, and representative government.
Let’s take those in reverse order.
The Bush administration, especially in its first term, made democracy the center of its rhetoric. For Bush, “democracy” was a code word for “regime change.” Bush argued, falsely, that lack of democracy fostered Al Qaeda-type, anti-US terrorism. Spurred by neoconservatives, who touted the model of the Soviet Union’s dramatic transformation, Bush argued that peaceful revolutions in the Middle East were inevitable, and that the United States stood ready to encourage them. Obama will have to make clear in his speech that while the United States supports progressive, democratic reform in the region, he recognizes that such change is likely to be evolutionary, not revolutionary, and that the United States will not try to impose a democratic form of government anywhere in the world. And certainly not by force of arms. Here’s another line for Obama’s speech: “While we support the ideal of democracy in government, we will never, ever attempt to impose democracy by force.”
An issue directly related to democracy is the rise of political Islam. In this, Bush was hoist by his own petard. While he supported democracy in principle, he refused to acknowledge the real-world victories of Islamist formations in Palestine (Hamas), Lebanon (Hezbollah), and Egypt (the Muslim Brotherhood). Bush dealt easily with Turkey, but he never acknowledged the frankly Islamist character of the ruling AK party. And, of course, Bush never acknowledged the real, if flawed, nature of Iran’s electoral system. This is an area where Obama, over the next year or so, can take steps toward opening explicitly to all of these movements, one by one. Just as it doesn’t mean that the United States embraces the Egyptian or Saudi autocracy when it deals on a realist, state-to-state basis with those regimes, it doesn’t mean that the United States embraces religious-fundamentalist political movements when it deals with them, either. And when they win elections, as they did in Palestine (and as Hezbollah is likely to do next week in Lebanon), then the United States will have to swallow hard and accept them as duly elected.
Here’s a quote, cited in my book, Devil’s Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam, from a 1992 speech by Edward Djerejian, then the assistant secretary of state for Near East Affairs, who made the first effort by a US official to address the rising power of political Islam:
“Much attention is being paid to a phenomenon variously labeled political Islam, the Islamic revival, or Islamic fundamentalism. … We detect no monolithic or coordinated international effort behind these movements. What we do see are believers living in different countries placed renewed emphasis on Islamic principles and governments accommodating Islamist political activity to varying degrees and in different ways.”
“The US government does not view Islam as the new ‘ism’ confronting the West or threatening world peace. … The Cold War is not being replaced with a new competition between Islam and the West. The Crusades have been over for a long time.”
Obama could do worse than to quote those lines in his speech.
As for relations with the autocratic, monarchical, and kleptocratic regimes, Obama will have to acknowledge that, for the foreseeable future, they’re not going anywhere. We can deal productively with each and all of them, without sacrificing American principles.
At the core of his speech, of course, Obama will have to succeed not just in rhetoric, but in concrete policy terms.
He’s made a start by ordering a drawdown in US forces in Iraq, and it would help his case to reiterate that, to accelerate it, and to make it clear that the United States has no designs on Iraq and its oil and that the US will not seek to establish permanent military bases in Iraq.
What makes Israel’s right-wing government nervous, and what is worrying the center-right Israel lobby in Washington, of course, is the fact that in order to make his approach to the Muslim world credible, he will have to sustain his already robust effort to roll back Israeli settlements and to pressure Israel into accepting a state in Palestine. Virtually all of the neoconservative commentary on Obama’s Cairo speech focuses on their preference that Obama tell the Muslim world to look inward, to correct its flaws, to get its own house in order, to suppress extremism, and so on. And no wonder — because they desperately want to change the subject from the Israel question.
More than anything else — more, even, than the invasion of Iraq — it was Bush’s unquestioning embrace of Israel, his refusal to deal with Yasser Arafat, his endorsement of Israel’s 2006 war in Lebanon and its 2008-2009 war in Gaza that angered Muslims around the world. True, those actions were exploited by Muslim autocrats seeking to divert their populations from problems at home. True, those actions were used by Al Qaeda and its allies to recruit angry, desperate young men to violence. But that’s the point. America’s blind support for Israeli expansionism and intransigence bolsters the power of autocrats and provides recruiting slogans for Al Qaeda et al. It also is a stumbling block to better relations with Iran.
By committing the United States to an unwavering, international effort to rally support for a deal between Israel and Palestine, Obama can put the capstone on the break not only with the Bush administration, but with decades of American policy that put Israel first. King Abdullah of Jordan — no radical, the son of king who was literally on the CIA payroll — has suggested that peace will be a “23-state solution,” i.e., peace between Israel, Palestine and the 21 members of the Arab League who support the Saudi-inspired Arab Peace Initiative. Not only that, but such a deal would include the 57 members of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), who’ve broadly endorsed the Arab plan.
This is a lot to put on one speech. And, of course, the speech is just the beginning, not the end. As it turns out, I’ll be in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates on June 4, on my way to Iran to cover the June 12 presidential elections there for The Nation. I plan to blog from Tehran regularly during my visit — so stay tuned. It will be interesting, to say the least, to learn Iranians’ reaction to Obama’s speech first hand.