Can Obama’s visit to the Middle East change Arab perceptions of the US?
Obama is on a foreign tour that includes Europe and the Middle East, where it will be the first visit of his presidency, he is to speak to King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and on Thursday to make a big speech in Cairo. There are high expectations that this could open up better relations with the Middle East and the Muslim World. Is this expectation really justified?
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A new dialogue
Obama’s visit needs to set a new tone in the dialogue between the USA and the Middle East. Obama needs to acknowledge the mistakes that America has made in the Middle east and what take a much more conciliatory tone on the issues that matter to Arabs. Rosemary Hollis, of the Chatham House thinktank says "It's important he speaks to Arabs to convince them he wants genuine change. If he wants to turn things around for America, he's got to get on the front foot and show them that he represents a new, clued up, plugged in administration."[[ http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/may/29/middle-east-speech-obama ]]
A dialogue and a new tone if all very well but it will not be helpful if it is not backed up. As Rami Khouri writes "Obama should stop wasting his and our time telling us how much Americans admire Islam, and instead focus on two things: clarifying whether the United States understands the legitimate grievances of ordinary men and women in the Arab-Asian region -- most of whom are Muslims -- and positioning the United States on a policy path that helps to reduce rather than aggravate those grievances."[[Rami G. Khouri, Obama should think Chicago, 3rd June 2009, http://www.ramikhouri.com/%5D%5D
Provides a promising starting point
Although Obama’s first visit the middle east is unlikely to change opinions on its own it can provide a good start. The visit and speech can provide a good building block for relations with the Arab people. Obama agrees that "There are very real policy issues that have to be worked through that are difficult. Ultimately, it's going to be action and not words that determine the path, the progress from here on out."[[Obama embarks on Mid-East mission, BBC News, 3rd June 2009, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/americas/8080375.stm%5D%5D Obama said to NPR: “I believe that strategically the status quo is unsustainable when it comes to Israel’s security, Over time, in the absence of peace with Palestinians, Israel will continue to be threatened militarily and will have enormous problems on its borders.”[[Jamer Hider, Barak Obama on landmark mission to rebuild ties with the Muslim world, The Times, 3rd June 2009, http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/middle_east/article6418576.ece%5D%5D The administration understands that this can’t be a short term or half hearted effort as it would be bound to fail.
There have been initiatives to improve relations with and understanding by the Muslim world before. Just like there have been false dawns in the Middle East peace process. Clinton’s peace process failed and George Bush’s peace initiative barely got off the ground and was always mistrusted by the Palestinian side[[David Pryce-Jones, False Dawn, National Review, 14th July 2003, http://www.articlearchives.com/international-relations/national-security-foreign/240377-1.html%5D%5D
Arabs still strive towards US values; it is US governments they don’t trust.
“Democracy, rule of law, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, those are not simply principles of the West to be hoisted on these countries — but rather what I believe to be universal principles that they can embrace and affirm as part of their national identity.”[[Jamer Hider, Barak Obama on landmark mission to rebuild ties with the Muslim world, The Times, 3rd June 2009, http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/middle_east/article6418576.ece%5D%5D Indeed this is the case so long as the west is NOT forcing these principles onto these states, the USA must accept that the interpretation the middle east gives to these values will be determined through their own cultural norms and as such may end out slightly different to how we in the west see them. The ideal would be for the end point to be an Islamic set of values about democracy, rule of law, freedom of speech and freedom of religion so that the Middle East can lay claim to having created its own path without being forced down it by the United States.
Those who supported the previous administration such as Elliott Abrams, George W. Bush's deputy national security adviser argue "There is a danger that under the general guise of not wanting to be like the previous administration, there is going to be significantly less emphasis on a freedom agenda and the promotion of democracy."[[Etgar Lefkovits, Obama won't focus on Middle East democracy, Jerusalem Post, 9th Febuary 2009, http://fr.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?pagename=JPost%2FJPArticle%2FShowFull&cid=1233304721069%5D%5D Obama may well stop promoting these values that are as relevent to the Islamic world as to the west. This would be a step in the wrong direction as these values and freedoms are one of the major ways in which the US is seen in a good light in the middle east.
Obama may well avoid the trap of double standards that previous administrations have fallen into. Assuming that American interests dictate that they dress up any tiny reforms being made by US allies in the region. Obama cant praise dictators for the window dressing of democracy they give, while this may fool disinterested Americans into believing that they are supporting democratic states it simply angers the inhabitants of those countries who see the double standards that the Americans do by supporting some undemocratic regimes while toppling others that are very similar in all respects except for not being friends of the US Government, often with democratisation as a core reason for such change.
little news on the Israeli front
While it may cheer Arabs that the relations between Israel and the US under Netanyahu and Obama are not as cosy as they were when Bush was President this has its downside. In order the heal the rift with the Arab world Obama needs to make progress on the Arab Israeli dispute, for this there needs to be a working relationship with Israel.
In the short term this may help, even Arabs know that there is no silver bullet on the Arab-Israeli problem. An America that takes a more even handed approach is much preferable to an America that exclusively favours Israel, which is how it is seen at the moment. Arabs will see this as a good sign that there may finally be progress towards achieving some of their goals for a more even settlement than has thus far been on the table. That Israel has been unwilling to negotiate on areas like the right of return and water supplies is in large part due to US support, with less support they may be forced to the negotiating table. In the longer term though Obama would need to follow through with actions and be willing to cajole Israel into peace. Unlike previous American administrations at the moment it sounds like Obama's may be willing to actually do so. Unlike George Bush Obama's only concern in the Middle East are legitimate interests in Israel's security, he wont be giving Israel a blank slate to nearly the extent that George Bush did. Obama is demanding a halt to the expansion of settlements, even 'natural growth' where settlements continue to slowly grow while 'illegal' settlements are removed.[[Jonathan Marcus, Can Obama Deliver on the Middle East, BBC News, 29th May 2009, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/americas/8073836.stm%5D%5D
Mosque closed due to Obama’s visit
Obama’s visit has caused the Egyptian security services to cordon off one of Egypt’s oldest Mosques to prepare for the visit. This has sparked outrage among the main opposition movement the Muslim Brotherhood. They have complained to the parliament about the Grand Inam, Minister of the Interior and the prime minister about the closure. "This (restricting faithful from praying at mosque) is impermissible in Shariah," said brotherhood member Muhsen Radi. "Egypt's security service has cordoned the whole area around the mosque and has told businesses nearby to close on Wednesday and Thursday." The Mosque itself denied that Muslims would not be allowed to pray at the mosque despite the security forces cordon. [[Mustafa Suleiman and Marwa Awad, Egypt bans prayer at mosque over Obama visit, Al Arabiya, 2nd June 2009, http://www.alarabiya.net/articles/2009/06/02/74585.html%5D%5D this cant help with encouraging the arab people that obama is different from previous administrations and that there is a new start.
A gulf in expectations
There are expectations that Obama will announce some new initiative on the Palestinian dispute, the white house denies that anything of the sort will happen. White house officials say that it will just continue efforts to create a new dialogue with the Muslim world. The risk is that the Muslim world will want more than simply a new dialogue, while the supporters of Israel within the USA are urging the president not to put too much pressure on Israel.[[Michael D. Shear, Obama’s Middle East trip a balancing act, The Washington post, 2nd June 2009, http://voices.washingtonpost.com/44/2009/06/02/obamas_middle_east_trip_a_bala.html%5D%5D With such divergent views between the Arabs and Israelis making speeches about the Middle east becomes almost a zero sum game whereby one side or the other is bound to be disappointed. Traditionally this has been the Arabs.
It is precisely this ‘zero sum game’ that Obama wants to break out of. While this exists there is little prospect of making significant progress, Obama needs to foster trust from the Arabs in the US and keep Israel onside. This can only be done through a dialogue.
What do you think?