Friday, January 30, 2009
OBAMA'S ODD ISLAMIC OUTREACH
January 29, 2009
IN his "first message to the Muslim world" Tuesday, President Obama on Al-Arabiya TV invited the Islamic Republic in Iran to "unclench its fist" and accept his offer of "un conditional talks." A few hours later, after Obama had appeared on the Saudi-owned satellite-TV channel, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told a crowd of militants that no talks are possible unless the United States met a set of conditions.
He demanded a formal apology for unspecified US "crimes" against Iran and the Islamic world. The crucial condition, however, was that America should withdraw its troops from other countries, "taking them back to their own territory."
The contrast couldn't have been greater. Obama tried to be as conciliatory as possible - asking only for an "unclenching" of the Iranian fist - a change of style. Ahmadinejad asked for concrete US moves, notably a global military retreat that would leave the Middle East at Tehran's mercy.
In the understatement of the year, Obama said: "Iran has acted in ways not conducive to peace and prosperity in the region." He also claimed that Iran's support for terrorists, though "not helpful," is a thing of the past - yet Tehran was running guns to Hezbollah and Hamas even as he spoke.
ON Al-Arabiya, Obama did something more interest ing: He cast himself in the role of a bridge between America and the Muslim world, a kind of honest broker between two camps in conflict.
To hammer in the point, he recalled the Muslim part of his own family background and his childhood in Muslim Indonesia - a topic he'd carefully avoided during the campaign. He also asserted that America is a land of "Muslims, Christians, Jews" and others - making sure to mention Muslims first.
At times, Obama sounded like a marriage counselor. He said his job is to communicate to Americans that "the Muslim world is full of extraordinary people who simply want to live their lives and see their children live better lives." On the other hand, he said, he'd also tell the Muslims that "Americans are not your enemy."
Obama looked to the past rather than the future to give such platitudes a tinge of political vision. He said he wanted a return "to the same respect and partnership that America had with the Muslim world as recently as 20 or 30 years ago."
The problem is that few people in the Muslim world will welcome his back-to-the-future approach. Thirty years ago, Obama was a teenager in Indonesia. Vice President Joseph Biden, however, was already a senator and a champion of President Jimmy Carter's strategic retreat.
What was happening during what Obama seems to regard as the "golden age" of Carter's leadership? US diplomats were held hostage in Tehran and daily humiliated with mock executions. Soviet troops were annexing Afghanistan to the Evil Empire. Saddam Hussein was preparing to invade Iran, starting an eight-year war that claimed a million lives. Mecca was under siege by the ideological antecedents of Osama bin Laden. Syrian troops were preparing to march into Lebanon.
OTHER features of this "golden age": the seizure of power by mullahs in Tehran, the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, the coming to power of communists in the Horn of Africa, the military coup in Turkey, the first Islamist terror attacks in Algeria, unprecedented waves of repression in Egypt and Saudi Arabia and the imposition of military rule in Pakistan.
During the same period, and its immediate aftermath, dozens of Americans from many walks of life were seized as hostages and sometimes brutally murdered in several Muslim countries. The US ambassador in Sudan was murdered; the CIA station chief in Beirut abducted, taken to Tehran and killed under torture.
A similarly dark picture could be drawn of the situation 20 years ago, when America was arming the mujahedin in Afghanistan while Saddam Hussein was preparing to invade Kuwait.
And the first President George Bush was then trying to court the Iranian mullahs in much the same way as Obama is trying today. But the mullahs were training and arming Hezbollah units in Lebanon and opening channels to Palestinian radicals who would soon re-emerge as Hamas. Saddam was gassing thousands of Kurds to death, while Turkey was dragged into a full-scale war on Kurdish communist secessionists. Meanwhile, the Libyan terror network was killing American GIs in Europe and blowing up US jetliners over Western skies.
No - that was no golden age, either.
THE truth is that the Middle East is not much better off than at any time since its emergence as a geopolitical unit after World War I. Thanks to the transformation of America from a power guaranteeing the deadly status quo into one that supports reform and change, the region has started to experience new currents of democratization.
Afghanistan and Iraq have been liberated, their peoples given a chance to build new systems of their own choice. The Syrians have been kicked out of Lebanon. Libya has been disarmed. Egypt has been forced to allow multiparty presidential elections. More than a dozen Arab states have adopted constitutions and introduced some form of electoral politics. Kuwaiti women have won the right to vote and get elected.
Iran's democratic forces are encouraged to launch their campaign against the mullahs. The Islamists have been roundly defeated in Algeria, Egypt, Yemen and Saudi Arabia.
For the first time, the question of democracy is top of the political agenda in virtually every Muslim state.
Obama should remember that he is the president of the United States - not an impartial broker. It was unfortunate that he described himself as a bridge. For a bridge has no personality of its own and cares little about who might cross it and in which direction.
IF this was meant as the first direct contact between Obama and the Mus lim world, the Al-Arabiya interview must be rated as a missed opportunity.
Obama's remarks about the Israel-Palestine issue were so trite as to merit no analysis. He said he was sending former Sen. George Mitchell to listen to all sides - as if the world has not been hearing their stories for more than six decades.
The president appeared apologetic, offering no hope for democratization and economic development. He made no mention of the economic meltdown that is creating unprecedented mass unemployment in many countries of the region.
Nor did he offer any support to democratic forces facing crucial elections in Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, the Palestinian territories, Egypt and Algeria this year.
He had nothing to say about the thousands of Iranian workers who have been thrown into prison solely because they created independent trade unions. Nor did he mention Iranian women's courageous "a million signatures campaign" or the series of student revolts that have been crushed by the mullahs with exceptional violence.
Nor was there any nod toward reformers in Saudi Arabia and Egypt or the heroic Lebanese democratic leaders who are fighting to preserve their nation's independence from Iran and Syria.
Obama didn't call for the release of the tens of thousands of political prisoners held in more than two dozen Muslim countries or a moratorium on executions that each year cost the lives of hundreds of dissidents.
CASTING himself in the role of a "bridge" and dreaming of a return to an illusionary past, Obama appeared unsure of his own identity and confused about the role that America should play in global politics. And that is bad news for those who believe that the United States should use its moral, economic and political clout in support of democratic forces throughout the world.
Guest Comments: In his interview on Al Arabiya, Obama demonstrated how little he understands about foreign affairs or even the history of events in the Muslim world. The author says that he acted more like a marriage counselor than a world leader. In reaching out, he was undoubtedly seen a begging-- a position of weakness. not strength . Aggie