The Song Remains the Same

Last week, President Obama set out to repair relations with and reach out to the Islamic world, which is certainly something that needs doing. His speech in Cairo was billed as a new beginning, but just how new was anything he said?

For starters, the president decided to add at the last minute a visit to Saudi Arabia to meet with King Abdullah before going to Egypt. Yet, in many respects, making nice with the Saudis represents much of what is wrong with U.S. relations with Muslims. One of the core grievances against the United States articulated by Osama bin Laden is American support for illegitimate, authoritarian regimes in Muslim countries, especially the Saudi monarchy. It’s not a coincidence that 15 of the 19 hijackers in the 9/11 terrorist attacks were Saudi. And this is a sentiment that resonates with Muslims around the world, even if they don’t share bin Laden’s call for jihad against America. Indeed, many American Muslims fled those oppressive regimes to make a better life for themselves and their children in America. And the irony of Obama speaking in Cairo is that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak also runs an authoritarian regime. Egypt may have parliamentary elections, but Mubarak’s 27-year rule is akin to Saddam Hussein’s run as president of Iraq from 1979 to 2003. Just as President Reagan challenged former Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev to "tear down this wall," Obama should have challenged Mubarak to step down.

Like President Bush before him, Obama stated that America is not at war with Islam – and the fact that Obama’s middle name is Hussein and his father is from a Kenyan family with generations of Muslims perhaps lends him some credibility with a Muslim audience. And he eloquently articulated that Islam is part of America:

"I also know that Islam has always been a part of America’s story. The first nation to recognize my country was Morocco. In signing the Treaty of Tripoli in 1796, our second president, John Adams, wrote, ‘The United States has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility of Muslims.’ And since our founding, American Muslims have enriched the United States. They have fought in our wars, they have served in our government, they have stood for civil rights, they have started businesses, they have taught at our universities, they’ve excelled in our sports arenas, they’ve won Nobel Prizes, built our tallest building, and lit the Olympic Torch. And when the first Muslim American was recently elected to Congress, he took the oath to defend our Constitution using the same Holy Koran that one of our Founding Fathers – Thomas Jefferson – kept in his personal library."

But the problem is not how America treats Muslims in America. The problem is how U.S. foreign policy affects Muslims around the world. So it is vitally important that the president deliver on the promise "to remove combat troops from Iraqi cities by July, and to remove all of our troops from Iraq by 2012." Unfortunately, three years is a long time for that policy to change.

Even if Obama can live up to his promise in Iraq, he is essentially repeating the same mistake in Afghanistan. To be sure, Iraq was a war of choice, whereas Afghanistan was a necessary response to 9/11. But having deposed the Taliban – while failing to achieve the more important goal of capturing or killing bin Laden and destroying al-Qaeda’s senior leadership – the time has passed for a continued U.S. military presence in Afghanistan. Just as Obama recognizes that Iraq must be left to the Iraqis, the same is true for Afghanistan. As my good friend British MP Adam Holloway wrote more than a year ago: "Success depends entirely on the ordinary Afghan."

More importantly, occupation is occupation, which is the primary motivation for terrorism. According to University of Chicago Professor Robert Pape (author of Dying to Win: The Logic of Suicide Terrorism, which is based on data from 315 suicide terrorism campaigns around the world from 1980 through 2003 and 462 individual suicide terrorists):

"The central fact is that overwhelmingly suicide-terrorist attacks are not driven by religion as much as they are by a clear strategic objective: to compel modern democracies to withdraw military forces from the territory that the terrorists view as their homeland. From Lebanon to Sri Lanka to Chechnya to Kashmir to the West Bank, every major suicide-terrorist campaign – over 95 percent of all the incidents – has had as its central objective to compel a democratic state to withdraw."

Finally, there is no avoiding Israel and the Palestinians. On the one hand, President Obama clearly understands why Muslims around the world – not just Arabs – empathize with the Palestinian struggle against Israel:

"For more than 60 years they’ve [the Palestinian people] 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."

Yet – just like every president before him – Obama seemingly placed more of the burden on Palestinian shoulders rather than Israel’s. For example, he called on the Palestinians to abandon violence. Fair enough. But while he stated that "the United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements," he only said that such settlements be stopped, not abandoned. However, if real estate is at the heart of the issue and Palestinian statehood is a prerequisite to any peace, simply halting settlements is likely not enough to make any meaningful progress.

But more importantly, though President Obama made it clear that the United States did not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlement-building, he also conveyed that he was unlikely to do anything about it by emphatically stating, "America’s strong bonds with Israel are well known. This bond is unbreakable." In other words, no matter how bad the marriage might be, divorce is out of the question. To the Israelis, this signals that they can engage in policies counter to U.S. interests without fear of suffering any consequences (such as losing the more than $3 billion in annual military and economic aid from the United States). And what is not lost on Arabs and Muslims is America’s inability to be an honest broker and unwillingness to exert leverage to influence or change Israeli policies.

So as the quintessential rock group Led Zeppelin sang in the ’70s, "the song remains the same."

Author: Charles V. Peña

Charles V. Peña is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute, a senior fellow with the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, a former senior fellow with the George Washington University Homeland Security
Policy Institute
, an adviser to the Straus Military Reform Project, and an analyst for MSNBC television. Peña is the co-author of Exiting Iraq: Why the U.S. Must End the Military Occupation and Renew the War Against al-Qaeda and author of Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism.