Al-Ahram Weekly Online   2 - 8 July 2009
Issue No. 954
Interview
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

'The bottom line'

John Esposito tells Amira Howeidy now that Barack Obama is president of the United States and not a hopeful candidate he needs to move forward, get new faces into his administration and deliver


John L Esposito's academic fame and his specialisation in issues like political Islam and Muslim-Christian relations make him something of an international intellectual celebrity as well as a magnet for neoconservative criticism back home. Over the past 35 years Esposito, professor of religion and international affairs and of Islamic studies at Georgetown University, has authored and co-authored more than 30 books covering Islamic movements from North Africa to South East Asia, among other issues. A consultant to the Department of State as well as to corporations, universities and the media, Esposito, 69, is an authority on many of today's more pressing political affairs, issues that have, if anything, become more relevant with the election of a US president who has committed himself to improving his country's relationship with the Muslim world.

During a visit to Cairo this week, Al-Ahram Weekly caught up with Esposito in his Nile-view hotel for an hour-long interview in which he tried to piece together Obama, America's image, the Jewish lobby, America's seven million Muslims, Iran and Egypt.

THE 'NEW' US ADMINISTRATION: More than five months into his office as president of the United States, and almost a month after his Cairo speech, many people in this part of the world are still attempting to map out the composition, character and spirit of Barack Obama's administration. It is the received wisdom that Obama, personally, represents a very new and fresh chapter in American politics. Why, then, do so many aspects of his administration smack of the Bush era?

"I think his vision and words are different from the Bush administration," says Esposito, "but it's still not clear to what extent, on the hot button issues, his powers will be different."

Among Obama's staff are people like his special envoy to the Middle East, George Mitchell who, in Esposito's words, "were surprisingly new", but then there are also former state department officials under Bush, such as Dennis Ross, who until recently was Obama's choice for US envoy to Iran.

The US ambassador to Iraq, Christopher R. Hill, who was appointed last April, "was closely associated with Bush and the neocons," points out Esposito. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton herself, "reversed many of her earlier positions... on Palestine and Israel... once she became New York senator".

In examining appointments at the State Department, the question for Esposito isn't who is there, but who isn't .

"Where is the representation of prominent Middle East and human rights experts?" he asks. "Many understood why, given domestic political realities, he kind of distanced himself when dealing with Muslims. Some said this is practical and pragmatic." But now that he's president Esposito questions the absence from the new administration of people who represent a different perspective.

It's a question that becomes relevant, for example, with appointments like that of Farah Pandith -- an Indian Muslim American, previously a very committed Bush administration member -- as US Representative to Muslim Communities. "Are there no other Muslim Americans who could provide a new and fresh face?"

Obama has yet to make a lot of appointments but "a year from now people ought to be able to look and say, if there are seven million Muslims in America where, in the bureaucracy, in terms of ambassadors, do we see it reflected? What we do see is quickly moving to put [people like] Dennis Ross in but where do we see that other side in the appointments? We don't. Mitchel is very good, but is regarded as very middle of the road, which is fine, but we don't see that other side."

He recounts that during Bill Clinton's second term "you had preponderance of people who were Jewish Americans, who represented, at the end of the day, a position that was closer to Israel... Ross, Martin Indyk and a host of people".

"When have we seen Arabs and Palestinians in government? Who are the experts going to be that you see in the National Security Council in positions of significance [and] in the State Department who represent not only new places, but clearly new and alternative perspectives?"

Esposito believes that part of the challenge facing Obama is having to "not just talk, in some ways tinkering and adjusting" but actually to flesh out the new paradigm he is seen to represent.

He cites the argument of Aaron Miller, an advisor to previous Republican and Democratic administrations, who believes that the only way forward for Palestine and Israel is for the US, Israel and the Palestinians to realise that "a new paradigm" is needed.

"The old paradigm has been tried over and over again, adjusted, failed... People who represent that [old] paradigm should not be part of the new administration, however good they were."

So what's stopping Obama from moving forward? And why does he seem to adopt a discourse that sets him apart from his staff? Following the recent Iranian crisis, for example, Obama said that dialogue with Tehran was still possible. A few hours later his top advisor, David Axelrod, announced that either Iran joins the international community, or seeks another path with "very stark consequences".

The "bottom line", says Esposito, "is that this is where the challenge is going to come. Obama has to deal with the realities of American Politics."

AMERICAN POLITICS: Obama's most pronounced political formulation to date came in his 4 June Cairo speech, which Esposito thinks reflective of his "new way forward". (He was consulted by White House officials on the content of the speech the night before it was made).

"The real test is going to be when it comes to what gets done."

One of the first issues he will have to deal with is the Middle East, particularly Israel, Palestine and Iran, says Esposito. And "he's got to deal with Congress that tends to tilt very strongly towards Israel".

He recounts how, when Menachem Begin was Israel's prime minister and he disagreed with the American president on US policy, "he came to the US and felt free to say publicly, I'm not coming here to speak to the president, I'm coming to talk to my friends in Congress".

As well as the Jewish lobby Obama must also deal with the Republicans.

"This is a party that is disappearing. It has no leadership, polls show that in terms of its actual supporters its percentages are incredibly low." But it is aggressively critical of Obama on a host of issues, including Iran. Even prior to the election crisis Obama was dubbed too soft and the more the situation deteriorates in Iran, says Esposito, the more the Republicans will push.

But does this mean that after his initial silence Obama was pressured to speak out against Iran because of the Republicans?

"No, I think the really hard statements were a genuine reaction. I do believe he's a man of character and principles but he's also being pressured from behind by Republicans who are in effect saying you're not talking strong enough and we want you to think about action, sanctions and military options."

DOUBLE STANDARDS? Part of the debate triggered by the Iran crisis, in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world, remains: if Obama was acting out of genuine concern for the killing of Iranians in Tehran why was he so silent during Israel's war on Gaza in which more than 1,400 Palestinians were killed?

Esposito says he was personally "critical" of that. But the "reality" is there's "only one president" and president-elect Obama was not yet president during the Gaza war.

It is an argument that does not resonate well in the Middle East. As the same president-elect, Obama had no problem condemning the November Mumbai bombings, a classic case of double standards, believe many.

"I think Obama is a man who's incredibly brilliant, he sees the issues, but he's also a political realist. As candidate he was a political realist. If you asked me do I think Obama should have spoken out on a number of issues dealing with the Muslim community in America, with Gaza etc I would say 'yes'. But if you would say to me, if I were his political advisor and he's asking me my advice in terms of being elected would I have advised him to speak out, I would say 'no'."

But now he's president.

"I think Obama is challenged as someone who says he's presenting a new vision, who has a moral commitment to change. I think he's going to be challenged to deliver." Esposito's response to "realists" who argue that Obama cannot, in light of the political realities, be evenhanded on Palestine and Israel, is: "I say he has to be a president like no other president... [which means] he will be willing to say that there are issues that are so important that he's going to lead on them, even if that's going to cost him in terms of his re- election or his party."

"What we need is a president of conscience on these international issues who's willing to do [what's right] because if he doesn't, I think he has political risk internationally."

Having "raised the bar and the expectations of people globally," that is going to be the "yard stick by which he'll be judged and by which America will be judged. If he doesn't deliver significantly on these things then anti-Americanism will really go up because the very people who were euphoric will feel totally betrayed and will play into those who incorrectly said, well, this is just a new face, and those who said we haven't seen him depart from Bush policy."

It's good, for example, that Obama reassured people that he will pull out of Iraq, he says, "but people will say he said that before, what's new? On the other hand we're going into Afghanistan. Now if we wind up going in and we suddenly discover we have to stay in longer, if there are high numbers of civilians that are killed in the process etc, people are going to say this is really an extension of the Bush approach. And if, on Palestine and Israel, at the end of the day there is no significant movement, he has to get to a point, at least privately, before he even says it publicly, to be able to say to the Israelis it's not just a matter of Palestinian violence that has to cease if you want to move forward, it's Israeli illegitimate violence and terrorising that has to cease. He's got to be able to say we need a settlement freeze now... and if we're going to move forward we have to talk about territory, and that ultimately means the dismantling of settlements. You're not going to have an acceptable two-state solution if the best that you have is a freeze on settlements."

On Palestine and Israel: "He reassured the Israelis, and supporters of Israel, of American support... But he also gave the impression that he favoured, and was going to move within his lifetime as president, towards the creation of a Palestinian state and one in which Jerusalem is part of that resolution... He used the buzzwords occupation and humiliation. If a place is occupied who is the occupier? If people are humiliated who is doing the humiliation? There was a clear message there."

IRAN: Many would argue that Obama's popularity in the Arab world following his statements on the Iranian elections last week has been compromised. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is hailed by many as a symbol of defiance for his anti-Israel rhetoric and for Iran's nuclear energy programme. So why, when Ahmadinejad enjoys a considerable constituency at home, are US and European governments so eager to contest the election results and support the opposition in the absence of strong evidence of fraud?

Esposito isn't surprised. He also finds it justified. "The fact is Iran, Europe and the US have had a complicated history which plays out in Iranian attitudes at times being obsessed with the US and vice versa. Look at [leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran] Ali Khamenei, just recently he doesn't even try to be specific. He makes general denunciations and everybody yells 'death to Israel'. Ahmadinejad is engaged in rhetoric which he thinks works for him, whether it's on the Holocaust -- which is deliberately provocative -- or on the nuclear issue and the West in general. So clearly, I would say, officials in Europe and the US would like to see and welcome a change. And there's good reason for it and it's not just a question of Ahmadinejad. The fact is you have every indication that a significant number of people in Iran feel totally oppressed by the regime."

So is this about Ahmadinejad's provocations of the West or Iran's domestic politics and elections? Much of what Iran is criticised for occurs elsewhere with Washington's Arab allies but that doesn't cause international uproar. There's a "big difference" is Esposito's answer. "I think it's more nuanced than that. One challenge that Obama has is the democracy issue. For the US to be credible it has to be able to say, we don't intervene in countries but we feel free to state, to talk to and to watch the kind of aid that we give to indicate that we want to see strong civil societies and we want to see democratisation and that has to be done in a balanced way.

"If you're going to say to those with a clinched fist we're willing to work with you if you do x, you have to say to those with a velvet glove we're willing to work with you but you have to do x. And that's a problem. While there is talk to indicate concern about human rights and promoting democratisation, a short time ago military aid to Egypt was increased by 25 per cent. When economic assistance was given to NGOs, the accepted requirement was there be no strings attached. That's where we're vulnerable."

Despite the war of words between Washington and Tehran, Obama was quoted as saying he thinks dialogue with Iran is still possible. Esposito believes that from Obama's side it is indeed possible, believing the US president would "genuinely respond to an Iran that is responsive". But he's less certain about the rest of the administration's willingness to support dialogue. "Nobody knows what's going to happen and there's a great chance the Iranians will make things even more difficult."

But isn't it understandable that Tehran would respond aggressively to the international community's obsession with its election, the way any other government in the region would should it come under similar attack?

"It's not the irregularities," argues Esposito, "it's what happened afterwards, when people got killed."

But Germany's Angela Merkel attacked the regime before people got killed.

"I think Merkel went too far, there's no doubt about it. Merkel is not Obama."

Is he saying the US was more cautious, if not diplomatic, than Europe?

"Obama was definitely more balanced in his approach and I think his language escalated as the situation in Iran escalated. What's interesting here is that it's primarily Obama who has spoken out on this... he didn't duck. He's been the one defining the response and it's been measured and balanced. And if he hadn't made his rhetoric stronger he would have been seen in the international community as unconscionable."

Esposito is a long time expert on Iran. Asked if there are foreign agents in Iran seeking to destabilise it, his reply is an unequivocal "yes, there are". So doesn't this give the Iranian regime reason to be paranoid?

"No" he says. "I would argue that the other way too. The US has every right to listen to people that are saying you're just way too soft. The fact is the track record has been established under Ahmadinejad and Khamenei, the situation in Iran compared to the Mohamed Khatami years have gotten worse. In Ahmadinejad's time things have been tough: suppression, imprisonment, levels of torture, people disappearing, killed. And provocative language... If the US had engaged in similar language the Iranian nation would rise up... Today I don't see any reason why, given what Iran is physically doing to its people on the ground, you can expect the president of the United States to remain silent."

EGYPT: Would the president of the US react the same way with Egypt should the violations of previous elections recur?

"It will be a test for US-Egyptian relations."

Would Obama openly criticise Egypt if people are arrested in elections and there is violence and rigging?

"I certainly expect it."

But isn't Cairo too important for Obama? He described President Hosni Mubarak as a force of stability.

"I would distinguish between Egypt and any specific government. I don't think that specific governments, such as Egypt and Tunisia, while they're important, should not be held accountable."

Esposito takes issue with how previous administrations, from Bill Clinton to George Bush, "always had a gap between their democratic rhetoric" and what happened on the ground. "When a crisis happened they went silent or issued a soft statement."

Asked how Gamal Mubarak, the president's younger son and high ranking National Democratic Party official, is perceived in Washington as a possible successor, Esposito says: "We say there is movement towards democratisation when in fact what we have is the use of democratic language for states that continue to have control, if not more control, and a new form of succession. Instead of coups you pass it on to the son. You have the Syrian example and then you have rumours with regard to Egypt and Libya and a lot of people wouldn't be surprised if it happened."

"People think it a strong likelihood, it doesn't mean it's accepted, but that there could be a strong likelihood the son will succeed the father because they don't see any other strong individual." The view in Washington -- "not the US administration" -- is that there "aren't many alternatives". One alternative, he says, is instability that allows the Muslim Brotherhood power. "They say that Gamal is more educated, more modern, more forward looking."

Has the Turkish model of the Islamic Justice and Equality Party affected the view in Washington towards the Muslim Brotherhood?

There are plenty of analysts in government, says Esposito, who believe in having free and fair elections and of distinguishing between the Muslim Brotherhood and groups like Hizbullah and Hamas. "But there is a strong sector in domestic politics that constantly warns the Muslim Brotherhood are wolves in sheep's clothing. The Brotherhood is seen, in some ways, as doubly dangerous, because it's not above board about what its real intentions are."

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