On reading through Obama's recent foreign policy speeches it's hard to find much of the thoughtfulness and depth often attributed to them. His delivery and choice of words give the impression of weightiness. Strip away the rhetoric and the repetition and what's left high and dry is often nearly devoid of real context, particularly context that takes account of US actions.
Between the long eulogies about high principles dear to America's heart, both of his recent speeches (May 2011)*, one on the Middle East and North africa, the other to AIPAC offer his listeners a world view that is sometimes not far removed from the comic strip. The great and the good, the US and Israel, are menaced by dark forces motivated by hatred. Terrorists, their sponsors and other extremist regimes somehow fell from the sky to infect the earth, uninfluenced by any human force, unconnected to any actions by the US, or by Israel – both barely credited with foreign policies that act in any way in the world or produce results. Both are mere passive recipients of others' aggression forced to react in self-defence. The US has maybe a few "short term interests" but once they've been got out of the way it can pursue its true aim of bringing benefit to the rest of the world. Its invasion of Iraq and the resulting slaughter of more than a million people was "well-intended". Its own and Israel's nuclear weapons, clearly a threat to no one, are not worth a mention and can be kept (as he said in Prague, April 2009) until everybody else disarms. The US's own long term symbiotic relationship with terrorism is erased from consciousness – that's something only they do. And we can be sure it has zero interest, unlike the evil-doers out there, in manipulating the uprisings in the middle east for any self-centered motives.
It seems that irrational beings in the middle east blame the west for all their ills, directed to do so by the local dictators. No doubt they hold an equally mistaken belief that the dictators oppressing them would still be doing so if their handlers in the west hadn't done everything possible to keep them in power. And others bear a completely unreasonable antagonism towards Israel unrelated to the constant slaughter of Palestinians or to its bloody invasions of Lebanon.
It's Israel that's under siege
It's a wonder that anybody in the US can sleep at night surrounded as it is by implacable cohorts of evil.
Israelis have an even harder time and must have forgotten what sleep means. Iran is about to wipe them off the face of the earth. Obama recycles the discredited translation of Ahmedinejad's (Khomeini's) rhetoric. Iran's leadership is apparently in self-destruct mode, or is unaware, in spite of Hillary Clinton's reminder (2008), that if Iran made any attempt to attack Israel the nuclear weapons waiting to erase it from the face of the earth could be launched. Or that it might become the target of some of those "advanced technologies" provided to Israel under "unprecedented levels" of military cooperation from the US. Obama has acknowledged the US role in the overthrow of Mossadeq in 1953. But the extremism of Iran's regime and the failure of more democratic forces to get control apparently have nothing to do with decades of western interference and hostility, a proxy war launched by America's friend Saddam Hussein; or plans under Bush for a "possible major air attack", (1) or the US invasion and devastation of a neighbouring country – 'blurring' offensive and defensive military actions – and undertaken by an administration showing alarming signs of being out of control.
Israel is still reeling from the injustice of Durban and the Goldstone report, both clearly works of fiction lacking any basis in reality, thought up by the deluded rest of the world. Before Iran gets round to invading, Israel will have to be defended from attempts to isolate it at the UN, meaning the Palestinians' wilful intention to declare statehood after giving up on negotiations with a party that wasn't actually prepared to negotiate. Further, Palestinians perversely walk away from talks while, as the Palestinian chief negotiator put it, "settlements are eating up the land that's supposed to be [their] state".(2) Obama leaves out the causal link: "Israeli settlement activity continues. Palestinians have walked away from talks", implying equal responsibility for the failure of talks.
And any respectably sanitized mind knows that rockets are fired across from Gaza unconnected with the imposition of a medieval siege or the daily slaughter of Palestinians, numbering 6379 from 29 September 2000-31 May 2011 (B'tselem).(3)
Obama's mindset, also neatly trimmed to acceptable norms, allows him to complain that Hezbollah commits political assassination and tries to impose its will by rockets and bombs, while sparing him any tiresome comparison with the US and Israel.
Similarly, belligerent Palestinians get weapons by a sinister process of "infiltration". In a much more decent procedure purely in the interests of self-defence, besieged Israel gets arms "made available" through "cooperation".
In a further affront, Palestinians have staged a disturbing event, "an enormous obstacle to peace": two political factions Hamas and Fatah have come to an agreement. Palestinians have responded to the Arab uprisings and are perversely refusing to remain divided and incapable of negotiating a fair settlement in their own interests.
But worst of all, if the number of mentions are anything to go by, is the prospect of Israel having to negotiate with a party unwilling recognize its "right to exist" – a meaningless concept apparently expected to acquire substance by frequent repetition and expressions of outrage from western governments and media.
Entities generally, including states, fried egg sandwiches and everything else, don't have a "right" to exist – they either exist or they don't. Nonetheless, anyone is of course free to affirm or deny the actual existence of anything at all, Hamas too. It would be interesting to hear an explanation of just how Hamas, which has repeatedly expressed its willingness to recognize the pre-1967 borders,(4) and to co-exist next to Israel in a Palestinian state for 10 years, could manage to do so with a state whose existence it denied. Hamas' position has often sounded ambiguous, but in the prevailing atmosphere of mistrust it has offered a truce with Israel for 10 years as a test of Israel's true intentions – a test that could work both ways.
The question of recognition, on the other hand, would be settled when there's a border to recognize, after Israel states clearly where it thinks it is. Recognition might reasonably coincide with Israel's clear withdrawal of any claim to Judea and Samaria (roughly the West Bank), a claim that arouses little media attention let alone comparable outrage. According to a poll by Ma'agar Mochot in March 2011, 78 percent of Likud members opposed the creation of a Palestinian state, 72 percent favoured restarting construction in settlement blocs in Judea and Samaria, and 95% opposed dividing Jerusalem.(5) Perhaps the US and the EU, which won't talk to Hamas, should refuse to have any dealings with Likud. Any unfeigned doubts Israel has about Hamas' long term intentions need to be set against Palestinian doubts about Likud's intentions.
Hamas is a violent organization, but its call for the destruction of Israel is, under the circumstances, theoretical (literally on paper), and was dropped from its manifesto shortly before it won the Palestinian parliamentary election in January 2006.(6) Israel has engaged in ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, a real world fact intended to be irreversible, and continues in practice in its dedication to the destruction of Palestinian society. But it's clearly better not to let the true picture get distorted by too many facts.
Equally factually, the US has been "pursuing Arab-Israeli peace"; one imagines for example through Obama's decision in December 2008 and January 2009 to stand by in silence, under cover of his not-yet-inaugurated state, passively consenting to Israel's slaughter of 1400 Palestinians under its right to "self-defence". Or by helping to keep Mubarak and other local dictators in power.
We are told "peace is possible", yet Obama abdicates any US responsibility for this. Palestinians and Israelis have to do it for themselves, the US has nothing to do with it. Obama gives his assent to the "changes" that "have to be taken account of", meaning the settlements that stand in the way of a viable Palestinian state. Ignoring US complicity in creating it he declares the "status quo is unsustainable". He knows what Netanyahu is like – that he won't seriously negotiate – but disingenuously leaves it up to the two parties to sort it out. He could hardly not be aware how enthusiastic the Israeli prime minister is about the 1967 borders. It's not clear whether he is abandoning the Palestinians or the Israelis to their fate at the hands of Netanyahu, or both.
Thus Obama manages to be both one-sided and opaque, but for some may still look like a president with basically noble intentions surrounded by reactionary forces holding him back.
We're the good guys: Afghanistan – Pakistan – Arab uprisings
We are informed that the US doesn't "tolerate aggression across borders". The illegal invasion and Obama's further escalation of the slaughter in Afghanistan evidently doesn't count. According to UN figures 2,777 civilians were killed in 2010, up from 2,412 in 2009.(7) It's nothing new that Afghans want the war to stop and negotiations that include the Taliban to start. The majority in some areas is overwhelming. In a December 2009 poll sponsored by the US army, and conducted only in areas not controlled by the Taliban, 94% of residents in Kandahar province wanted negotiation instead of continued military confrontation with the Taliban.(8) But for residents to have a say would be clearly unwarranted interference in Afghanistan's internal affairs. In a more recent survey by the Asia Foundation(9) 83 percent of Afghans said they approved of the Karzai government's efforts at negotiation and reconciliation with armed opposition groups including the Taliban, despite widespread dislike of those groups. One of the co-authors concluded that "most Afghans now believe peace and stability cannot be achieved through war, but rather through negotiation and reconciliation with armed opposition groups." President Karzai recently stated that the US has begun talks with the Taliban. Obama's war however continues.
A group of Afghan college students and youth formed in 2008 have no faith in any of the current retrogressive forces to act in the interests of the Afghan people: “We wish to live without wars. We do not want the ‘Taliban’ or the ‘Al-Qaeda’ to rule us. We do not want the current corrupt Afghan government or war-and-drug-lords to rule us. We do not want neighboring and regional countries to rule us. We do not want the US/NATO forces to rule us, far less to over-stay permanently or kill us!”(10)
As in Tunisia and Egypt it's like the living talking to the dead.
Drone attacks across the border with Pakistan that are killing further uncounted numbers of civilians, no doubt "grounded in principle", count neither as aggression across borders nor as illegal. President Obama demonstrates his abiding concern for human rights by putting pressure on the Pakistani government to step up its efforts against the Taliban. This would likely mean, if he got his way, that the frontier area will remain a "human rights free zone" with both insurgent groups and the Pakistani government in northwestern Pakistan "ignoring bedrock principles of the laws of war", and the people of the area will continue to be "sacrificed in the name of geopolitical interests" (Amnesty).(11) The anger engendered amongst Pakistan's population (and in its 40,000 madrassas) is also guaranteed to swell the number of terrorist recruits, but that's called "countering terrorism".
A study on global terrorism published in 2007 showed a sevenfold increase after the invasion of Iraq,(12) confirming the administration's own assessment in April 2006 that "the Iraq War has become the ‘cause celebre’ for jihadists…and is shaping a new generation of terrorist leaders and operatives."(13)
In an article that otherwise shows a hankering for even more violence, US responsibility in this context had been partially and inadequately recognized by Robert Gates eight years previously: "…retributive violence, no matter how massive, almost inevitably begets more violence against us in response"; and even "…we can pursue policies and strategies that in the long term weaken terrorism's roots". (14)
Gates fails to explain however why US violence is "retributive" and not for example "aggressive" or perhaps "primitive". Or what he means by "protect[ing] our interests around the world", for which he is prepared to sacrifice "blood and treasure"- someone else's not his, one imagines. Obama makes similarly vague references to US "interests". Neither of course gets close to acknowledging, let alone scrutinizing the sacrosanct corporate interests at the core of the problem, rendering even seemingly genuine attempts to change policies and strategies ineffective. Obama is in the end asking us to believe that more of the same will produce a different result.
The Arab uprisings were apparently the occasion for the display of still more virtue: the US "embraced the chance" in Tunisia and Egypt. Young Tunisians and Egyptians who risked their lives to overthrow dictators probably have better memories and may recall getting no support whatsoever from Obama. Egyptians may remember his administration's studious avoidance of the "D" words "democracy" and "dictatorship" in the run-up to Mubarak's fall and his last minute about-face. Obama "opposes violence against the peoples of the region" in the same way he supports democracy: apart from his collusion with Israeli violence against Palestinians, the quality of his opposition can be seen in Bahrain, where he calls for dialogue with a brutal regime while US ally Britain trains Saudi forces to put down Bahraini protests. Obama can keep some distance despite the presence of the 5th fleet. Unmentioned is his continued support for the Saudi medieval fiefdom, while friendly Mr Saleh in Yemen is politely requested to "follow through on his commitment to transfer power."
Looking back at his pre-election visit to Berlin in 2008 which brought 200,000 people on to the streets to hear him, Berliners heard fine talk of "partnership", "new bridges", tearing down walls between nations and religions, and "a global commitment to progress" that meant, specifically stated, that Germany should send more troops to Afghanistan. Probably about 3 of the 200,000 would have agreed, had more of them had ears to hear that through the fine-sounding language. Obama got what he wanted from Germany's democratically elected government. The 70-80% of Germans who wanted no engagement in Afghanistan didn't.
The familiar coded language he uses about the changes in the middle east should be seen in the light of such a result. Obama's speaks of "responsible regional leadership" in the middle east and "high standards of reform and trade liberalization". He plans to engage the World Bank and the IMF in Tunisia and Egypt and to guarantee loans (that always come with conditions)….."embracing the chance" is likely to mean more tired ideas from jaded and undemocratic institutions.
Thus, on the positive side, the good guys are "guided by principles" and "support a set of universal rights" which are a "top priority" and an "historic opportunity" now that "we have a chance to pursue the world as it should be"…..so it seems something's changed recently?
Well, he admits, "short term interests" may occasionally get in the way of long term goodness – that is, universal rights are a top priority except when they aren't; as Groucho Marx said "Those are my principles, and if you don't like them…well, I have others." No doubt democracy and freedom will be supported as long as people choose freely and democratically to do what the US wants…..so nothing's changed after all, except the rhetorical style.
But we do have (minor) failings
It's a wicked world out there to be sure. With so many threats against such an innocent party the most heavily militarized state on earth must remain armed to the teeth, as Obama's military budgets clearly demonstrate.
Obama portrays the US and Israel as more or less helpless victims, but admits that the US does have one failing: it has "accept[ed] the world as it is in the region". It must be hard for him to imagine how so many people have fooled themselves into seeing the US as the major shaper of world events since 1945.
The dishonesty and distortions of such a world view evidenced by the two speeches, and others, inspires no confidence in the intended "broader engagement", already promised 3 years earlier in his Cairo speech. Where was the broader engagement in his reaction to the Egyptian uprising? Perhaps he meant his backing for Omar Suleiman, Mubarak's torturer-in-chief, after it was clear that Mubarak himself was dead in the water.
The world is changing – but are we?
Obama is fond of saying "change". Anyone can say "change". A parrot can say "change". His real view, judging by both the main content of his speeches and his actions, or lack of them, has an ambiguous similarity to that of the overthrown or beleaguered dictators, who didn't or don't get that their time has come. Unable to escape from an archaic mindset, they or their cronies try to hang on to as much of the past as possible.
The President thinks that ordinary people in the middle east might have the impression, a "suspicion that has festered", that the US pursues its "own interests at their expense".
He hints at a need to "change our approach" but puts a "seared" US on a par with its victims, seeming to suggest that the racist view of Muslims as terrorists somehow mirrors an equivalent prejudice against the US.
Ignored is the reality of US power, and the shifting pattern of western manipulation around yesterday's friends and today's enemies: the Taliban, Bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, Muslim fundamentalists, arguably even Hamas,(15) to mention a few. This is not a "suspicion" but a festering certainty in the minds of those on the receiving end, as is US support for the likes of Mubarak.
It's not clear if he quite gets, or wants to acknowledge publicly, that the uprisings against middle east dictators are just as much a revolt against oppressive American power in the outposts of its empire.
It's rumoured that in his innermost core Obama is in reality liberal and progressive but is prevented by the circumstances around him from living it. In spite of serious and sustained application of wishful thinking by some of the best minds on the planet no one has as yet been able to come up with any evidence for this.
It's hard to say if he believes the view he offers in his most recent foreign policy speeches himself, or how much of it is just fodder for public consumption – but either way it's an insult to the intelligence of those who have risked their lives to overthrow US proxy dictatorships.
But he's right – the Arab uprisings are an opportunity. It's a wondrous thing to see how US and EU "leaders" appear to be standing at the beginning of the wrong century, the one that just finished. That was the century in which war and destruction reached its climax. Obama could start to get real and take the opportunity to leap into the 21st, it's still not too late for that. To achieve that in the centres of western power would require some core belief engineering, a therapeutic procedure that can lead to fundamental changes to outdated beliefs and automatic mental patterns. But "half a century after the end of colonialism" militarism and the colonial mentality, and their seemingly required sense of being the passive victim, are still a deeply rooted sickness.
Obama mentioned "millions of Arabs", although he seems not to care for them. Their lives have been expendable in the pursuit of global "security" and "stability", but they have shown us again what can be done without the violence the west is addicted to – and a glimpse of real democracy.
Some of them might want to say to Obama – as he told Assad – get out of the way, the times are changing.
(1) Seymour Hersh: 'The Iran Plans', April 17, 2006
(2) Saeb Erekat, Palestinian chief negotiator, interview with Sky News Aug 23, 2010)
(4) eg "We can accept to establish our independent state on the area occupied (in) '67", Mahmoud-al-Zahar, CNN interview, June 2006
(8) North America Inter Press Service, April 18, 2010, and others
(11) Amnesty International, "Eyes on Pakistan" report, 10 June 2010
and a report in The Independent a year earlier:
(12) Mar. 1, 2007, Iraq 101: The Iraq Effect – The War in Iraq and Its Impact on the War on Terrorism by Peter Bergen and Paul Cruickshank, research fellows at the Center on Law and Security at the NYU School of Law. Bergen is also a senior fellow at the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C.
(13) National intelligence Council, Trends in Global Terrorism: Implications for the United States
(14) Robert Gates What War Looks Like Now, NYT, August 16th 1998.
(15) Ehud Olmert Feb 12 2007: "Netanyahu established Hamas, gave it life, freed Sheikh Yassin and gave him the opportunity to blossom".