Al-Ahram Weekly Online   5 - 11 February 2009
Issue No. 933
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Abdus Sattar Ghazali

Will Obama bring change for Muslims?

With the devil in the detail, Obama's foreign policy so far appears alarmingly close to that of the president he replaces, writes Abdus Sattar Ghazali*

In a bid to repair relations that were damaged under the Bush administration, President Barack Obama told the Muslim world Tuesday that "the Americans are not your enemy."

Click to view caption
'Obama's election has aroused optimism in the Muslim world that he will reverse the Bush administration policies that created a negative image of America and fomented anti-American feelings throughout the Arab and Muslim world, and internationally'

In an interview with Al-Arabiya TV channel, Obama said: "My job is to communicate to the Muslim world that the Americans are not your enemy; we sometimes make mistakes; we have not been perfect."

He spoke about Afghanistan, Iran, the Middle East, Al-Qaeda and Guantanamo Bay prison. On the Arab-Israeli conflict, Obama said he believes that the moment is ripe for both sides to realise that the path that they are on is not going to result in prosperity and security for their people. Instead, it's time to return to the negotiating table.

"If we start the steady progress on these issues, I'm absolutely confident that the United States, working in tandem with the European Union, with Russia, with all the Arab states in the region... can make significant progress," Obama told Al-Arabiya.

The interview is part of the new president's outreach to the Muslim world, which includes a promise to make a major address from the capital of a Muslim nation.

There has been mixed reactions to Obama's interview. While many in the Muslim and Arab world welcomed the interview, some looked at it sceptically, pointing out that it was rich in rhetoric but poor in substance. Obama did not offer any change of policy and failed to mention Israel's carnage in Gaza while reaffirming America's support to Israel: "I will continue to believe that Israel's security is paramount."

This says a lot to Arabs and Muslims who have fresh memories of the US-backed 22-day Israeli onslaught that massacred around 1,400 Palestinians, of whom 412 were children and 100 were women. More than 5,000 were injured, 1,855 of who were children and 795 were women, according to UN sources.

While the tone appears to have changed quite substantially, Obama has yet to make clear that policy changes on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will follow, wrote Jim Lobe of the Inter Press News agency.

A reader of Lebanon's The Star newspaper described the interview as window dressing: "The fact that Obama gave this interview to the house media of Saudi sheikhs and the Egyptian dictator -- some "moderates" indeed -- shows that he is insincere. The Arab masses watch and believe Al-Jazeera. By choosing to grant the interview to this State Department-allied media company, he gave an unmistakable message: he talks only to the discredited Arab elites."

"We have to lower our expectations that he has a magic wand to solve all our problems," Reuters quoted Mideast analyst Mustafa Alani as saying. "The Arab attitude is basically optimistic that Obama will turn a new page and his inaugural speech reached out to Muslims, but the devil is in the detail."

"I heard Obama. His tone is different, but I can't believe that any US president can be different when it comes to the Arab-Israeli conflict," Haytham Rafati, in Ramallah, told the Associated Press. "I will believe Obama is different in his approach to the Islamic world only when I see him pulling out his forces from Iraq and pressing Israel on Palestinian rights."

At least 100 comments were listed on Al-Arabiya TV website about Obama's interview, most of them welcoming his new approach to the Muslim world but many not seeing anything new. The following comment perhaps represents the sentiments of those who do not see any change in Obama's policies:

"So now Obama expects us to believe that the US is not the enemy and thus we should forget about the millions of dead and years of death and destruction at the hands of the Americans directly or by proxy. He was saying: 'Muslims are not the enemy, it is only Syria, Hizbullah, Hamas and Iran that we are trying to isolate.' My response to him: America is not the enemy; it is only the US military, CIA and their proxies that we are trying to get off our backs. The most ridiculous part is that while he was trying to please Israel in every step of the speech, he adds insult to injury by trying to divide Muslims, splitting hairs and telling us whom we should support and whom we should not. To me, it is the same old garbage."

Obama's Al-Arabiya TV interview came five days after he signed an executive order to close down Guantanamo Bay prison within a year. That order was one of three the president signed on that day. Another formally bans torture by US interrogators, and a third establishes an interagency task force to set policies for the apprehension, detention, trial, transfer or release of detainees. These orders were signed on his first day of office (22 January) when he also called Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas, followed by calls to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, and Jordan's King Abdullah.

On his second day in office (23 January), President Obama named former Senator George Mitchell, an Arab American and the architect of the peace accord in Northern Ireland, as special envoy to the Middle East. He also appointed Richard Holbrooke as US special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

ENTER GEORGE MITCHELL: Interestingly, whilst announcing George Mitchell's appointment, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did not even mention Palestine and stated that Mitchell would undertake to negotiate between Israel and the Arab states. It was only after Mitchell clearly mentioned Palestine as being the key to the region that Clinton referred to it.

Appearing with Mitchell, President Obama made his first substantive comments on the Middle East conflict since the Israeli massacre of Palestinians in Gaza. He first mentioned his commitment to Israel's security, without affirming any commitment to Palestinian security. He condemned Palestinian rocket attacks on southern Israeli towns, but didn't criticise the US-backed Israeli bombings of densely populated Gaza.

In carefully crafted words, President Obama said: "Let me be clear: America is committed to Israel's security. And we will always support Israel's right to defend itself against legitimate threats." The president concluded his remarks with an endorsement of the Arab peace initiative, saying: "the Arab peace initiative contains constructive elements that could help advance these [peace] efforts. Now is the time for Arab states to act on the initiative's promise by supporting the Palestinian government under President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad, taking steps towards normalising relations with Israel, and by standing up to extremism that threatens us all."

Obama's remarks warrant examination. To cite Noam Chomsky: "So the thrust of his remarks is that Israel has a right to defend itself by force, even though it has peaceful means to defend itself, that the Arab states must move constructively to normalise relations with Israel, very carefully omitting the main part of their proposal, which was that Israel -- that is Israel and the United States -- should join the overwhelming international consensus for a two- state settlement. That's missing."

In short, both President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton, to whom Mitchell will report, have made clear their support for the 22-day Israeli onslaught on Gaza.

As to Mitchell, he chaired the negotiations in Northern Ireland that led to the landmark 1998 Good Friday Agreement, under which the IRA disarmed and Irish Republican politicians joined the provincial government. He later chaired a commission on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict whose report, delivered in April 2001, was ignored by the incoming Bush administration because it called for a freeze on Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

Chomsky argues that Mitchell did quite a commendable job in Ireland but it was possible because Britain took into account for the first time the grievances of the population and hence terror stopped. However, in the case of Israel the situation is quite different. Chomsky says: "He achieved something in Northern Ireland, but of course, in that case there was an objective. The objective was that the British would put an end to the resort to violence in response to IRA terror and would attend to the legitimate grievances that were the source of the terror... But there is no such outcome sketched in the Middle East, specially the Israel-Palestine problem. I mean, there is a solution, a straightforward solution very similar to the British one. Israel could stop its US-backed crimes in the occupied territories and then presumably the reaction to them would stop. But that's not on the agenda."

Chomsky continues: "President Obama just had a press conference... He praised the parabolic Arab peace initiative, the Saudi initiative endorsed by the Arab League, and said it had constructive elements ... and he called on the Arab states to proceed with those 'constructive elements', namely the normalisation of relations. But that is a gross falsification of the Arab League initiative. The Arab League initiative called for accepting a two-state settlement on the international border, which has been a long- standing international consensus, and said if that can be achieved then Arab states can normalise relations with Israel. Well, Obama skipped the first part, the crucial part, the core of the resolution, because that imposes an obligation on the United States. The United States has stood alone for over 30 years in blocking this international consensus... Europe and now a lot of other countries have accepted it. Hamas has accepted it for years, the Palestinian Authority of course, the Arab League now for many years. The US and Israel block it, not just in words, but they are blocking it in actions... happening every day in the occupied territories and also in the siege of Gaza and other atrocities. So when he skips that it is purposeful."

This is what Mitchell had to say: "The Secretary of State has just talked about our long-term objective, and the president himself has said that his administration -- and I quote -- 'will make a sustained push, working with Israelis and Palestinians to achieve the goal of two states: a Jewish state in Israel and a Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security.'"

Chomsky told the Democracy Now : "He [Mitchell] says, 'Yes, we want to have a Palestinian state.' Where, he said not a word about. Lots of pleasantries about everyone should live in peace, and so on, but where is the Palestinian state? Nothing said about the US-backed actions continuing every day, which are undermining any possibility for a viable Palestinian state: the takeover of the territory; the annexation wall... the takeover of the Jordan Valley... the hundreds of mostly arbitrary checkpoints designed to make Palestinian life impossible... not a word about them."

"Mitchell had nothing to say about a Palestinian state. He carefully avoided what he knows for certain is the core problem: the illegal, totally illegal, criminal US-backed actions, which are systematically taking over the West Bank, just as they did under Clinton, and are undermining the possibility for a viable state," Chomsky went on to say.

Apparently, President Obama is giving very little room for Mitchell to involve all the representative forces within Palestine. Obama still believes that Mahmoud Abbas, whose constitutional term expired 9 January 2009, enjoys the support of his people. To borrow from Robert Fisk, "every Arab knows, except perhaps Mr Abbas, he is the leader of a ghost government, a near-corpse only kept alive with the blood transfusion of international support and the 'full partnership' Obama has apparently offered him." The Palestinian Authority is in tatters due to Israeli intransigence and yet Obama wants to exclude the democratically elected Hamas government from the dialogue. This is a sure recipe for a guaranteed disaster and will only serve to reduce any space for manoeuvre for Mitchell who faces the most daunting and onerous task.

NEXT, RICHARD HOLBROOKE: US special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke is a hawk and is currently part of the neoconservative organisation, United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI). He co-authored a statement with the extreme hawk and neocon Dennis Ross that openly threatens military action against Iran. Holbrooke has also been part of the National Endowment for Democracy that advocates "regime change". He is also part of the Council for Foreign Relations that is the bastion of the influential Israeli lobby.

Holbrooke has long been one of the most ruthless American diplomats, going back to his early days in the Foreign Service in Vietnam. In terms of his supposed peace credentials, Holbrooke is best known as the architect of the 1995 Dayton Peace Accords that ended three years of war in Bosnia. According to the BBC, nicknamed "the Bulldozer", Holbrooke has gained a reputation for confronting warring leaders and getting them to come to the negotiating table. These skills will be tested again in his new role as US envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Tellingly, in his encouragement of ethnic cleansing by the Croatian regime of Franjo Tudjman, which drove a quarter of a million Serbs out of the Krajina region of southern Croatia in a 1995 offensive, Holbrooke could deservedly face war crimes charges. He later boasted, in his memoir of the Dayton talks: "Tudjman wanted clarification of the American position. He bluntly asked for my personal views. I indicated my general support for the offensive... I told Tudjman the offensive had great value to the negotiations. It would be much easier to retain at the table what had been won on the battlefield than to get the Serbs to give up territory they had controlled for several years."

Holbrooke was fully aware at the time of the Dayton talks that the Croatian army was carrying out atrocities against the Serbs, and was later quoted saying: "We hired these guys to be our junkyard dogs because we were desperate. We need to try to control them. But this is no time to get squeamish about things."

Clinton said that Holbrooke's mandate would be to "coordinate across the entire government an effort to achieve [the] United States' strategic goals in the region." These goals have little to do with the remnants of Al-Qaeda hiding out in the mountains along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. The real focus of the intervention, under Obama as much as under Bush, is to establish the US as the principal power in the oil-rich region of Central Asia.

A pipeline from the Dauletabad gas field of Turkmenistan through to Herat and Kandahar, then Multan, in Pakistan and on to the Indian Ocean remains a strategic goal for Washington. Caspian Sea oil and gas are the near equivalent in potential value to Arab Gulf resources, but are surrounded by Iran and Russia. A pipeline from Azerbaijan reaches through Georgia to end on Turkey's Mediterranean coast, but in a time of crisis Russia could easily seal it off. The international contract for pipeline construction was signed shortly after the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, but work has not been feasible because the construction site is largely under Taliban control. The desire to control the area around Kandahar for this purpose is likely a factor in United States troop increases.

According to Professor Gary Leupp of Tufts University, Holbrooke will argue that more needs to be done to stop attacks on Afghanistan from Pakistan, and will thus justify the continued US policy of violating Pakistan's sovereignty with missile attacks. Holbrooke may also engineer Afghan President Hamid Karzai's ouster, work with General David McKiernan to make Afghanistan the centre of the war on terror, and try to pacify the country enough to build the pipeline. Meanwhile, he'll keep the pressure on Pakistan to go after the Taliban, even as the Taliban and their supporters and imitators proliferate, while the US continues to bomb Pakistan, insulting its national pride, violating international law, outraging its legislators, provoking official protests and mass demonstrations.

It is clear that Obama has accepted the Bush doctrine that the United States can bomb Pakistan freely. On 23 January, his second day in office, President Obama gave the go-ahead for twin US missile strikes against targets in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Area region that killed 21 innocent civilians. Since August, 38 US drone strikes in Pakistan have killed nearly 150 people. Militants have responded by killing dozens of alleged US spies in the area.

FINALLY, DENNIS ROSS: President Obama told Al-Arabiya that the US would in the next few months map out a general framework of policy towards Tehran. "It is very important for us to make sure that we are using all the tools of US power, including diplomacy, in our relationship with Iran. As I said in my inauguration speech, if countries like Iran are willing to unclench their fist, they will find an extended hand from us."

Obama had been expected to appoint former ambassador Dennis Ross, president Bill Clinton's special Middle East envoy, to a third post that would handle US relations with Iran. But Ross's aggressive campaign for the post, as well as his close association with key groups that make up the Israel lobby, appears to have incited a backlash among key Obama advisers, reportedly including Clinton herself, which may have delayed his appointment, according to Jim Lobe.

Ross, an Iran baiter, supported the war on Iraq that Obama opposed. Ross also served with the pro-Israel think tank, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP) as well as the Jerusalem-based Jewish People Policy Planning Institute (JPPPI). Ross co-authored the report Meeting the Challenge: US Policy towards Iranian Nuclear Development. This report alludes to an Iranian nuclear programme, a charge debunked by the CIA National Intelligence Report of November 2007 that confirmed that Iran's nuclear programme was long on hold. The Ross report calls for the military encirclement of Iran, pressure on Iran to abrogate its nuclear programme, leading to the logical conclusion where "war becomes inevitable".

To borrow from Leupp, in Ross Obama is sending Iranian leaders a clear message. "He is associating himself with the most extreme and alarmist positions currently articulated, including those of Norman Podhoretz."

Ross also co-authored an op-ed with Richard Holbrooke, James Woolsey and Mark Wallace entitled, "Everybody Needs to Worry About Iran". The op- ed, published in The Wall Street Journal, 22 September 2008, stated: "Iran is now edging closer to being armed with nuclear weapons, and it continues to develop a ballistic-missile capability." As Professor Leupp states: "This contradicts the conclusion of all 16 US intelligence agencies [Central Intelligence Agency, Army Military Intelligence, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, the National Reconnaissance Office, the National Security Agency, etc.] as of November 2007. Those authors reported: 'We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons programme. In other words, in the world of empirical methods, critical thinking and analysis, the world of hundreds of trained professionals who've actually researched Iran's nuclear programme, with access to spy satellite data, reports from agents in the field, electronic surveillance, Iran has no nuclear programme. Mohamed El-Baradei and IAEA staffers on the ground have consistently said that Iran has been thoroughly cooperative and that there are no signs of any diversion for a military programme. But in the world of this Chicken Little group Iran is edging ever nearer to nukes."

The editorial describes the alleged nuclear programme as "destabilising" (while noting that Russia, China, India, Pakistan and Israel all have nuclear weapons) and repeats the old Cheney-ism that since Iran has so much oil it can't have any possible need for a civilian nuclear energy programme. (The Iranian nuclear programme was encouraged by the Nixon, Ford and Carter administrations when the shah was in power and supported by General Electric and other US firms). It also repeats the old charge that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad threatened to wipe Israel off the map (adding that he allegedly said it could be done with one nuke) and generally assembles all the Bush-era anti-Iran talking-points: Iran sponsors Hizbullah and Hamas terrorism; the Tehran regime's repressive stance towards women and homosexuals; that Iran could shut off the Strait of Hormuz, etc.

In conclusion, the authors announce the establishment, along with other policy advocates from across the political spectrum, of the nonpartisan group, United Against Nuclear Iran.

Professor Leupp says Ross is known to favour the recommendations of a September 2008 report by the Bipartisan Policy Centre. These include forcing Iran to suspend uranium enrichment and meet other demands by imposing blockades on Iranian gas imports and oil exports (acts of war) as well as striking not only Iran's nuclear infrastructure, but also its conventional military infrastructure in order to suppress an Iranian response. So it looks like the official Obama line towards Iran, at least for the time being, will be the Cheney-neocon line. And that is worrisome.

AND OBAMA? So what foreign policy change is to be expected from the Obama administration? State policy does not change with the changing of politicians, but is laid out years in advance. This is clear in the case of Obama, in part because of deep expectations of change. It is probable there will be none. This was also brought home by former Pakistan president Pervez Musharraf, commenting on the latest US missile attacks on Pakistan: "But as far as this issue of the new president -- President Obama having taken over and this continuing -- I have always been saying that policies don't change with personalities; policies have national interest, and policies depend on an environment. So the environment and national interest of the United States being the same, I thought policies will remain constant," Musharraf told CNN.

Obama's election has aroused optimism in the Muslim world that he will reverse the Bush administration policies that created a negative image of America and fomented anti-American feelings throughout the Arab and Muslim world, and internationally. President Obama said in his Al-Arabiya interview that, "ultimately people are going to judge me not by my words but by my actions, and my administration's actions." Let us hope that his policies will bring peace to all.

* The writer is executive editor of the online magazine American Muslim Perspective (

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