Obama and the Middle East

A good speech, with good intentions. But…

May 19th 2011

Barack Obama, focusing on the middle east, gave a speech today that would have reminded older Americans of the sense of what the country stood for in the days before the Kennedy assassination and Vietnam, before the deep national cynicism and before the methodical erosion of American dignity and pride by a far right monied faction determined to steal America for itself.

Had Eisenhower or Kennedy given a similarly-themed speech 50 years or so ago, it would have been a clarion call, and praised as a great speech in American history.

Even now, it is a damned fine speech, and if nothing else, it shows that Obama recognizes the value of the time when people referred to America as “the leader of the free world”, and it wasn’t said with a smirk, or based on America’s economy or military might. It was said because American ideals and commitment to freedom really were a beacon to the rest of the world.

By the time Bush was president, such rhetoric was an open embarrassment, and greeted with amused contempt by much of the rest of the world, especially those areas where America had inflicted ‘freedom’ with troops and tanks and missiles. (Remember “Freedom is on the march!”?)

Obama’s rhetoric, in the end, may in fact be no less empty. His record on domestic rights and freedoms is spotty, at best. And the US is still in Afghanistan, and still maintains a presence in Iraq, although not involved in the active fighting. And thanks to Wikileaks, American diplomacy has been shown to be more honest and competent than most people expected, which makes the frantic American efforts to punish the supposed perpetrators of the leaks and have a kangaroo court afterward all the more puzzling.

If America has stumbled in the past half century, it is nothing compared to Israel, which has disgraced everything its founders originally stood for. “Never again!” they shout as they erect vast ghettoes, build border-long walls, strafe civilian populations, steal land, and deny rights.

Obama has finally openly called out Israel on this, and made the America position clear. He is the first sitting US President to call the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian people what it is: an occupation. The only other president to do so was also the one who did the most to foster peace and stability in that intractably troubled region—Jimmy Carter. And that came years after he left office. The settlements are nothing more than stolen land, and Obama made it clear that from now on, this would be how America would treat the subject.

At the same time, he affirmed that Israel has and absolute and fundamental right to exist, and that America could be counted upon to defend that right. He isn’t throwing the people of Israel under a bus, even though many people wish we could throw Netanyahu and his crowd under a bus.

The generalities of his other points were equally clear, although in that infinitely complicated region, the devil will be in the details. He’s right to say that the US must work to foster economic growth in the region rather than just aid, especially in countries that are economic basket cases, such as Tunisia or Syria. And he noted that for the entire region, if you exclude oil imports, the US imports more goods from Switzerland. Places like Bahrain need to expand their economy out beyond the oil wells, so you don’t have a handful of fantastically rich people and the rest of the populations existing in the same grinding poverty that the basket case nations experience.

At some points he reverted to the same tired bullshit we used to hear out of Bush and his flunkies. “In Iraq, we see the promise of a multi-ethnic, multi-sectarian democracy.” Well, it’s a lot more hope than promise, and to punctuate that, 27 were killed by a car bomb in Kirkuk, where Sunni-Kurd tensions are again on the rise. And both are on the edge of open battle again with the Shi’a. It’s not as bad as when Bush used to say it, because Obama didn’t go out of his way to aggravate tensions amongst the groups, but it was still fatuous and dishonest, and designed for gullible domestic consumption.

Obama noted, with just a trace of smugness (justified) that al Qaida was pretty much irrelevant these days, and were already a minor player in the Green revolutions sweeping the region even before Osama bin Laden was shot.

One curious omission from the speech was that of Saudi Arabia, home not only to one of the vilest and most vicious regimes in the region, but the source for much of the regional unrest and the terrorists who target the west. Being willing to criticize Israel and Bahrain is commendable, but giving the reprehensible Saudis a bye undermines the sense of resolve Obama was trying to project. Saudi Arabia is a blot on American relations throughout the region.

If he follows through with the economic and policy proposals he has outlined in his speech, he will do more to reduce terrorism directed at the United States than all the Homeland Security and Gulags and invasions combined. If America can offer something more positive than endless meddling in domestic affairs and the propping up of vicious tyrants, the anger that fuels outfits such as al Qaida will dissipate over time. To put it in terms even a right winger could understand, if we don’t fuck with them, they are a whole lot less likely to want to fuck with us.

One of the big problems is that in order to take a more positive role in the middle east, the US will not only have to be more even-handed, but also use its economic might, not to coerce, but to build up. If people see their neighborhoods, jobs and lives improving because of change brought about by the US, extremist movements will die on the vine.

But the problem that could defeat the US is the deeply embedded corruption that permeates the governments and economies throughout much of the region. Obama proposed a billion dollars in economic assistance for Egypt, but the trick will be to figure out how to convert that billion to factories and schools and clean drinking water, and not simply have it vanish into the pockets of corrupt agents, like that famous pallet of hundred dollar bills did in Iraq.

Trust will come slowly, if at all. Bush did the nation immense damage throughout the middle east, and the image of America as a champion of freedom and justice must seem a very strange one, even in areas that don’t really have much in the way of freedom and justice of their own. It’s a bit hard to be believed when you talk about respecting the sovereignty and autonomy of countries while you’re occupying two countries and consistently threatening a third.

Another factor, not as strong in the middle east, but vital for public support at home, is that Obama needs to take some of the same ideals he expressed in the speech and apply them to the home front. American democracy and freedom is on the ropes. The Supreme Court all but stripped Americans of control of their elections in Citizens United, and recently it effectively destroyed the right to legal redress against major corporations. The Republicans are at open war with most core American values, and have made it very clear that if they can buy the next election, they will eliminate most human rights, all labor rights, and turn the entire country into a kind of a stock farm for major international corporations. Obama needs to be fighting hard to prevent this, and he won’t do it by endlessly offering to compromise major core principles.

This deficiency in his resolve was highlighted by a story in Yahoo news today, which began, “Top congressional leaders agreed Thursday to a four-year extension of the anti-terrorist Patriot Act, the controversial law passed after the Sept. 11 attacks that governs the search for terrorists on American soil. The deal between Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker John Boehner calls for a vote before May 27, when parts of the current act expire. The idea is to pass the extension with as little debate as possible to avoid a protracted and familiar argument over the expanded power the law gives to the government.” Will the American people get the same rights and freedoms that Obama wants the Egyptians to have?

He could do worse than press for a constitutional amendment stripping corporations of human rights. They wield fantastic power, but they aren’t as vital as they pretend. They haven’t added any net jobs since 2000, and indeed employ less than they did then. And their taxes only make up 8% of federal revenues. The American people make up the rest. So why are they calling the shots?

Put simply, it’s admirable that Obama wants to restore America as a beacon of hope and freedom. But unless he does it at home, he isn’t going to impress anyone overseas, and that will defeat the purposes behind today’s speech.

At one point, Obama said, “The events of the past six months show us that strategies of repression and strategies of aversion will not work anymore.” In the long run, they never do.

But if he is going to fight such forces abroad, in order to have a commanding voice, he must be prepared to fight them at home, as well.

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