Obama in Cairo

My following article was published today on the popular US website Mondoweiss:

Back in 2005, then US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice gave a rousing speech at Cairo’s American University. “For sixty years”, she argued, “my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region here in the Middle East – and we achieved neither. Now, we are taking a different course. We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all peoples.”

Rice spoke passionately to a skeptical Arab world. Few were convinced after the Iraq war’s chaos. Before Barack Obama’s Cairo address today, Egyptian bloggers were largely cynical, local journalist Hossam el-Hamalawy demanded Washington sever its ties with the brutal Egyptian dictatorship and a recent study found that Egyptians still negatively viewed US foreign policy.

“It may serve President Obama well to remember”, wrote the former Al-Ahram correspondent in Washington DC, Ayman El-Amir, “that terrorism is rooted more in the economic, social and political marginalisation of hundreds of millions of people under the control of self-perpetuating autocracies than in religious fervour.” Obama had little to say about the US-backed despots his country funds and arms – Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

Obama’s speech was at once moving, revealing, predictable, rhetorically elegant, largely empty and devoid of detail. Words matter, of course, and the current US President has the gift of the gab. Jeffrey Goldberg was swooning, but Ali Abunimah understands the Middle East far better.…  There was “overwhelming popular opposition to increasingly intrusive and violent American military, political and economic interventions”, Abunimah argued. Obama spoke as if American behaviour in the Middle East was well meaning, if sometimes misguided. Tell that to the tens of millions of people living under US-backed rule.

On Israel/Palestine, Obama at least acknowledged the pain of the truly aggrieved party:

“”¦The Palestinian people – Muslims and Christians – have suffered in pursuit of a homeland. For more than sixty years they have endured the pain of dislocation. Many wait in refugee camps in the West Bank, Gaza, and neighboring lands for a life of peace and security that they have never been able to lead. They endure the daily humiliations – large and small – that come with occupation. So let there be no doubt: the situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable. America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own.”

While it’s important for America to understand the squalor in which the Palestinian people live – largely due to Zionist aggression, Western-support and Arab government inaction – Obama’s dismissal of the democratically-elected Hamas party was disappointing. “Palestinians must abandon violence”, the US President bluntly stated. He’s right; targeting Israeli civilians is a crime without justification. But resisting occupation is both legitimate and necessary and the Muslim world knows all-too-well the silence and complicity during this year’s Gaza onslaught, the 2006 Lebanon war and West Bank pogroms. This kind of violence went unremarked. Should this not stop, too?

“The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop.”

Abunimah points out that Obama isn’t here objecting to the colonial project per se but rather settlements “continuing” to expand. Even if Israel ceased all settlements today, there would still be around 500,000 settlers in the occupied territories, rendering any two-state solution dead on arrival. J Street, though, are just happy that Obama mentioned the two-state solution at all.

In many ways, Obama’s speech is the kind of event that only a US President would arrogantly presume needs to be given. Many Americans will cheer, oblivious to the damage their country has done to the region for decades. Words are necessary and important and Obama attempted to address all concerns (Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran etc.)

His challenge to the US “empire” was laughable, however. Facts on the ground speak for themselves. An increase in air-strikes in Afghanistan has caused carnage. Afghan warlords are backed, funded and armed by Washington. Permanent bases in Iraq, including America’s largest embassy in the world, are visible to the Iraqi people. Unaccountable private, military contractors roam across Iraq and Afghanistan, their numbers having increased under Obama.

After the speech, The Nation’s Richard Dreyfuss was positive, but The Angry Arab was scathing. I can see why:

“He spoke about the repugnant practice of Holocaust denial but did not mention that the literature is entirely Western in that regard. And he then moves from a discussion of the Nazism to the Arab-Israeli conflict. What is his point here: that because of Nazi crimes, the Palestinians need to accommodate Zionist crimes on their lands? This is the most offensive section of course: he talks about the Palestinians without identifying who was doing those bad things to them. Look at this sentence: “have suffered in pursuit of a homeland. For more than sixty years they have endured the pain of dislocation.” So their suffering is due to their pursuit of a homeland: so they should stop the pursuit and the suffering will go away.”

Having spent time in the Arab world, Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism are undoubtedly real beasts that need to be tamed. Addressing them head-on is probably unavoidable. But Zionist denialism is just as pernicious, in my view. Last weekend’s Salute to Israel parade in New York didn’t even mention or acknowledge Arabs or Palestinians. How is this any less of a danger than ignoring the suffering and reality of Jews in Israel and Palestine? Zionist ideology is predicated on dominating the physical, psychological and military space, never allowing the Palestinian side to breath. Obama certainly acknowledged the “other” and in the sick American political system that’s probably an achievement.

The largely fawning response in the mainstream media to Obama’s speech is indicative of failed ideals. America speaks about being a beacon of hope to the world, something the US President stressed again in Cairo, but millions of global citizens know the truth. It’s the height of American arrogance to dictate terms of understanding and tolerance to the Arab world and should be viewed as such. It’s far too early to tell what Obama intends to actually achieve in the region, but his foreign policy actions thus far have differed very little from the Bush administration. Witness the carnage in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

What matters are actions, not fine words.

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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