It has been a little more than two years since the world was wowed by the ‘historic’ victory of Barack Obama in the American presidential election. Only a few months later in Cairo during one of his first foreign trips, Obama made another ‘historic’ commitment to the people of the Muslim world, namely that under him the United States would stand with democratic forces and against incumbent dictators that have historically been propped up by Washington in the past.
Half way through the Obama presidency the world is witness to history in the making, first in Tunisia, then Egypt and Yemen. And predictably, the White House has remained guarded in its response. Meanwhile there appears to have been little progress made in normalizing Iraq and Afghanistan, while social polarization in that most important of American ally states, Pakistan, grows stronger by the day. All told, what has really changed in Washington’s policy towards the Muslim world?
It would, of course, be difficult for Obama to have done much worse than his predecessor. But amongst people across the Muslim world, perceptions about American foreign policy do not appear to be changing. Indeed, one could argue that anger and frustration are growing. To a certain extent, the massive wave of protests that have forced Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali out of Tunisia after two decades in power, and the ongoing rumblings against Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, are an indictment of the dictators’ American patron as much as Ben Ali and Mubarak themselves.
On the frontlines of the American wars of occupation in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, the situation is even worse. Americans and the pro-American intelligentsia within these countries, continue to ask: why do they hate us? It is true that right-wing political forces and segments of the media stoke anti-Americanism, but the fact of the matter is that these reactionaries are provided with raw material to ply their trade by American foreign policymakers every day. It would be infinitely preferable if more progressive forces exercised influence within these societies so as to make the essential distinction between Americans and American foreign policy, but here too it is worth bearing in mind that the US – and other western powers – share responsibility for the rise of right-wing forces within the Muslim world.
Yet it would be wrong to overstate the power of the right-wing within Muslim societies. The Tunisians, Egyptians and Yemenis who have taken to the streets in recent weeks are not card-carrying members of the Muslim Brotherhood, just as the Pakistanis who forced American-backed General Pervez Musharraf out after eight years in power in 2008 were not Taliban sympathizers. And even in Iraq and Afghanistan, where right-wing forces are at the forefront of the insurgencies, it is common knowledge that ordinary people scarcely share the supremacists’ desire to establish an Islamic theocracy.
This is precisely why it is important to recall Barack Obama’s his ‘historic’ promise to the people of the Muslim world. By choosing not to undertake a principled shift in strategy vis a vis Muslim countries, Washington is providing fertile ground for right-wing forces to maintain power and influence. In Afghanistan, the outspoken politician Malalai Joya has incisively argued that there is a symbiotic relationship between the so-called ‘coalition of the willing’ and the reactionary forces within war-ravaged Afghan society.
For those who continue to tow the ‘clash of civilisations’ line, it is worth bearing in mind that it has been more than a decade since the United States reoriented its raison d’etre as a global superpower towards ‘terrorism’, yet amongst its closest allies it can count regimes that, to use Pentagon speak, openly ‘aid and abet terrorism’. The most obvious such example is that of Saudi Arabia, a state that has systematically exported jihad for more than three decades. Yet the interests of Arab-American Oil (ARAMCO) and the huge secondary and tertiary economic players that make their bucks from oil and gas clearly trump any commitment to democracy.
Indeed, two years after Obama’s taking of power, the need to debunk the myth of unending confrontation between the so-called ‘free societies’ – supposedly built upon the flawless pillars of secularism and political liberty – and the ‘fundamentalists’ that are increasingly powerful in Muslim countries, is more acute than ever. Ben Ali and Mubarak are hallowed ‘secularists’ that make no bones of their contempt for democratic norms – both have remained precious assets for Washington for decades. Pakistan’s otherwise secular army leadership has for decades used Islam as the motive-force of the institution and patronized jihadi contractors accordingly – it is still the blue-eyed boy of the Pentagon, recently documented tensions notwithstanding. Lest we forget, Saddam Hussein was once upon a time a cherished friend of Washington: secular to the core and willing and able to bleed Iran, Saddam only fell out of favour when he became enamoured by delusions of his own grandeur. His secularism did not prevent him from being labeled the most dangerous terrorist on earth.
Finally it would not be remiss to recall that it has only been 20 months or so since the mass wave of protests in Iran in the wake of presidential elections. At the time a significant divide opened up within progressive circles about the demonstrations and to what extent they genuinely reflected the popular will of the Iranian people. For the time being there have been only a handful of voices that have attributed Ben Ali’s fleeing to a well-orchestrated imperialist conspiracy, although the fact that it is already been called a ‘coloured revolution’ is disconcerting.
In any case, as in Iran 20 months ago, today in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and wherever else protests begin next, there is nothing artificial about what is transpiring. That the American foreign policy establishment – under Obama or anyone else – would try and manipulate unexpected events such as these to its own benefit goes without saying. Ultimately it will be the people of the Muslim world who must chart their own course, regardless of the machinations of the Empire.
Meanwhile it is time to definitively recognize that the United States continues to act as an Empire in decline does, regardless of who occupies the White House. Callous at home and contemptuous abroad, the present regime may be better than George W. Bush, but it was always naïve to expect substantive change from a Democratic party that is ultimately committed to the same values and political goals as the Republicans. As a man of colour, it was hoped that Obama would help emancipate long-suffering non-white populations within the United States, and also transform Washington’s relations with third world countries, and particularly Muslim-majority ones. Yet he has done little to shake up a deeply entrenched political-military establishment at home and given no indication that he is interested in redressing the deeply inegalitarian global order. Hope lies not in the corridors of power, but with those on the streets of Tunis, Cairo, Sana and Caracas.