During the early days of his first term, people in the West Asian and North African region had high expectations for U.S. President Barack Obama, believing he would move American policy away from the belligerent path of the Bush-Cheney era. As with many in the United States, politicians, commentators, and individuals in West Asia and North Africa believed, albeit with much skepticism, in Obama’s campaign slogan of “Hope and Change.”
Obama’s infamous June 2009 Cairo Speech capped these expectations. The speech was a watershed moment for the American president, creating hopes in the region for a U.S. rapprochement with the Arab world. With the U.S. Presidential election looming, Barack Obama’s success in achieving this shift in U.S. relations deserves some assessment. Unfortunately, as demonstrated below, Obama has failed to actualize on the promise of Cairo. Instead, he has worked tirelessly to protect and strengthen the status quo relationship between the United States, West Asia, and North Africa.
The Cairo Speech: A Retrospective
Obama’s speech in Cairo was hailed as a ‘new beginning’ in America’s approach to the region. To support this illusion of renewed relations, Obama’s speech was rife with quotations from the Quran, lofty statements about the importance of Islam to American society and the international arena, and references to Obama’s own personal experiences growing up in a Muslim-majority country, Indonesia.
Although Obama mentioned the fluctuating history between the so-called ‘West’ and ‘Islam’, he gave little more than fleeting acknowledgment to colonialism, the Cold War, and the rise of ‘modernity’ and ‘globalization’.
Towards the start of the speech, Obama stressed:
“Given our interdependence, any world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will inevitably fail. So whatever we think of the past, we must not be prisoners of it. Our problems must be dealt with through partnership; progress must be shared.
That does not mean we should ignore sources of tension. Indeed, it suggests the opposite: we must face these tensions squarely. And so in that spirit, let me speak as clearly and plainly as I can about some specific issues that I believe we must finally confront together.”
The speech highlighted seven key issues, which Obama argued were the essential sources of tension between the United States and the region and the major obstacles to cooperation and progress. Three of these issues provide the most striking example of Obama’s utter failure to reset the U.S. – West Asian and North African relationship.
The first, and most important, issue for Obama was the need to confront ‘violent extremism’. Notably, Obama did not define term. Nevertheless, based on the tenor of his speech, it would be fair to assume that Obama’s notion of ‘violent extremism’ referred to those strains emerging from the region, rather than from the United States, other Western countries, or Israel. During his speech, Obama spoke of the nearly 3,000 people killed by Al Qaeda during the 9/11 attacks, and argued that the subsequent invasion and occupation of Afghanistan was a ‘war of necessity’ in response to this act. At no point did Obama concede that hundreds of thousands had been killed by American forces in the wars that followed 9/11.
In the years since Cairo, America’s war in Afghanistan has continued and expanded into Pakistan. The Taliban has not wavered, maintaining its influence throughout the country and habitually carrying out brazen attacks against American and NATO forces. Meanwhile, the United States’ growing use of lethal drone missiles have resulted in numerous civilians deaths, particularly among children, and cross-border military operations have gravely deteriorated U.S. relations with Pakistan. As with the Bush-Cheney era, the Obama Administration’s battle with so-called “violent extremists” has taken American forces into Yemen, Somalia, and other countries with similar results. Meanwhile, the region’s civilian population, which has come no closer to a better life, has paid the price for America’s “war on terror”.
On Iraq, which he termed the ‘war of choice’, Obama outlined twin America’s “responsibilities” “to help Iraq forge a better future and to leave Iraq to Iraqis.” Currently, Iraq is widely-considered one of the most corrupt nations in the world. Humanitarian organizations have documented the censorship, torture, and authoritarianism that characterize contemporary life in the country. Public discontent and protests, which have erupted against the central government and the autonomous Kurdish authority in the north, have regularly been suppressed. Politically, the country is roiling with internal fissures established and furthered by the American occupation. While Obama may cite to the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq in December of last year as proof that his promise in Cairo was kept, American troops left the country, not because the United States desired to hand sovereignty back to the Iraqis, but rather because the Iraqi government was unwilling to give “immunity” to American forces. Meanwhile, American corporations continue to exploit the Iraqi economy while thousands of armed American contractors and more than 15,000 U.S. embassy officials remain in country.
During the Cairo speech, Obama vowed that America’s war with “violent extremists” would not alter the idealistic principles the United States’ purportedly represented. He promised to “unequivocally prohibit the use of torture” and “ordered the prison at Guantanamo Bay closed by early next year ”. To date, both promises remain entirely unfulfilled. Since 2009, the United States has been found to consistently use various forms of torture and, beyond a handful of lower level military personnel, no major military or political figure has been held accountable for these crimes. Guantanamo Bay prison remains, alive and well, with numerous prisoners in a perpetual state of legal limbo.
In Cairo, Obama spent a good deal of time criticizing the violence and anger within the region, while remaining notably silent and even apologetic about violence from the United States, Israel, and the larger Western world. For observers, this underlying pattern should have been a clear indication that little beyond rhetoric would change in the U.S. approach to the region
There is little question that Palestine is of central importance to people in West Asia and North Africa. In his speech, Obama attempted to equalize the historical and contemporary suffering of the Israeli and Palestinian people. However, while he highlighted Palestinian violence, Obama made no mention of Israel’s actions, which have been more destructive and violent in both scale and scope. Notably, only a few months before Obama’s speech, Israel had brutally assaulted and blockaded the entire population of the Gaza Strip.
Obama also declared that the United States did not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements and called for an end to all settlement building within the Palestinian territories. Obama called on Israel to meet its obligations to ensure that the Palestinians, mainly in Gaza, could live, work, and develop their society. Obama also made a point of stating that the so-called “Muslim World” should accept Israel’s right to exist, and that Israel should recognize a Palestinian state.
More than any other issue, Palestine has been a stellar fiasco for the Obama’s administration. His failures on Palestine have resulted in levels of Arab public opinion towards him that have been equal to and at times lower than that of Bush. Other than ultimately ineffective calls for Israel to end its settlement building, the United States has taken no action against the country. In fact, U.S. military deals and loans to Israel have flourished under Obama’s Administration, while the Israeli government continues to expand and deepen its control of the West Bank and its illegal and cruel blockade of the Gaza Strip. When the Palestinian Authority went to the United Nations for a symbolic statehood bid in the Fall of 2011, the United States, along with Israel and a handful of other nations, stood against the Palestinians and wide-spread international support for their bid.
The third issue mentioned in Obama’s speech related to nuclear weapons, particularly Iran’s alleged desire to militarize its nuclear energy program. Here, Obama coyly excused Israel’s nuclear arsenal. Willfully ignoring this reality, he proceeded to target Iran nuclear program, while also acknowledging its right to have peaceful nuclear energy under the parameters of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. While Obama emphasized that regional countries must ensure their commitment to the core of the treaty, his statement was infused with irony and hypocrisy – the United States has, in fact, violated the treaty with impunity numerous times, including by facilitating the nuclear development of non-signatory countries, like Israel and India, and by testing and developing its own new nuclear weapons.
Despite numerous reports by the IAEA, U.S. military agencies, and other governmental and non-governmental agencies that Iran has not militarized its nuclear energy program, the Obama Administration has increased the pressure on Iran, beginning in the Fall of 2009. Whether by itself or in cooperation with Israel and other European states, the United States has begun a low-intensity war against Iran, using economic sanctions, spy drones, cyber-attacks, and in extreme cases arming third-party groups to conduct bombings and assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists. In doing so, the Obama Administration has further aggravated the situation with Iran and has brought the region close to war by heavily arming Gulf monarchies antagonistic towards the Islamic Republic.
On May 19, 2011, Obama gave a speech, entitled “A Moment of Opportunity,” in response to the on-going Arab Uprisings that had toppled two Arab dictators and once-friends of the United States.
Unsurprisingly, shades of the same loftiness that had peppered the Cairo Speech were prevalent. Lines included in the Cairo Speech were even repeated, albeit in a more defensive tone. Obama raised the issue of Israel/Palestine, this time offering a paradoxical warning against Palestinian ambitions to obtain statehood via a UN bid, despite his well-established commitment to a two-state solution.
It is of little wonder that Obama was on the defensive during the May 2011 speech. As the Arab uprisings shifted and expanded during the course of that year, American officials were often caught off guard, making a number of glaring missteps . For example, days before Mubarak’s fall, U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton made several positive statements about Egypt’s doomed leader. During Bahrain’s uprising, the United States tacitly approved Saudi and Gulf military intervention against the country’s pro-democracy protesters. While urging non-violence upon the Palestinians, the Obama Administration embraced and supported the militarization of the Libyan and recently the Syrian uprisings. While regularly condemning the governments of Syria and Iran, the United States has remained silent while the Yemeni regime has brutalized its non-violent demonstrators, has ignored the growing protests in Libya against the Libyan National Council, and has disregarded the worsening developments in Saudi Arabia’s Shia-dominated Eastern Province, among many others.
The hypocrisy of Obama’s approach to the West Asian and North African region is perfectly captured in his May 2011 speech, which ends on this preposterous note:
“Those words must guide our response to the change that is transforming the Middle East and North Africa – words which tell us that repression will fail, that tyrants will fall, and that every man and woman is endowed with certain inalienable rights. It will not be easy. There is no straight line to progress, and hardship always accompanies a season of hope. But the United States of America was founded on the belief that people should govern themselves. Now, we cannot hesitate to stand squarely on the side of those who are reaching for their rights, knowing that their success will bring about a world that is more peaceful, more stable, and more just.”
*Yazan Al-Saadi is a staff writer at Muftah.