Wednesday, June 3, 2009

More than Words

[Note: I wrote this before the speech. I have since included some general thoughts and links post-speech at the end of the post]
Did I just reference an Extreme song from the early 90's? And did you just recognize that I just referenced an Extreme song from the early 90's? Shame on all of us...

Okay...back to seriousness. President Obama has recently headed over to the Middle East, and will be making a much anticipated speech in Cairo on Thursday. There is tons of hype for this speech, which I first remember hearing about shortly after the election in November. I want to offer my thoughts on what Obama should focus on. Whether he'll deliver is an entirely different story.

I'm going to use Madeleine Albright as my jumping-off point. Albright wrote an interesting op-ed in the NY Times earlier this week, and has been pretty active in what I'd call an "engaging the Muslim world" agenda. Personally, I prefer Juan Cole to Albright every day of the week on this type of work. Why? Read Albright's op-ed. It's a PR push, by and large, with some acknowledgement of the difficulties the Muslim world is facing as a result of US foreign policy. So, basically, its Dubya and Karen Hughes, except kinder and gentler. Fantastic. I totally think this will work. Really. Sure. Awesome. This is the same Albright of the "we think the price is worth it" statement regarding the Iraq sanctions and the 500,000+ dead Iraqi children and millions more with stunted development as a result of the sanctions. Yes, she apologized later, but it was years later (sounds like somebody's interested in preserving their legacy), and in her book, she apologized for the comment, but not the policy - so, she had no problem with the policy, just the way she answered Stahl's question on 60 Minutes. I won't go into a long discussion about the Iraq sanctions, but lets just say I think they were brutal, one of the worst forms of political punishment in recent history, and have done irreparable damage to the US in Iraq and the Muslim and Arab world. Read Anthony Arnove's brilliant edited volume on the sanctions for more info.

So, Albright is basically saying Obama needs to make a better sale of our policies to Muslims, that we're fighting people who are attacking them as well. Okay, that's sort of true. But Albright makes the claim that the biggest beef the Muslim world has with the US is the feeling that the US is at war with Islam. Yeah, that's partly true...but why would they think that? Well...because of our policies, which she doesn't advocate changing. This is another attempt to make this about ideology, which it isn't. It does often feed into that, but if you work on the actual political issues, issues that, quite honestly, Muslims have legitimate gripes about, that's the way out of this dangerous cycle.

Unfortunately, Albright isn't up for bringing that point up much. Too bad...because she knows better. Her op-ed actually isn't that bad - it just puts political roots of the problems between the US and the Muslim world (whatever that is...Muslims are not a monolithic group, but whatever, I'll roll with it for the time being) in the back-burner, something I think is fatally flawed. She correctly points out that Obama should speak out against repression, including the kind practiced in Egypt as a form of "moderation". Right on...but she then selects out a democratically-elected Hamas from being part of the solution. Again, by excluding the political gripes from the discussion, we completely whitewash the reasons Hamas was elected by Palestinians in the first place - a corrupt Fatah that was unable to make any progress on peace with Israel, and a continuation (and worsening) of the occupation (especially in Gaza, a place where the depravity has reached an absolutely shameful level, thanks to the neglect of the international community over the past 4 years).

This is a general problem with most US foreign policy types. They are interested in improving America's image, without addressing the reasons that image has slipped with a less-than-acceptable level of honesty. They also are either completely ignorant, or disingenous, about the Muslim world. I've spent time in some of these countries, and let me tell you, they know their politics. I'm not talking about the rich, well-to-do, professional class. I'm talking about the peasants, the street vendors, the cab drivers...the "people", if you will. Unlike mainstream America, which knows less about history and current politics than it does about the previous round of American Idol (something I largely attribute to a poor education system and a press that I at times consider somewhere between Pravda and Hearst's New York Journal), Muslims are much more aware of politics, even if they throw some conspiracies into the picture.

This point is ultimately why what Albright and many others want Obama to do will ultimately fail. Obama needs to do a whole lot more than just sell American policies better. Yes, I do agree with Albright that the US is not at war with Islam. Is this even a real idea among Muslims? I seriously doubt it...if you asked them which statement is more accurate, the US is at war with Muslims versus the US pursues unjust policies towards Muslims, I'd bet the vast majority go with the latter. Now, if they're just blaming the US for everything, that's not really something we can do anything about. However, if you go through the list of issues, you'd have to be a stubborn jingoist (or clinically insane like Glenn Beck) to not see there are some legitimate claims.

As such, Obama's task in Cairo is a bit more complicated than Albright and others propose. Yes, he must reach out to the Muslim world and do a better job at selling American policies, which will be exponentially easier because he's not George W. Bush. However, he must be honest and talk about the real political grievances. He must actually have a conversation with the Muslim world, not just lecture them about "their shortcomings." He must be humble about America's mistakes, and vow to work hard to correct those missteps. But he must know, talk will be cheap without action. Given all that has happened, no matter how good the speech, no matter how honest or humble it is, no matter how much it really is a conversation with the Muslim world, it will be for naught if we don't begin working on the policy issues. PR might work in America (where Karl Rove can swift boat John Kerry, Max Cleland, etc.), but it won't do jack in the Muslim world.

This is really why I hope he and his administration shun the advice offered by Albright and many others. They need to provide real support (i.e. not military aid) to Muslim countries in dire economic crises. They need to push Israel as hard as they have the Palestinians and work as hard as possible on securing a just and real peace between the two. (btw, check out this post on Steve Clemons' site with some good links up on the settlements) They need to look closely at Kashmir, and work hard to get India and Pakistan to the negotiating table. Cutting back the drone attacks in Pakistan wouldn't hurt, either. They also need to find ways to create exits for autocratic dictators in Muslim countries (such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia), leaders who are only in power due to US backing and who are increasingly detested by their own citizens for their repression, and encourage greater political freedom in these countries. They need to continue engaging Iran and Syria instead of rattling the cage as Bush did. Basically, they have to show the Muslim world they are credibly committed to improving the relationship. Only then can they expect the Muslim world to return the favor.

To quote De La Soul, stakes is high. This speech matters a lot, but ony in the context of what follows. If Obama opts primarily for PR work while being more "sensitive" to issues Muslims are angry about, things won't get any better. If he realizes that talk without real action is just singing without melody and a beat, we might actually be getting somewhere. There are indications that the latter is true (particularly his stance on the Israeli settlements - though we should read that with a little caution, as Stephen Walt advises). Let's see what happens.

For some good further reading on pre-speech thoughts, check out some thoughts from Marc Lynch and Juan Cole.

Post-speech thoughts: Okay, that was actually quite good. I'm not going to go into too much depth here, mostly because most of my thoughts have been better articulated elsewhere, but here's my quick 2 cents. He spoke about the suffering of Palestinians more clearly than any US president ever. That means a lot. He didn't push Hamas out of the door...important...instead, trying to encourage political moderation. Not crazy about the Afghanistan and Pakistan policy, but that's a given - the real test is if he's serious about providing human aid versus military aid to Pakistan, and whether he gets a regional coalition together in Afghanistan. He did as good a job as I could expect on the religion aspect...good job with faith versus politics. He came off as generally sincere, trying to have a dialogue with Muslims across the world, unlike his predecessor(s) who have done nothing of the sort. Basically, the speech went about as good as possible - which is pretty good, actually. I think its safe to say he has most Muslims around the globe wanting to roll with him. The next few steps are crucial, of course. Does he keep the pressure on Israel regarding the settlements? Does he use the massive US aid to Israel and Egypt as leverage to bring Israel to the table for a real (i.e. not Camp David, not the Road Map) 2-state solution and to force Egypt to really begin liberalizing politically?

For really good analysis of the speech, I turn you to some of my favorite reads: Juan Cole, (and as a bonus, Cole also has a post with some reaction to the speech in the Middle East), Marc Lynch, Steve Clemons, Robert Dreyfuss, Daniel Levy, and Stephen Walt. Also, Democracy Now had an interview with Juan Cole and Issandr El Amrani about the talk.

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