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El Rais Obama?

06/05/2009

Those looking for definitive policy statements in Barack Obama's Cairo speech will be mostly disappointed. Barack Obama's Middle East policy is still relatively unformulated or unannounced. If he has a detailed plan for foiling Al-Qaeda, for meeting the challenge posed by Iran and for bringing peace to the Israelis and Palestinians, he has not told us about it.

There was at least one great departure from traditional US policy, couched in most peculiar and ungrammatical language, but clear enough:

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.

Presidential speech writers must know that "settlements" are not a verb, and they cannot stop. There are no new settlements, and in fact, it is disputable whether or not the construction violates any agreements. The point is however, that this is the first time [in recent years see note below marked *] a US official has questioned the legality of settlements or settlement activity. The writing is clearly on the wall for settlement construction, if not for the settlements themselves.

Obama talked about "Palestine" rather than a "future Palestinian state," which might also be a departure. Other than that, there was not much new. He reaffirmed US support for a two state solution, hardly a surprise, and included the ritual condemnations of terror. He kept a low profile regarding Iran, and while one might think that the North Korean nuclear test would have implications for US policy everywhere, Obama wasn't about to mention it. Nothing else he said that related to policy was really surprising, including his statement that Iran should have access to nuclear materials.

This speech could not be about policy if its goal was to win over the citizens of the Middle East. There is no realistic policy statement that Barack Obama could have made that would satisfy the expectations of most people in the Middle East regarding the Palestinian conflict and America's role in the region. Some of the milder commentary, often quoting US officials and former officials:

How can the US come to terms with the truth that Israeli/Western hegemony over the Arab/Muslim world is on the wane? That translates into "The US needs to accept that it is a second rate power and yield to Iran." It's not going to happen so quickly.

But what Obama needs to insist upon is actually the dismantling of these [Israeli] colonies, which number more than 500 That's probably not going to happen without some Palestinian concessions, an idea which was not part of the deal contemplated by the author.

What was the real policy point of this speech? Perhaps there wasn't one. The speech itself was the point. The Bush administration was an easy act to follow, because under Bush, it was easy for terrorists and their supporters to make America into the issue instead of Al-Qaeda. A lot of it had to do with language and "tone." Talk of crusades and missions accomplished and triumphalism got a lot of people scared and helped to make the Bush administration part of the problem in the Middle East rather than part of the solution. Bush painted a big "Kick me" sign on the backside of the United States and invited everyone in the Middle East with a grievance, legitimate or not, to take aim. This speech cleared the air a bit, but it did much more than that.

To understand what it is about, we have to ask why so much effort and publicity were poured into a speech that didn't say much, and that could have been delivered as easily from Washington as from Cairo.

Obama is not the type of person who thinks in terms of grand strategies and geopolitics, it seems. Barack Obama played to his strengths. Barack Obama is a consummate politician. He understands how to lead, and how to make people enthusiastic about his leadership. His middle name is Hussein. Because of his skin pigmentation, his presidency embodies hope for minorities and the people of the third world. Unlike any other U.S. President, he is a figure with whom they can identify. Jonathan Freedland is precisely right when he writes that it is, the speech no other president could make. But he is wrong about the significance of the speech, when he writes

Whether this sensitive, supple and sophisticated speech will be remembered will depend on whether the rhetoric of respect is matched by a change in action.

. The practical results may not matter so much. They were not the point of this speech. There may or may not be substance to match the rhetoric.

Barack Obama understands instinctively the peculiar role of the popular leader in the Middle East, the role that every Arab and Muslim leader aspires to fill: the empty chair of Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Rais whose pictures adorned households and cafes in the suqs of the Middle East. Saddam Hussein, Osama Bin Laden and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad all aspired or aspire to fill that role, a role that would allow them to talk to the common people above the heads of their local leaders. Nasser never accomplished much for his country in terms of economic development, improving the lot of the common people or military victories. He didn't need to. He gave them pride and hope. Flowery speeches were not followed by action, but by more flowery speeches, which captured the imagination of his audience. Saddam Hussein was a leader of the same cut. Having improbably become President of the United States, Obama is, in a way, running for the even more improbable role of Rais of the Middle East.

Ami Isseroff

* It seems that it is not true that no US officials had declared settlements to be illegal, but that policy had changed in recent years. A brief history of the US position on legality of Israeli settlements is given here. Evidently, the Nixon, Ford and Carter administrations explicitly regarded Israeli settlements as illegal. President Reagan denied that they are illegal, and the first Bush administration made an agreement with Israel regarding settlement expansion for natural growth in 1992. Additionally, George W. Bush evidently promised to allow settlement growth within the settlement blocks. (see here and references). It is not clear whether Obama was saying settlements are illegal or the new construction is not legitimate.

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Original text copyright by the author and MidEastWeb for Coexistence, RA. Posted at MidEastWeb Middle East Web Log at http://www.mideastweb.org/log/archives/00000762.htm where your intelligent and constructive comments are welcome. Distributed by MEW Newslist. Subscribe by e-mail to mew-subscribe@yahoogroups.com. Please forward by email with this notice and link to and cite this article. Other uses by permission.

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