Obama's Cairo mission: Don't be Bush

Five disastrous Middle East policies that the president must show he's rejected.

Published June 4, 2009 10:28AM (EDT)

Left: Former President Bush. Right: President Barack Obama
Left: Former President Bush. Right: President Barack Obama

These are momentous days in the Middle East. As President Barack Obama arrives in Cairo to deliver a long-awaited speech addressing relations between America and the Arab/Muslim world, no fewer than four significant events loom on the regional horizon. On June 7, Lebanon will hold elections that could give the militant group Hezbollah unprecedented political power. Iran will hold its elections five days later, with the political fate of hard-line president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad hanging in the balance. U.S. combat forces are scheduled to leave all Iraqi cities by the end of June, the first tangible step toward ending the American military presence there. And Obama has just handed right-wing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a July deadline to form a new peace policy.

Under George W. Bush, America's Arab/Muslim report card was an F-minus. U.S. standing in the Middle East and among the world's Muslims sank to an all-time low, terrorist attacks greatly increased, violent extremists gained power, moderate and pro-U.S. regimes were weakened, the crucial Israeli-Palestinian conflict grew ever more intractable, Iraq sank into a hell from which it has only now begun to emerge, and the Taliban surged back in Afghanistan and threatened Pakistan. Bush's policies were directly responsible for many of these calamitous outcomes, and exacerbated others. In his Cairo speech, Obama's most pressing need is thus to make it unequivocally clear to the world's 1.5 billion Muslims and 325 million Arabs that the U.S. has decisively rejected Bush's failed ideology and policies, and intends to chart a completely new path. We can expect Obama to invoke his own background, reject the idea of a "clash of civilizations" and make an inspiring appeal to shared values. Those oratorical flourishes will count for something, but unless he supports them with tough, realistic language and actual policy changes, they will just go down as pretty words.

What follows is a list of Bush's five cardinal Middle East errors, and what Obama can do in his speech and in his subsequent actions to correct them.

Bush Sin 1: His egregiously pro-Israel tilt. Abandoning even the pretense of being an honest broker in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Bush told his Cabinet at the very beginning of his administration that he intended to opt out and unleash Ariel Sharon on the Palestinians -- and then he did. Like it or not, the Palestinian cause is the unifying one for the world's Arabs and Muslims, and the West's abject failure to act justly toward the Palestinians has done more damage to its image in the Arab/Muslim world than anything else. Bush took that phenomenon to new depths. The justified perception that Washington was completely in Tel Aviv's pocket poisoned everything the U.S. tried to do in the region, from promoting democracy to fighting in Iraq to winning hearts and minds. Blind U.S. support for Israel enrages ordinary Arabs and Muslims, gives militant groups like Hezbollah and Hamas a raison d'être, and undercuts U.S. allies like Egypt whose oppressed people see their sclerotic leaders as paid-off water carriers for America.

Obama's antidote: He has made a good start by making it clear to the far-right Netanyahu government that the U.S. will no longer tolerate Israel's usual tricks of stalling and equivocating on freezing the settlements. The settlements are not the key issue in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but stopping their growth is essential if peace is to be realized because they are a prima facie sign of Israeli bad faith. Neither the Palestinians nor any Arab country will begin negotiations with Israel until the settlements, which have relentlessly grown during the entire so-called peace process initiated by Oslo in 1993, are frozen. Obama should make it clear in his speech that he has told the Israeli government that it must freeze the settlements and that he expects them to comply, thus publicly locking himself into a position from which he cannot back down and increasing pressure on the Netanyahu government to take action.

Obama should also not fall into the pointless trap of demanding that Arab states make goodwill gestures toward Israel before Netanyahu has even said that he is committed to a viable two-state solution. The Arab Peace Plan, in which every Arab state agreed to establish full relations with Israel if it ended its illegal occupation of the territories it captured in the 1967 war, has been on the table for seven years, and Israel has not acted on it. The Arab states have made it clear that the next move is Israel's, and if Obama insists that the Arabs must act first, he will squander all of his credibility with his audience.

But the really important moves here will come in the weeks and months after the speech. If Obama does not put real pressure on Netanyahu to freeze settlements and begin working toward a two-state solution -- which could lead the Israeli leader's coalition partners to bolt, bringing down his government in record time -- his worldwide audience will regard his speech as just more meaningless words. After all, even George W. Bush repeatedly called for the creation of a Palestinian state. The time is long past when mere rhetoric will convince Arabs and Muslims that the U.S. is serious about brokering a fair Israeli-Palestinian peace.

Bonus point: If Obama surprises the world by announcing that he intends to visit Gaza. Obama has never dared to criticize Israel's onslaught against the tiny, impoverished strip. But a visit would speak volumes about the new direction his administration intends to take.

Bush Sin 2: His grandiose declaration of a "war on terror," accompanied by ignorant, self-defeating rhetoric about fighting "Islamofascism." One of the reasons Bush invaded Iraq was to teach the backward, violent Arab-Muslim world a lesson in the wake of 9/11. This was insulting enough, but the Bush neocons' insistence that the invasion was also going to be good for the benighted region was intolerable, a combination of brutality and "idealistic" condescension. Bush's crusader-like zeal in pursuing a "clash of civilizations" only strengthened the appeal for Arabs and Muslims of mirroring messianic groups like al-Qaida, and gave democracy itself a bad name.

Obama's antidote: First, he should declare the "war on terror" over. He should explain that the U.S. is not fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan to defeat "terrorism," but because we want to help the people of those countries defeat enemies that threaten the lives of their citizens. He should clearly say that we are not attempting to impose American ideas or values on anyone, only helping them to live lives of minimal human decency.

It is too late to undo the Iraq war, but Obama can make it clear that the US will honor its commitment to wind down its military presence there and is committed to working with the Iraqi government to ensure the best possible outcome for the long-suffering Iraqi people. He should again repeat that the U.S. has no designs on Iraq's oil or any of its other assets.

Bush Sin 3: Bush lumped all "extremist" groups together and declared all of them America's enemies. Violent extremism is indeed a regional problem, but Bush's failure to distinguish between nationalist resistance movements like Hamas and Hezbollah and anomic Islamist groups like al-Qaida was counterproductive and only strengthened the extremists.

Obama's antidote: The U.S. does indeed need to bolster moderates, but the way to do that is to stop the moralistic blustering and get smart. Simply demonizing militant groups that have deep roots in their societies, like Hezbollah and Hamas, is a ticket for failure. With the exception of fanatical Islamist groups like al-Qaida, "extremism" is often wholly or partially a symptom, a reaction to an underlying situation, not an eternal state of anti-Western hatred. It would be premature for Obama to announce that the U.S. will open full diplomatic channels with Hamas and Hezbollah, but he needs to make clear that he is prepared to address the underlying causes that have allowed them to flourish, and signal that he is prepared to work with them. As Robert Malley and Hussein Agha point out in a recent piece in the New York Review of Books, the U.S. embrace of Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas actually weakened him, turning him into an Uncle Tom in the eyes of many Palestinians. In similar fashion, Vice President Joe Biden's recent foolish intervention into Lebanese politics -- a rare Obama Middle East misstep -- may have actually strengthened Hezbollah. These groups are not going away, they are not merely proxies for Iran, and Obama needs to recognize that he is going to have to deal with them.

Bush Sin 4: Demonizing Iran and Syria. Bush did this both out of ideological conviction, to punish them for their hard line against Israel, and as a way of lining up a "moderate" Arab coalition against them. Like all of Bush's Middle East policies, this one backfired. Iran is stronger than ever, and the much-vaunted moderate Sunni coalition against Iran was undercut by their publics' anger over the Palestinian issue. As long as Iran and Syria can pose as the defenders of the Palestinians against Israel, the moderate Sunni states will have their hands tied in trying to weaken them.

Obama's antidote: Obama must make it clear that he has a larger vision of regional stability than Bush's bogus let's-all-hate-Iran-together scheme. He should reaffirm his diplomatic outreach to Iran and signal that he does not intend to bludgeon it into submission. (This will also weaken the demagogic appeal of the repellent and incompetent Ahmadinejad in the coming elections.) He should also signal that he intends to return the U.S. ambassador to Syria and bring Damascus into the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, with resolving the Golan Heights issue paramount. As the veteran Mideast commentator Helena Cobban has noted, the U.S.-abetted rift between Hamas and Fatah has made it very difficult to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian crisis without Syria being involved. Syria actually offers a major potential opening for U.S. diplomacy.

Bush Sin 5: His well-meaning but condescending, hypocritical and self-defeating support for reform and democracy. This is the trickiest part of Obama's mission, and the most equivocal part of Bush's legacy. Bush's goals in supporting democracy and reform in the Arab world were justifiable, but those goals foundered on realpolitik. When Bush realized that he needed the support of autocratic regimes like Egypt's and Saudi Arabia's, his interest in supporting reformers suddenly waned. Bush's support for democracy was also deeply hypocritical: He made a big show of supporting the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon, but he refused to deal with Hamas when it was elected in free and fair elections in Gaza.

Obama's antidote: Obama needs to avoid both paternalism and hypocrisy. He must be realistic in assessing the limits of U.S. influence in this area, while at the same time clearly signaling to Arab reformers that the U.S. does not intend to return to the bad old realism in which it tacitly accepted pro-U.S. autocrats who delivered stability. He must signal that he will deal with all democratically elected governments, not just those the U.S. likes. He can thus salvage what was good in Bush's pro-democracy outreach while avoiding its fatal flaws.

This will be a long and difficult process. Perhaps the best thing Obama could do to encourage democracy and reform in the region would be to display a little salutary humility. If he were to acknowledge that the U.S. has not always lived up to its own ideals, that it has made grave errors in the region -- such as toppling Iran's legitimately elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953 -- such an admission would probably go further than anything else in signaling to Obama's audience that he "gets it." A leader who is big enough to admit his country's historic mistakes, and apologize for them, would make a far stronger case for American-style freedom and democracy than one who lectures the rest of the world from a self-righteous pulpit.

Obama has a very deep Mideast hole to dig America out of. But if he says what he needs to say on Thursday, and then follows up on his words, he can make a good start.

By Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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Barack Obama George W. Bush Iran Middle East Terrorism