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The Voice Is Obama's; The Hands are Bush's

[Image from unknown archive] [Image from unknown archive]

President Obama’s June 2009 speech in Cairo was widely received as a sincere expression of his desire for a “new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world.” He acknowledged the historic injuries of colonialism, quoted the Qur’anic injunction to “speak always the truth,” recognized the plight of the Palestinian refugees, allowed for the possibility of Hamas participating in realizing the aspirations of the Palestinian people, and clearly called for a halt to Israeli settlement, even as he reaffirmed the US cultural and historical ties and commitment to the security of Israel. Far less bombastically than his predecessor, Obama also proclaimed US support for freedom of speech, the rule of law, transparent government, and personal liberty as universal human rights.

Then came the failure to stand firm on his call for a West Bank settlement freeze, the failure to close Guantanamo, the inability to acknowledge that the war in Afghanistan is unwinnable, and proliferating hints that perhaps 20,000 US soldiers and an indefinite number of contractors will remain in Iraq past the December 2011 deadline set for their withdrawal.

In his May 2011 speech at the State Department the president acknowledged the “extraordinary change” that has taken place in the Middle East. But having failed to fulfill most of the Middle East policy promises he made previously, his verbal support for democracy in the Arab world sounded like a more articulate version of Bush era rhetoric. Departing from his Cairo pledge to speak the truth, Obama did not acknowledge that the balance sheet of his administration on the “Arab spring” is far less rosy than he claimed and not very different than what any post-Vietnam president would have done. 

The president lauded Muhammad Bouazizi, the Tunisian fruit and vegetable vendor whose self-immolation ignited popular movements across the Arab world. In real time, he said virtually nothing about Tunisia until its despot and long-time US ally, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, departed on January 14.

On January 25, as the movement that led to Mubarak’s demise officially began, Secretary of State Clinton proclaimed that the Egyptian regime was “stable.” Days later Vice-President Biden opined that Mubarak was “not a dictator.” Frank Wisner, Obama’s personal envoy to Egypt during the crisis concluded that “Mubarak must stay in office.”  The White House disavowed Wisner’s statement. But it did not acknowledge that Wisner is employed by Patton Boggs, a firm which has engaged in lobbying and litigation for the Mubarak regime. Change we can believe in, or business as usual in Washington?

Denouncing Mu’ammar Gaddafi – a brutal lunatic brought into the western fold by President Bush II so that US oil companies could return to Libya – was relatively easy. Obama hesitated before committing US forces to the air campaign in Libya. It would not be very convincing to assert that the US seeks good relations with Muslim countries while openly conducting military operations in three of them (and semi-covertly in Yemen and Pakistan). Calling for the departure of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad was likewise a relatively easy call, despite Israel’s apprehensions that the enemy they know – and prefer to keep since Israel has rejected recent Syrian peace overtures – is better than the one they don’t.

The Obama administration stood by, whether or not it approved, as Saudi soldiers and mercenaries crushed the democratic movement in Bahrain, the headquarters of the US Fifth Fleet. There is no question that stability takes precedence over democracy there. Like every president before him, Obama has never uttered the words “democracy” and “Saudi Arabia” in the same sentence.

Obama has also failed to acknowledge the March 15th Palestinian Youth Movement, whose name comes from demonstrations held in the West Bank and Gaza Strip that day to demand unity between Fatah and Hamas. At American and Israeli behest, Egypt’s former intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman, apparently acted to forestall Palestinian national reconciliation in negotiations he putatively mediated. It occurred three months after Suleiman left the scene with his boss. President Obama has not explained why the Palestinian people deserve only as much democracy as Israel chooses to allow them.

Only some two months after protests against Yemeni dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh began did the Obama administration signal support for a negotiated end to his regime. Saleh’s assistance in combatting al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula was considered too valuable to abandon him until he became an embarrassment. One young Yemeni complained to the New York Times, “We are really very, very angry because America until now didn’t help us….Obama says he appreciated the courage and dignity of Tunisian people. He didn’t say that for Yemeni people.”

Similar sentiments about American hypocrisy are once again coursing through the Arab world, especially in Palestine. President Obama has squandered the opportunity for any speech to change that now.

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