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.