Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
Obama’s speech to Muslims, which he made during his trip to the Middle East last week, may have seemed like it was made to show America shares “principles of justice and progress, tolerance and dignity of all human beings,” but more precisely, this was a speech to the Muslim world that Obama made so America could ensure access to Islamic oil.
Ask any foreign policymaker or analyst in America and you will likely get he or she to agree that typically, if you substitute one individual for another and if the setting remains the same, so too does the foreign policy. Additionally, foreign policy has always been about bargaining and compromise, a result of a political process.
Obama, whose campaign slogan could have been “Continuity We Can Believe In,” is just the right statesman for guaranteeing future access to resources and cooperation with American interests. He has made his actions about finding middle ground on issues so that compromises and bargains which will satisfy as many as possible might be achieved.
Giving a speech to the Muslim world was an act of power—Obama was using what Robert O. Keohane and Joseph S. Nye Jr. call “soft power” to get a desired outcome and to lay the foundation for the achievement of goals “through attraction rather than coercion.”
Al-Azhar, the university where Obama gave his speech, claimed it was the “highest Sunni Muslim authority” and asserted that it was “a fortress of Islam” in a statement given to Agence France Presse (AFP) on February 18, 2000.
The university suggested it was a “reflection of true Islam, moderate, tolerant and thoughtful” and an institution “which rejects and condemns fanaticism and terrorism.”
The speech, despite Obama’s heritage, was given in Egypt, not Indonesia, which is the most populous Muslim-majority nation in the world with over 300 million Muslims. (Compare that to the less than 80 million Muslims in Egypt.)
The administration’s decision to go with Egypt over Indonesia simply indicates there was major geopolitical value to giving a speech at a major Islamic forum in that location on the globe.
First off, Juan Cole writes in his latest book Engaging the Muslim World, “Americans on the whole like Egypt, giving it a 62 percent favorability rating in one recent poll. Younger Americans like Egypt even more, with those aged eighteen to thirty-four being 69 percent favorable toward it.” (Contrast that with U.S. allies Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iraq which receive only 20 to 31 percent and the Palestine Authority and Iran, which earn “14 percent and 8 percent favorable views respectively.”)
If one considers this to be just as much a speech to the Muslim world as it was a speech to Americans skeptical and anxious with Islam. Cole illuminates the reality that Egyptian tourism established largely for Westerners and its actions as a “reliable U.S. geopolitical and military ally” since making peace with Israel in 1978 make it a place of American interest and a starting point for the renewal of reconciliation in the Middle East.
Secondly, Egyptians overwhelmingly (88 percent) think groups like al-Qaeda that attack civilians violate precepts of Islam, according to a World Public Opinion report by the Program of International Policy Attitudes (PIPA).
The report also suggests that Egyptians are less likely than Pakistanis, Indonesians, or Moroccans to support attacks on the United States (4 to 7 percent support).
Geopolitics and the favorable opinions Egyptians have toward taking on “violent extremists” explain the location. What explains the fact that Obama ignored Mubarek’s unpopularity and faults as an anti-democratic dictator may be the fact that, in January during Israel’s bombardment of Gaza, he shut down the Rafah crossing on the border between Gaza and Egypt and watched “callously as Palestinians starved on his doorstep.”
Egypt allowed for Obama to not stray to far away from being wholly supportive of Israel. It also allowed Obama to make his case to Muslims that they have shared interest in the world.
The Obama Administration needed to calm Muslim anxiety toward the U.S. that was created as a result of the Bush Administration’s foreign policy failures. It needed to convince Muslims that the U.S. will withdraw from Iraq soon, only intends to keep troops in Afghanistan and Pakistan until “violent extremists” are eliminated, and it will no longer “accept the legitimacy of continued Israel settlements.”
This all had to be done to ensure further access and cooperation with countries or allies which America depends on for petroleum.
Juan Cole describes in Engaging the Muslim World how four of the top seven suppliers of oil to the United States are Muslim-majority countries and together they supply “a fifth of all U.S. petroleum imports.” (The top seven in 2008 were Canada, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Nigeria, Venezuela, Iraq, and Algeria.)
More importantly is the fact that, according to Oil and Gas Journal list of “World Oil Reserves by Country as of January 1, 2007”, eleven of the top nineteen countries with reserves are Muslim-majority states. (The top eleven were Saudi Arabia, Canada, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Venezuela, Russia, Libya, Nigeria, and Kazakhstan.)
OPEC claims that its twenty-two members have 900 billion barrels. If so, it is likely that Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Iraq have at least 56 percent of that total.
That explains why Obama had to mention the U.S.-backed CIA-sponsored coup in Iran in 1953 which removed Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh from power and gave control of Iran to Mohammad Reza Pahlevi as shah so that Iran would not nationalize its petroleum and thereby threaten major U.S. oil companies’ assets in the region.
America’s history of meddling in the affairs was a sin that had to be atoned for (at least, rhetorically). Decades of CIA covert operations and using foreign policy to help U.S. corporations gain business advantages globally (“neomercantilism”) had to be alluded to so that Muslims might possibly forgive and forget.
The Obama Administration knew it had to abandon the Bush Administration’s Project for a New American Century for a policy that would look less brash and rapacious. The speech was indeed a “new beginning”—an opportunity for ushering in a foreign policy in the Middle East that Obama Administration officials could argue would bring greater cultural understanding and cooperation to America’s international relations in the world.
In Kenneth Waltz’s “Anarchic Orders and Balances of Power,” Waltz claims that “a state worries about a division of possible gains that may favor others more than itself. That is the first way in which the structure of international politics limits the cooperation of the states.”
Continuing, Waltz adds, “A state also worries lest it become dependent on others through the cooperative endeavors and exchanges of goods and services. That is the second way in which the structure of international politics limits the cooperation of states.”
As Juan Cole says in his book, the United States needs about 12 million barrels of petroleum a day to maintain its present way of life.
America’s dependence on American oil puts unwanted constraints on what America can and can’t do on the world’s stage. And, in the 21st century, with China rising in power along with India, dependency on Islamic oil forces America to go the extra mile so that Muslim oil states will not cut off cooperation in favor of support from another industrial power.
Obama may have said in his speech when addressing “stereotypes” that “America is not the crude stereotype of a self-interested empire,” but on its face, that’s simply not true and difficult for those with knowledge of American foreign policy history to believe.
There existed an opportunity for America to use the speech to press not simply for peace in the Middle East but for support in taking on climate change. Requests for assistance in fostering new technologies and fashioning a post-carbon world of alternative energy could have been made.
But, where in the continuum of U.S. foreign policy would that have fit? Such idealism would have demanded that those pulling the strings of American empire rethink their views of power politics and, in fact, their very understanding of the way foreign policy works.
No doubt, the rulers of America and those tasked with the job of ensuring America’s status as the supreme power in the world feared the future Bush’s actions in the Middle East had created. America’s foreign policymakers now will use Obama’s speech to the Muslim world as a touchstone for enriching relations which will allow for dependency on Islamic oil to continue.