Al-Ahram Weekly Online   11 - 17 June 2009
Issue No. 951
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Azmi Bishara

From Cairo with love

The Arabs applauded Bush's vision of a Palestinian state before the end of his term in office. Why expect anything better from Obama, asks Azmi Bishara

The US president has announced that he is going to address the Islamic world. Let's listen to what he has to say. The Arab media has heralded the event using the same words, saying that "the US president is to deliver a speech addressing the Islamic world." The countdown to the event has been marked with such expressions as "the awaited speech" and the "expected address".

It is hard to say why the Arab media struggled to predict what the president would say in his message for more than a week -- as if we were on the verge of a war or the signing of a peace treaty. Would knowledge in advance have helped in any way? Would it have clued us in to any steps we might take before the anticipated event, for example? But why not just wait to see what he would say?

There was no compelling reason to attempt a forecast. Even if someone had some insight into what was in the speech, he or she was not going to pre-empt it by declaring some course of political action. But then a forecast was not really the point. After all, a media professional is not a soothsayer or an oracle. Instead, he is in the business of creating expectations, building suspense, shaping moods and moulding these elements into a pattern and steering them in a certain direction. Expressions like "historic visit" and "landmark speech" are the materials he works with.

As a result, and contrary to what is commonly believed, the US president did not have to mount a public-relations campaign. Others were already doing this for him and creating the type of interest he needs.

Of course, the purpose of the speech was not really to address the Islamic world. It was to present a new US foreign-policy approach to the region. Indeed, much of what was contained in Obama's speech he had said before in his speech to State Department staff, in his speech in Turkey, and in his address to the Iranian people. He was elected to change US political rhetoric, and anyone who cannot see that it has changed is blind. For change had to come. It was inevitable not because of those who applaud US policy unconditionally, whether now or in the past, but because Arab resistance and other factors had combined to destroy Washington's previous approach to the region and the rhetoric it had used with regard to the issues of Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon.

Yet, the Arab media went ahead anyway and echoed the title Obama had chosen for his address -- an "Address to the Islamic world" -- and in doing so it compounded the force of his rhetoric. It stirred a tendency to hyperbole and a willingness to believe that everything Obama said was new. It also represented the Islamic world as if it were a homogeneous whole, and as if those who lived in it were wringing their hands in confusion, unable to put their minds at rest until they had heard what Obama had to say. After hearing it, they would reward him by taking his speech as the beginning of a new era.

However, the Islamic world is far from homogenous. It is made up of friends and allies of the US to varying degrees, and enemies and opponents of the US to varying degrees. Obama cannot possibly address all these at once within the same framework, least of all when American missiles are currently "addressing" Muslims in Afghanistan and Waziristan and other Muslims in the same countries are carrying out such policies. Furthermore, it seems unlikely that Muslims in Indonesia were waiting politely to hear the US president's speech from Cairo.

It would have made more sense, and would have been easier to accept, if Obama had claimed that he would be addressing the Arab world from Cairo. However, this was not what he claimed. Washington had evidently decided to keep the term "Arab world" out of circulation except in the context of the Arab peace initiative. Maybe it was not all that odd that the Arabs, who have been reaffirming their Arab identity in the face of Iran, were not keen to reaffirm their Arab identity in the context of this "historic" visit.

The US president is an oratorical phenomenon, and he brings a smooth and cultured polemical talent to his task. He was swept into power on a tide of change. This president has undoubtedly gladdened the hearts of America's conservative allies in the Islamic world because he does not strive, and nor does he claim, to strive for a "democratic revolution" in the Arab world like the previous neoconservatives.

Instead, he speaks a language of pragmatism that is characteristic of the conservatives of the past, a language that, as in the past and as remains the case today, betrays the hypocrisy of American "progressive" liberalism when its most senior representative, the president, needs to sing the praises of a king with whom he has nothing whatsoever in common. Such has been the fate of this liberal Harvard graduate who, after coming to power on the crest of a youthful wave of change, finds himself following a conventional conservative line and espousing common interests as the foremost criterion of foreign policy.

Of course, interests are elegantly wrapped up in noble-sounding allusions to a "meeting" and "dialogue" of civilisations, a "respect" for other cultures and for "the other" instead of a "clash of civilisations". This is the kind of balancing act that the current US president is so good at because of his proficiency in progressive jargon and because of the political correctness that he so amply demonstrated during his electoral campaign.

Both discourses -- the dialogue of civilisations as well as their clash -- derive from a framework that divides the world politically into civilisations. Yet, even so, hypocrisy is still better than war. This feature of the president's message to the Islamic world was epitomised by his praise for the official Arab order, and here the hypocrisy was two-fold. There was false modesty in handling relative positions and displaying respect with the aim of winning affection, while at the same time concealing an underestimation of others' intelligence. The hypocrite extols what he would not ordinarily admire, and he selectively exaggerates things that merit admiration. He dissimulates in order to win someone over regardless of ethical contradiction in the hope of gaining some advantage over that person or getting something out of him. It is one of the ugliest forms of politics.

If Obama homed in on the radiant face of Islam, relying on Quranic verses that were greeted with enthusiastic rounds of applause from audiences eager to hear Islam being recognised in the West, let us not forget that this is also the person who treated the word "Muslim" as a kind of slander when he was accused of being one during the US presidential election campaign.

Now that he is free of the constraints of that campaign and of the scrutiny of his former opponent John McCain and of the right in America regarding his relationship with Islam, he can give expression to his hypocrisy on this score and on others. As we have seen, Obama is an expert at balancing acts: while he is for democracy, he is against exporting it; he is for the war in Afghanistan, but against the one in Iraq; he condemns Palestinian violence, though not the violence of the occupation, though he does criticise the settlements. It all boils down to stereotypes, all these words and sentiments that bring neither good nor harm in reality. If someone were to point out his omissions with regard to Israeli violence, then he might well declare his opposition to it in his next speech, or justify it in the manner in which he said that he was opposed to the war on Iraq, but that toppling Saddam was a good thing.

Colonialist hypocrisy was hardly invented by the new US president. Take Napoleon, for example. At the beginning of his expedition against Egypt in 1798, Napoleon addressed the sheikhs and scholars of Al-Azhar and opened what he had to say with the declaration of faith. According to the Egyptian chronicler Abdel-Rahman Al-Jibarti, Napoleon proclaimed, "In the name of God, the Just, the Merciful; there is no God but He; He was not begotten, nor has He begot; no partner hath He in his kingdom.... O Egyptians! You have been told that I have come to this land with the intention of eradicating your religion. But that is a clear lie; do not believe it [...]. I [...] worship God, glory be to Him, and respect His Prophet and the great Quran [...] O you sheikhs, judges, imams, and leading men of the country, tell your people that the French are also sincere Muslims. [... The French] entered Rome and destroyed the throne of the Pope, who had always urged Christians to combat Islam. Then they marched to Malta, from whence they expelled the knights who claimed that God, exalted is He, sought of them that they fight the Muslims."

I can only add that Napoleon, who claimed that he and the rest of the French were Muslims and that his armies had defeated the Vatican because the Pope had urged Christians to wage war against Islam, also called for the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine almost a century before Herzl and the birth of the Zionist movement. No matter how the new US president indulges in the language of political correctness and in his "on the one hand, ... but on the other" formulas that are calibrated to upset no one, he will never attain the heights of the hypocritical orators that the Arabs today, and their ancestors in the past, have heard and would probably prefer not to remember.

Conservative Arabs will thrill at the pragmatism of the new US president, as well as at his disinclination to export democracy and his desire to work with the existing Arab and Islamic regimes on the basis of mutual interest, all packaged in the language of civilisational dialogue, tolerance and mutual respect. But they will not thrill if the same spirit of pragmatism is exhibited towards Iran.

Neo-liberal Arabs, on the other hand, who had a meeting of minds with the neoconservatives over exporting democratic revolution at the end of an American gun, will be disappointed. However, they will find recompense in their ability to praise the US openly, now that it has officially abandoned belligerency in favour of diplomacy and the language of peace. When the US changes tack again because of Iranian "intransigence", or because of its refusal to abandon uranium enrichment, or because it has been unable to strike a deal with Tehran, then people in the Gulf and elsewhere will continue to sing the US's praises when it tightens sanctions against Iran.

Those Arabs who agreed with everything the last US president said will probably not care one way or another about what the new president says or about any analysis of it. They will agree with the US president regardless. It is not as if the US's Arab allies had any serious qualms about what Bush used to come up with, and they are now relieved at what the new president has to say. Whatever the US president says is good by definition from the point of view of these regimes, which take it as their duty to accept and justify what the US president says, and what the next US president says, even if it turns out that different US presidents are saying exactly opposite things. This is the only strategy they have to their name.

I do not intend to dredge up Bush's remarks about Islam, extremism, moderation, and good and evil, with all of which America's conservative Arab allies agreed, nor do I intend to dredge up his remarks about the democratic imperative, with which America's neo-liberal Arab allies agreed. Even if these two sets of opinions were polls apart in theory, they were not that far away from each other in practice. Bush at that time was their answer, and their alliances with him were sufficient for both the neo-liberal and the undemocratic regimes. Instead, I will simply turn to the roadmap.

Why should the Arabs hope for anything new from the new US president with regard to Palestine, having agreed so enthusiastically to Bush's roadmap and having fixed their demands on Israel's fulfilling its obligations under the plan after the Palestinians had carried out theirs? That they should not hope for much was clearly demonstrated during the war on Gaza. The Palestinian Authority (PA) on the West Bank not only repressed the resistance forces, but it also clamped down on peaceful demonstrations of solidarity with the people in Gaza. By so doing, the PA argued, the Palestinians would be in a position to insist that Israel meet its obligations under the roadmap because they were demonstrating their commitment to the destruction of terrorist infrastructure. The Arabs applauded Bush's vision, and today they are applauding Obama's. Bush envisioned a Palestinian state before the end of his term. Why expect anything from Obama, who has made exactly the same pledge?

It is true that the US has changed. It also changed in the eras of Roosevelt, Kennedy and Reagan. But the problem resides elsewhere, namely in changing the political mentalities of the Arab regimes.

Washington is taking a new tone towards Israel, one more in tune with the Zionist left than with the Zionist right. It is insisting on the "rights of two peoples", while still according the Jewish state the higher value and painting a picture of equality where there is none. Still, one must acknowledge the new tone.

Yet, this tone is not only the product of a change in the US. There has also been a change of tone in Israel. The Israeli government refuses to make a verbal commitment to freezing settlement activity, as did the previous government to the Bush administration. This government also refuses to make a verbal commitment to a two-state solution, as did the previous government under Olmert.

Obama's refusal to recommit to Bush's letter of assurance to Sharon led Netanyahu to refuse to recommit to Bush's vision of a two- state solution. The Israeli attitude has shifted further to the right, and the US attitude has reacted to that shift. That is the only difference. On the Palestinian question, in particular, there has been no real change in the US position. The new Israeli government has rejected the basis of a return to the so-called "peace process", though this is what Obama has pledged to the Arabs. In addition to adopting a tougher tone towards Israel, he has also pledged to pressure Israel into returning to the "peace process". The US and its Arab allies need this ongoing "process" as a kind of muzak, one that is essential to setting the mood for Arab moderation.

The problem is not whether or not the US has changed, something which in any case will not be manifest in a lecture or visit. The problem is the lack of agreed Arab interests and the lack of a strategy for attaining them. Without these things, the Arabs have little hope of reaping the benefits of changes in the US, apart from some relief at the change in tone and atmosphere.

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