President Obama delivered a speech yesterday at Cairo University that has already been noted around the world as unique for its candor. It has been translated into thirteen languages and stirred emotions throughout the Middle East. There were a number of issues that he raised that we do not hear about very often from politicians in Washington, let alone the President himself. Unfortunately, his policies are all too typical of the establishment.
He buttered up the audience with praise of Muslims’ contributions to civilization before he went straight into Afghanistan. "We did not go by choice, we went because of necessity. . . . Make no mistake: We do not want to keep our troops in Afghanistan." Perhaps there was a necessity to pursue some legitimate target after 9/11, which he invoked, but the disproportionate nature of the attack was a choice, the perpetuation of the occupation for eight years now is a choice, and Obama’s surge of thirty thousand troops in Afghanistan is HIS choice.
Regarding Afghanistan, he said, "We seek no military bases there." This must be in contrast to his plan for Iraq which will leave 50,000 troops there indefinitely on 14 permanent bases. "Unlike Afghanistan, Iraq was a war of choice." So is his commitment to maintaining the occupation indefinitely. This is the one place we have gotten lots of change from Obama on his foreign policy. First, he wanted to end the war in Iraq. Then he wanted to end it in 12 months. Then it was 16. Then 16 months and a "residual force." Then, after taking office and meeting with generals on the ground in early March, he extended his plan again, this time to 19 months, to coincide with his first midterm election. I do not believe that was coincidence.
"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. That is why I ordered the removal of our combat brigades by next August." So Iraq’s sovereignty is its own, starting next August? Sort of? I guess we are just going to keep that "residual force" on the bases we already occupy, so we don’t need to "pursue" any more bases. I don’t think Obama has made his real intent clear to the Iraqis, or even to us.
He also mentioned Pakistan where he plans to "invest" $1.5 billion dollars of America’s money. Perhaps the new strategy in Pakistan is going to be indicative of the new imperialism: bomb them with drones, then buy them off to rebuild what we’ve blown up. The President looks magnanimous, the defense contractors get paid, and the internationalists have a field day. The only people who lose in this deal are the Americans who are taxed to fund this absurdity, and the Pakistanis who know better. When Senator Obama supported the strikes in Pakistan as a presidential candidate, the Pakistani protestors were burning effigies of him right next to the ones of President Bush and the American flag.
Next, Obama did a truly courageous thing by calling out the holocaust deniers in a very powerful way. He condemned the use of violence by Palestinians while at the same time, unequivocally stating that, "The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements." Wonderful, and yet tragically in denial of the fact that we subsidize those very settlements that he condemned with about $4 billion per year in "foreign aid."
He confronted the Palestinian violence head on. "Violence is a dead end. It is a sign of neither courage nor power to shoot rockets at sleeping children, or to blow up old women on a bus. That is not how moral authority is claimed; that is how it is surrendered." He is so right here, but fails to point out the hypocrisy of our policy. Rockets at sleeping children? Drone strikes into Pakistan. Old women on a bus? "Acceptable collateral damage" in Iraq. Flip-flopping on the release of torture photos? Yes, Obama, your moral authority has been surrendered.
Then he went on to the issue of democracy, failing to mention that America is Constitutional Republic. "So let me be clear: no system of government can or should be imposed upon one nation by any other. That does not lessen my commitment, however, to governments that reflect the will of the people." Why do we have to keep reminding him that he is only President of the United States of America, and not the world? "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." Can’t we try to get those things in America?
After all of the lofty rhetoric, Obama brings his speech to a conclusion by bragging about his variety of government programs that will solve all of the problems he brought up. He set a high bar earlier in the speech with, "You must maintain your power through consent, not coercion." The arrogance of the neoliberalism that Obama embodies is quite the opposite: it is the belief that it is moral to use the violence, force, and coercion of government to reshape society, or the world, to your vision. On that point, President Obama uttered one great truth that was particularly poignant for me personally: "No single speech can eradicate years of mistrust."