Obama: Charting a Challenging Path Forward

President Obama’s speech in Egypt may have contained more than a trace of certain traditional Washington biases, but on the whole it was a tremendous reaffirmation, urgently needed, of American values, often phrased eloquently, well informed about the history and perspectives of Muslims, willing to criticize both America and Islam, laying a path forward that Obama himself will find it a true challenge to stride. One can only hope that he was sincere and that he will have the courage to stay the course. As Obama said, this is just one speech; nevertheless, to me this speech says that America is over its temper tantrum. Analytically, I have reservations for sure, but emotionally…for the first time in a decade, I feel proud to be American.

Obama provided an excellent summary of historic Western mistreatment of Muslim societies phrased gently but stating the key Muslim complaints in a way that clears the air:

tension has been fed by colonialism that denied rights and opportunities to many Muslims, and a Cold War in which Muslim-majority countries were too often treated as proxies without regard to their own aspirations.

And for the bigots in America who were listening:

Islam is a part of America.

Then, he made a key political point that has an acceptable message in that it certainly suggests moderates worldwide need to cooperate. I would have clarified that this “violent extremism” includes Grozniy, Jenin, Gaza, Fallujah…well, you get my point. Nevertheless, so far, so good:

The first issue that we have to confront is violent extremism in all of its forms.

But once he turns to specific policy issues, things begin to break down. Obama’s emphasis in his remarks on Afghanistan was overwhelmingly on destroying extremism, with only brief discussion of social conditions, no hint of the possibility that social problems are at the root of discontent, and no recognition that any of those fighting in Central Asia are other than threatening extremists that need to be slaughtered. More seriously, he gave no recognition to the possibility that it is the very presence of American military that is provoking the deepening tragedy. Obama’s words suggest to me a future of merciless war that will destroy the region and leave those who survive embittered…and with good reason.

In Ankara, I made clear that America is not — and never will be — at war with Islam. (Applause.) We will, however, relentlessly confront violent extremists who pose a grave threat to our security — because we reject the same thing that people of all faiths reject: the killing of innocent men, women, and children. And it is my first duty as President to protect the American people.

The situation in Afghanistan demonstrates America‘s goals, and our need to work together. Over seven years ago, the United States pursued al Qaeda and the Taliban with broad international support. We did not go by choice; we went because of necessity. I’m aware that there’s still some who would question or even justify the events of 9/11. But let us be clear: Al Qaeda killed nearly 3,000 people on that day. The victims were innocent men, women and children from America and many other nations who had done nothing to harm anybody. And yet al Qaeda chose to ruthlessly murder these people, claimed credit for the attack, and even now states their determination to kill on a massive scale. They have affiliates in many countries and are trying to expand their reach. These are not opinions to be debated; these are facts to be dealt with.

Now, make no mistake: We do not want to keep our troops in Afghanistan. We see no military — we seek no military bases there. It is agonizing for America to lose our young men and women. It is costly and politically difficult to continue this conflict. We would gladly bring every single one of our troops home if we could be confident that there were not violent extremists in Afghanistan and now Pakistan determined to kill as many Americans as they possibly can. But that is not yet the case.

And that’s why we’re partnering with a coalition of 46 countries. And despite the costs involved, America‘s commitment will not weaken. Indeed, none of us should tolerate these extremists. They have killed in many countries. They have killed people of different faiths — but more than any other, they have killed Muslims. Their actions are irreconcilable with the rights of human beings, the progress of nations, and with Islam. The Holy Koran teaches that whoever kills an innocent is as — it is as if he has killed all mankind. (Applause.) And the Holy Koran also says whoever saves a person, it is as if he has saved all mankind. (Applause.) The enduring faith of over a billion people is so much bigger than the narrow hatred of a few. Islam is not part of the problem in combating violent extremism — it is an important part of promoting peace.

Now, we also know that military power alone is not going to solve the problems in Afghanistan and Pakistan. That’s why we plan to invest $1.5 billion each year over the next five years to partner with Pakistanis to build schools and hospitals, roads and businesses, and hundreds of millions to help those who’ve been displaced. That’s why we are providing more than $2.8 billion to help Afghans develop their economy and deliver services that people depend on.

If Obama learned no lessons from Iraq or Somalia or Gaza or Lebanon for application in Afghanistan, at least he does seem to have applied those lessons to Iraq itself:

Unlike Afghanistan, Iraq was a war of choice that provoked strong differences in my country and around the world. Although I believe that the Iraqi people are ultimately better off without the tyranny of Saddam Hussein, I also believe that events in Iraq have reminded America of the need to use diplomacy and build international consensus to resolve our problems whenever possible. … I have made it clear to the Iraqi people that we pursue no bases, and no claim on their territory or resources. Iraq‘s sovereignty is its own. And that’s why I ordered the removal of our combat brigades by next August. That is why we will honor our agreement with Iraq‘s democratically elected government to remove combat troops from Iraqi cities by July, and to remove all of our troops from Iraq by 2012. (Applause.) We will help Iraq train its security forces and develop its economy. But we will support a secure and united Iraq as a partner, and never as a patron.

And finally, just as America can never tolerate violence by extremists, we must never alter or forget our principles. Nine-eleven was an enormous trauma to our country. The fear and anger that it provoked was understandable, but in some cases, it led us to act contrary to our traditions and our ideals. We are taking concrete actions to change course. I have unequivocally prohibited the use of torture by the United States, and I have ordered the prison at Guantanamo Bay closed by early next year. (Applause.)

On Israel, Obama still voiced no recognition that we might have unbreakable bonds with Israelis without having such bonds with a racist, warmongering Israeli regime. If Obama wishes to visit Buchenwald, then he should also demand to visit—without Israeli handlers—Gaza. Here, he missed a real chance to put his money where his mouth is.

America‘s strong bonds with Israel are well known. This bond is unbreakable. It is based upon cultural and historical ties, and the recognition that the aspiration for a Jewish homeland is rooted in a tragic history that cannot be denied.

Around the world, the Jewish people were persecuted for centuries, and anti-Semitism in Europe culminated in an unprecedented Holocaust. Tomorrow, I will visit Buchenwald, which was part of a network of camps where Jews were enslaved, tortured, shot and gassed to death by the Third Reich. Six million Jews were killed — more than the entire Jewish population of Israel today. Denying that fact is baseless, it is ignorant, and it is hateful. Threatening Israel with destruction — or repeating vile stereotypes about Jews — is deeply wrong, and only serves to evoke in the minds of Israelis this most painful of memories while preventing the peace that the people of this region deserve.

Obama’s words, while refreshing for a Washington politician, continue to evade the truth about Palestine, referring to “the pain of dislocation” rather than admitting honestly that they were the victims of a campaign of ethnic cleansing. Saying that the settlements must “stop” rather than “be eliminated” also amounts to surrendering to Netanyahu since such a stance would make inconceivable the realization of “the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own.” Moreover, calling on Palestinians to abandon violence before demanding an end to the violence of the Israeli occupiers puts the cart once again before the horse and reveals the continuing pro-Israeli bias. Nevertheless, calling the Palestinian situation “intolerable” represents a huge rhetorical victory for Palestinians, perhaps a sufficient step forward for one speech.

On the other hand, it is also undeniable that the Palestinian people — Muslims and Christians — have suffered in pursuit of a homeland. For more than 60 years they’ve 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. And America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own. (Applause.)

For decades then, there has been a stalemate: two peoples with legitimate aspirations, each with a painful history that makes compromise elusive. It’s easy to point fingers — for Palestinians to point to the displacement brought about by Israel’s founding, and for Israelis to point to the constant hostility and attacks throughout its history from within its borders as well as beyond. But if we see this conflict only from one side or the other, then we will be blind to the truth: The only resolution is for the aspirations of both sides to be met through two states, where Israelis and Palestinians each live in peace and security. (Applause.)

That is in Israel‘s interest, Palestine‘s interest, America‘s interest, and the world’s interest. And that is why I intend to personally pursue this outcome with all the patience and dedication that the task requires. (Applause.) The obligations — the obligations that the parties have agreed to under the road map are clear. For peace to come, it is time for them — and all of us — to live up to our responsibilities.

Palestinians must abandon violence. Resistance through violence and killing is wrong and it does not succeed. For centuries, black people in America suffered the lash of the whip as slaves and the humiliation of segregation. But it was not violence that won full and equal rights. It was a peaceful and determined insistence upon the ideals at the center of America‘s founding. This same story can be told by people from South Africa to South Asia; from Eastern Europe to Indonesia. It’s a story with a simple truth: that violence is a dead end. It is a sign neither of courage nor power to shoot rockets at sleeping children, or to blow up old women on a bus. That’s not how moral authority is claimed; that’s how it is surrendered.

Now is the time for Palestinians to focus on what they can build. The Palestinian Authority must develop its capacity to govern, with institutions that serve the needs of its people. Hamas does have support among some Palestinians, but they also have to recognize they have responsibilities. To play a role in fulfilling Palestinian aspirations, to unify the Palestinian people, Hamas must put an end to violence, recognize past agreements, recognize Israel‘s right to exist.

At the same time, Israelis must acknowledge that just as Israel‘s right to exist cannot be denied, neither can Palestine‘s. The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. (Applause.) This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop. (Applause.)

And Israel must also live up to its obligation to ensure that Palestinians can live and work and develop their society. Just as it devastates Palestinian families, the continuing humanitarian crisis in Gaza does not serve Israel’s security; neither does the continuing lack of opportunity in the West Bank. Progress in the daily lives of the Palestinian people must be a critical part of a road to peace, and Israel must take concrete steps to enable such progress.

On nuclear weapons, he laid a respectful foundation for serious negotiations with Iran and hinted at but careful avoiding admitting that Iran had a point in feeling it should be allowed to have what Israel has. Repeating the mantra that for Iran to try to catch up with Israel would “cause” a nuclear race shows the gap between pretense and reality that remains in the Washington perspective. However, Obama clearly ended the nonsense seen in recent days in the U.S. media that Iran “may” have a right to nuclear technology. Fine; that issue is over. One can certainly find words to argue about, but essentially Obama has opened the door to talks; it now seems up to the new Iranian administration that will take office after June 14. Iran has won its point that there should be no discrimination against it. Now, will it offer utter, convincing transparency (perhaps in the context of a little transparency by Israel)?

it is clear to all concerned that when it comes to nuclear weapons, we have reached a decisive point. This is not simply about America‘s interests. It’s about preventing a nuclear arms race in the Middle East that could lead this region and the world down a hugely dangerous path.

I understand those who protest that some countries have weapons that others do not. No single nation should pick and choose which nation holds nuclear weapons. And that’s why I strongly reaffirmed America‘s commitment to seek a world in which no nations hold nuclear weapons. (Applause.) And any nation — including Iran — should have the right to access peaceful nuclear power if it complies with its responsibilities under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. That commitment is at the core of the treaty, and it must be kept for all who fully abide by it. And I’m hopeful that all countries in the region can share in this goal.

On democracy, Obama steered a fine line, first observing flatly:

No system of government can or should be imposed by one nation by any other.

And then adding the caveat that we reserve the right to interfere (rhetorically or otherwise?) to oppose dictatorships imposed from inside. The world will see how this is implemented in practice. If Obama meant what he said, it is bad news for his dictatorial host and a clear offer to work with Hezbollah if it A) wins and B) plays by the rules once in power. Hamas also now seems to have a conditional pass to join the party. One wonders if Fatah got the message.

That does not lessen my commitment, however, to governments that reflect the will of the people. Each nation gives life to this principle in its own way, grounded in the traditions of its own people. America does not presume to know what is best for everyone, just as we would not presume to pick the outcome of a peaceful election. But I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn’t steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. These are not just American ideas; they are human rights. And that is why we will support them everywhere. (Applause.)

Now, there is no straight line to realize this promise. But this much is clear: Governments that protect these rights are ultimately more stable, successful and secure. Suppressing ideas never succeeds in making them go away. America respects the right of all peaceful and law-abiding voices to be heard around the world, even if we disagree with them. And we will welcome all elected, peaceful governments — provided they govern with respect for all their people.

This last point is important because there are some who advocate for democracy only when they’re out of power; once in power, they are ruthless in suppressing the rights of others. (Applause.) So no matter where it takes hold, government of the people and by the people sets a single standard for all who would hold power: You must maintain your power through consent, not coercion; you must respect the rights of minorities, and participate with a spirit of tolerance and compromise; you must place the interests of your people and the legitimate workings of the political process above your party. Without these ingredients, elections alone do not make true democracy.

_______________________
A very well written critique of Obama’s speech by Chatham House Mideast analyst Rime Allaf includes these key lines:

Unfortunately, the double standards of American foreign policy, especially in the Middle East, have remained at the crux of official rhetoric. Many will have heard a patronizing address, with an American president preaching, again, about what they must do and about the facts they must accept. The reference to Iran’s nuclear ambitions, for example, would have resonated more strongly had President Obama dared to speak of Israel’s extensive nuclear arsenal. Remorse about Iraq, instead of dubious claims of achievement there, would have earned him some credibility.

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