Ussama Makdisi writes in a guest column for Informed Comment:
In the tragic story of U.S-Arab relations, no era has been as violent as our own. And yet when President Obama began his presidency, he initiated a series of highly-anticipated gestures to the Muslim world. His interview with the Arabic satellite channel Al-Arabiyya was followed by positive speeches in Turkey and Egypt. He insisted there was no clash of civilizations; he alluded to America’s long-standing philanthropic and cultural engagement with the Arab world, and he acknowledged that American actions in Iraq and inaction regarding Palestinian-Israeli peace had undermined faith in America. Above all, he spoke frankly of having to be judged on his actions and not his words. If nothing else, it was a hopeful beginning. Yet midway through his presidential term, the signs are ominous. Rather than signaling a bold change of direction, Obama has chosen half-measures to tweak an untenable status quo. Rather than securing a legacy based upon undoing George W. Bush’s calamitous wars, Obama has ironically deepened his predecessor’s imprint on the Middle East.
On Iraq, President Obama is ostensibly reversing the decision made by Bush to invade a sovereign nation. His address on Iraq to an American public tired of the Iraq war sought to make that clear. The infamous phrase “weapons of mass destruction” was not once mentioned, nor the indecent pretext of spreading democracy in a region rife with American supported and sustained autocrats (including Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak who was in the United States recently with his son and heir-apparent Gamal).
Obama did, however, declare that “we [Americans] have met our responsibility.” But several million Iraqi civilians have been displaced and countless hundreds of thousands Iraqi civilians have been killed and maimed over the past seven years of U.S. occupation, during which sectarianism reached a paroxysm of murderous violence—to say nothing of the terrible consequences of the U.S.-led sanctions regime and U.S. bombings of Iraqi infrastructure during the decade that preceded the invasion. The partial relaxation of overt U.S. domination of Iraqi politics and society cannot simply erase responsibility, nor can the disingenuous, patronizing notion that it is now up to the Iraqis to take up their own responsibilities as if the war had been waged for them in the first instance.
But Obama has at least acknowledged that the Iraq war was the wrong war. Rather than end it outright, however, his solution has been to withdraw many but not all U.S. troops for Iraq—some 50,000 remain in addition to thousands of private military contractors. Far more dangerously, he has expanded another unwinnable war in Afghanistan. And just like Bush who began the Afghan campaign in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Obama insists that terrorism and national security considerations are paramount as he lurches forward in Afghanistan and bombs parts of Pakistan. He has “surged” in Afghanistan as Bush had done in Iraq.
The logic that Obama has used to withdraw combat troops from Iraq could also have been applied to Afghanistan: a war without end serves neither Americans nor Afghanis. It alienates far more people than it pacifies and it will undoubtedly end in an American withdrawal without any appreciable gains for America. The real question is at what point and at what cost. How many more innocent lives are to be wasted before reality sets in? In any event, it should be clear by now that the resolution of anti-Americanism in the region lies in politics, not military conquests.
Obama, therefore, is making a show of kick-starting the moribund Palestinian-Israeli “peace process” to resolve the problem that has haunted America’s standing in the Middle East longer than any other issue. Far more than Bush or Clinton, Obama appears to understand that a resolution to the Palestinian question is important to American national security—for that was one of the principal messages that General David Petraeus conveyed in his recent congressional testimony and that is why Obama spent so much time at the outset of his presidency criticizing Israeli settlement construction.
But rather than move forward on the issue with new ideas, Obama now seems determined to recycle old failed ones from the Clinton era. He has already capitulated to the rightwing Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the issue of settlements. And for the second time in recent memory, a U.S. president is attempting to browbeat a corrupt, weak and now illegitimate Palestinian Authority (Mahmoud Abbas’s presidential term expired in 2009) into surrendering Palestinian rights in the name of a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict.
The same dynamic that was at work during the failed Camp David Summit of 2000 is again evident: an Israeli leadership openly unwilling to make peace on the basis of genuine reciprocity, let alone justice or equality is meeting a Palestinian leadership utterly dependent on an American ability to pressure Israel into significant concessions, under the aegis of an American administration with the same kind of pro-Israel mentality and frame of reference that oversaw the last failed round.
One wonders why Obama is orchestrating this futile exercise at all—for the outcome of such lack of imagination will surely not be a strengthening of the U.S. position in the Middle East. Let us recall President Dwight Eisenhower’s famous stand on the Suez crisis of 1956. Taken by surprise by the British, French and Israeli invasion of Egypt, Eisenhower then faced considerable domestic pressure to go easy on Israel. He also faced strident British appeals for solidarity during the Cold War. Yet Eisenhower compelled the invading nations to withdraw, not for the sake of Egypt, but because he understood that U.S. interests could not be served by ill-conceived colonial wars and by a rigidly pro-Israel policy. Obama seems unable and unwilling to level with the American people about the need to delink Israel’s putative interests from America’s real ones. Without such a delinking, and in the context of ongoing war in Afghanistan that is fast becoming Obama’s war, Obama will surely snuff out what little hope there was when he first came to power, and when he addressed the Muslim world directly.
Obama’s presidency is shaping up to be another missed opportunity to rebuild America’s broken relationship to the Middle East. Americans may be tired of the Middle East, but they can’t afford to ignore it. The status quo no longer afflicts the people of the Middle East alone. It costs Americans as well.
Ussama Makdisi is Professor of History at Rice University and author of Faith Misplaced: the Broken Promise of U.S.-Arab Relations (Public Affairs, 2010)
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