The Obama fan club – and by this I mean the media, of course – is already hailing our President’s Cairo speech as the latter-day equivalent of the Sermon on the Mount, and there is no doubt that it was a splendid performance. All the usual superlatives are being unleashed by our love-struck commentariat – soaring, inspiring, intelligent, a triumph – and yet the reality, as the cheers die down, is that his Cairo peroration was just what we have come to expect from this President: pretty words, and even prettier promises. But where’s the action?
Well, we’ll just have to wait and see, now won’t we? Yet even the words – if we look at them on the printed page, stark and bare, without the soaring (there’s that word again!) cadences Obama is so good at, we see … the problem:
"Just as Muslims do not fit a crude stereotype, America is not the crude stereotype of a self-interested empire. The United States has been one of the greatest sources of progress that the world has ever known. We were born out of revolution against an empire."
Well, yes, we were – note the past tense – born out of an anti-imperialist revolution. That was then, however: this is now. We were a republic, but now we’re well past our prime as an empire. The US military is engaged in a military occupation not only of Iraq and Afghanistan, but is spread throughout the world. Our globe-spanning navy has a presence – a dominating presence – in every ocean. We are, indeed, a self-interested empire – although one wonders, all too often, whether this has anything to do with protecting our real interests.
To point this out is not to nitpick – it is to put the perceptions of the Arab world – and, indeed, the whole world – in their proper context. And at the risk of violating the unspoken precepts of political correctness, there is something to be said for stereotypes: they don’t just fall out of the sky, you know. In order for a stereotype to become accepted, it must have some substantial basis in fact. Obama, of course, knows this, at least when it comes to perceptions of America abroad: that’s why he referred, in his speech, to the history of colonialism in the region, and specifically to the overthrow of Mossadegh in Iran.
There were other, more troubling themes, however, quite aside from this, and also quite aside from the worrisome "interdependency" meme he trotted out, which threw in the world economic crisis, Darfur, Bosnia, and this comment: "When one nation pursues a nuclear weapon, the risk of nuclear attack rises for all nations."
There can be little doubt the President was referring to Iran – in spite of the fact that his own CIA has recently said Tehran shelved its nuclear weapons program years ago. Yet the President, and members of his administration, keep reiterating this propagandistic point, in a replay of the phony "weapons of mass destruction" theme that animated his predecessor in the run up to the invasion of Iraq.
This notion of "we’re all in this together," and "an injury to one is an injury to all" – bromides he didn’t utter, but might as well have – is one of the main causes of war: it means that no "crisis," anywhere on earth, can pass unnoticed, and without US intervention (or "multilateral" meddling). This whole idea of "collective security" sets up a series of tripwires that are easily triggered, resulting in widening rather than containing a conflict that nobody wants and in which everyone suffers. Yet "collective security" has been the linchpin of American foreign policy since the days of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and isn’t likely to change with this President – quite the opposite, in fact. It won’t be challenged, or changed, because it is a key argument in making the case for the wars we are currently fighting, and are not about to disengage from. As Obama put it:
"When violent extremists operate in one stretch of mountains, people are endangered across an ocean."
This is just plain untrue. If by "endangered" one means an immediate, palpable, and credible threat to the security of the United States, the American people are not endangered by the Taliban, or even by al-Qaeda, as long as they are isolated in the mountains of Afghanistan or the tribal areas of Pakistan.
Obama has said this kind of thing before, and it is no more convincing today. Al-Qaeda doesn’t’ need a "safe haven" to plot new strikes against America: that is, it doesn’t need to control territory. Why this requires any explanation – especially given what we know about how the 9/11 attacks were actually planned and carried out – is beyond me.
This speech was like a great big ice cream sundae, with all the toppings – and something rather unappetizing at its center, which was this:
"The situation in Afghanistan demonstrates America’s goals and our need to work together. Over seven years ago, the United States pursued Al Qaida 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 offense of 9/11. But let us be clear. Al Qaida killed nearly 3,000 people on that day."
Yes, but the Taliban — did they kill 3,000 people that day? Well, say the Obamaites, the Taliban gave Osama bin Laden a "safe haven," and "we did not go by choice." Yet bin Laden and his cohorts are long gone: we’re still there, however, and in greater numbers than ever. Our government says bin Laden and his lieutenants are – or might be – in Pakistan, and yet in his speech Obama also says al-Qaeda is in "many countries." According to this sort of "logic," therefore, we have the "right" to attack any – or all – of these many countries, and may very well do so at some time in the future.
All the prettiest words in the world, including his expression of respect for Islam, his support for a two-state solution to the Palestinian question, and, yes, even his implied slap at Israel’s nukes — "Now, I understand those who protest that some countries have weapons that others do not" – can’t erase the reality of the ever-widening "Af-Pak" war, and the President’s lame attempts to justify it:
"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."
How many violent extremists, who want to kill as many Americans as possible, are spread throughout the world? According to the Obama Doctrine – and the Bush Doctrine – we not only have the right but the duty to go in there and wipe them all out, one by one or all at once, whatever it takes. This is our foreign policy, stripped of pretense, pretty phrases, and declarations of our "peaceful" intentions.
Those 46 allied countries, I might add, are largely a delusion: our "allies" are ratcheting down their alleged "commitment" – just as our own commitment is bound to waver over time, no matter what Obama says. Whether we leave because the American people finally rise up and say "Enough!", or due to economic circumstances beyond our control – say the Chinese decide to stop investing in our debt – is a matter of which comes first: bankruptcy, or the awaking of the American people from their decades-long slumber. In my view, it’s likely that these two events will occur roughly simultaneously – in which case Obama’s war, like Bush’s, will become unsustainable.
I have to say, however, that as much as I regard Obama as the smiling face of US imperialism, whose goal it is to prettify the ugly and justify the unjustifiable, his pronouncements on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are refreshing, albeit disturbing in a different way.
"Hamas," the President avers, "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."
To address Hamas – which is, after all, the elected leadership of the Palestinian people, insofar as they have been allowed to express their preferences at the ballot box – as if it were capable of change, as if its leaders could be given a place at the negotiating table, is a qualitative break from the Israel-centric policies of the past eight years.
Now that is some real change. It is also crossing a line, one that has not been crossed since the days of George Herbert Walker Bush – and you can bet the Israel lobby is not going to take this lightly. Expect a full-bore attack from the Israel Firsters, the "liberal" types like Haim Saban & Co., as well as the neocons and the Religious Right. To make matters worse – from the Lobby’s point of view — I think the President has a real understanding of the Palestinians’ plight, as evidenced not only by his denunciation of the "settlements" – an easy target – but his phraseology when he described the conditions under which people must live in the occupied territories.
I take it as a good sign that all the extremists in the region – the crazed Israeli settlers and their American supporters, as well as Osama bin Laden himself – are screeching bloody murder at this aspect of Obama’s policy. That odd confluence is telling: it tells us that these supposed antipodes have more in common than you’d think. The whole force of their hatred is going to be focused on our President on account of his brave stand, and I just hope that he survives the dangers – political and personal – that his stance will conjure. I don’t want to get more explicit than that, except to note that there are monsters in this world, a great many of them motivated by a toxic combination of the religious and the political — and they’re capable of anything.
Finally, I would also note that a speech is nothing but words, as Obama acknowledged in his text. This vision of peace in the Middle East, sincerely held by our President, is achievable only if it is followed by action. Such a comment is, by now, becoming a cliché – only hours after the speech was actually delivered – and yet it bears repeating, especially to my American readers. There are powerful forces in both parties that will do anything – and I do mean anything – to prevent this vision of peace from being realized.
For the President to have explicitly acknowledged Hamas, and seeming to characterize it as a potential partner in the peace process, is worse than heresy in some quarters, and I cannot see how Congress – which is, as Pat Buchanan quite accurately put it, "Israeli-occupied territory" – is going to sit still for it. AIPAC’s gears are already turning, and the propaganda machine is slated to go full blast. What’s significant, however, is that, for the first time in a very long time, the Lobby faces a formidable opponent: a popular American President who speaks with clarity and conviction.
If he follows through on his words with concrete and decisive action – if he threatens, say, to close off the spigot of US tax dollars flowing to Israel if Tel Aviv keeps funding and building settlements with our "aid" money – then the battle is joined, and, believe you me, it is going to be a doozy. The President may have stood aloof from the Charles Freeman fracas, but surely he must have noticed what happened to the poor guy. Of course, Obama went through that particular mill during the campaign, but, in the wake of Cairo, one gets the distinct feeling that was only the beginning.
I have to reiterate, at this point, my belief that all the good generated by Obama’s support for a viable Palestinian state is bound to be tragically undermined by the running sore of Afghanistan. As long as we are fighting what is essentially a war of vengeance against a people that had little to do with the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Obama is fated to repeat the mistakes made by his predecessor that turned Iraq into a bloody quagmire, albeit on a bigger scale.