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 Editor in chief: 
Abdus Sattar Ghazali

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May 20, 2011

Obama's reset rhetoric is unlikely to translate into
meaningful policy change in the Middle East

By Abdus Sattar Ghazali

President Barack Obama delivered a major foreign policy speech Thursday on historic changes in the Middle East. This was his second major address about America's relationship with the Muslim world which may be dubbed as Cairo-2.

There were at least two parts to the president's speech. In the first part he outlined his administration's response to the "Arab Spring."  The president promised to forgive a billion dollars in loans to Egypt and said the United States would work to create enterprise zones to encourage private investment. "It will be the policy of the United States to promote reform across the region and to support transitions to democracy," he said.

His speech was perhaps a belated response to extraordinary events in the Middle East following the 'Arab Spring' uprisings that toppled or unsettled many US-backed autocratic rulers throughout the region. Repeating the slogans of the youth in Yemen, Tunisia, Syria and Egypt was just Obama jumping on the bandwagon.

According to Ian Black, Middle East editor of the Guardian, Obama lavished praise on the spirit of people power that has animated this year's "Arab spring" but also made clear that direct US involvement in the region would remain selective. Strikingly, Saudi Arabia, one of the most repressive countries in the Arab world and a key US ally and oil supplier, got not a single mention in the 5,400-word speech.

Nor did Obama offer any really new ideas on the Israeli-Palestinian impasse, reiterating the "unshakeable" US commitment to Israel's security, Black said adding: But he did clearly oppose the "symbolic" recognition by the UN of an independent Palestinian state in September, an idea for which momentum has been growing internationally in the absence of any peace negotiations.

Obama had harsh words for Bashar al-Assad of Syria, where hundreds have been killed by the security forces, but he did not address the reason why Libyan logic did not apply, and why Syria's dictator should not also be removed, Black argued.

Arab-Israeli conflict

The most important part of the speech dealt with borders as a key element of “reset strategy” will involve prodding Israel and the Palestinians to re-engage in negotiations on a two-state solution to the six-decade Arab-Israeli conflict. Yet the basis for a solution he offered -- a settlement based on Israel's pre-1967 borders, with negotiated land swaps -- is well over a decade old.

"The United States believes that negotiations should result in two states with permanent Palestinian borders with Israel, Jordan and Egypt, and permanent Israeli borders with Palestine," said Obama.

Obama did call for a permanent Palestinian state along 1967 borders, with Palestinian control over its external borders and, most importantly, a contiguous Palestinian state.  But all of these points were undermined by the insistence on security as the metric of progress, and a commitment to a 30-year old negotiations process that will lead nowhere.  

The President reaffirmed an unshakable U.S. commitment to Israel's security and condemned what he called "symbolic actions to isolate Israel at the United Nations," referring to the Palestinians' plan to seek General Assembly recognition for statehood in September.

September 2011 is the target date for completion of institutional readiness for statehood set by the Palestinian Authority and supported by the diplomatic grouping known as the Quartet – which comprises the UN, European Union, Russia and the United States. The World Bank’s assessment in September 2010, noted by the Quartet, was that ‘if the PA maintains its current performance in institution-building and delivery of public services, it is well positioned for the establishment of a state at any point in the near future’.

On  April 12, 2011 a new United Nations report highlighted progress made by the Palestinian Authority in building institutions necessary for a functioning State, while stressing the need for Israel to roll back “measures of occupation” and for an urgent resumption of negotiations between the two sides. “In the limited territory under its control and within the constraints on the ground imposed by unresolved political issues, the PA has accelerated progress in improving its governmental functions,” states the report, entitled “Palestinian State-building: A Decisive Period.” Prepared by the office of the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process (UNSCO), the report notes that in the six areas where the UN is most engaged, governmental functions are now sufficient for a functioning government of a State.

The diplomatic recognition of a Palestinian state is gathering momentum, particularly in Latin America. Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia and a number of other nations in that region have recognized the independence of Palestine. On December 6, 2010 the Brazilian Foreign Ministry announced that Brasilia recognizes the Palestinian state within the 1967 borders. By early 2011 a dozen countries in the Caribbean basin and Africa were about to do the same. If more countries announce a recognition of the independence of Palestine, the Palestinians can push a resolution on the creation of a new state through the UN General Assembly.

On January 19, 2011 Russian President Dmitry Medvedev stressed during a visit to the West Bank that Moscow recognized an independent Palestinian state in 1988 and is not changing that position. Speaking at a news conference with Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas in Jericho, Medvedev said: "We made our decision then and we have not changed it today."

U.S. policy is to oppose the unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state, to withhold diplomatic recognition of any Palestinian state that is unilaterally declared, and to encourage other countries and international organizations to withhold diplomatic recognition of any Palestinian state that is unilaterally declared.

To borrow Robert Fisk, renowned journalist, Obama’s speech was “the same old story... Israel cannot be deligitimised... No peace can be imposed on either party... It sounded like his pro-Israeli speech to AIPAC.”

Arab disappointment with Obama’s “reset policy” is best reflected in the comment by a Beirut student Anthony Haddad: " Obama’s rhetoric won't consistently be met with action. … Obama’s rhetoric only has teeth where America’s unchanged interests lie. [Even with insisting on] 1967 borders … a strong-willed speech from Obama without the will to twist a few Israeli arms along the way will do nothing to fix the Israeli-Palestinian question."

According to Nick Turse, the associate editor of TimDispatch.com, all signs indicate that the Pentagon will quietly maintain antithetical policies, just as it has throughout the Obama years. Barring an unprecedented and almost inconceivable policy shift, it will continue to broker lucrative deals to send weapons systems and military equipment to Arab despots. Nothing indicates that it will be deterred from its course, whatever the president says, which means that Barack Obama's reset rhetoric is unlikely to translate into meaningful policy change in the region.

Jeff Mason of Reuters believes it was Obama’s election campaign speech:

“It may not have been a campaign speech, but President Barack Obama's foreign policy address on Thursday sent a series of political messages that could resonate in his 2012 race to retain the White House. Standing in front of a row of American flags at the State Department, Obama directed his comments on U.S. policy to populations throughout the Middle East and North Africa, offering economic and political support for democratic reform. But the president had another target audience: voters at home. By spelling out U.S. positions on the war in Libya, violence in Syria, and roadblocks in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Obama addressed specific interest groups and crucial independent voters who use foreign policy as a criteria at the ballot box. Obama also bolstered his case for being a strong leader by citing the successful operation to kill al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.”

Why the world’s Muslims are so mad at America?

President Obama spoke at a time when U.S. influence in the region is at an all-time low in modern history.

A new PEW survey, released two days prior to Obama’s speech,  finds that the rise of pro-democracy movements has not led to an improvement in America’s image in the region. Instead, in key Arab nations and in other predominantly Muslim countries, views of the U.S. remain negative, as they have been for nearly a decade. Indeed, in Jordan, Turkey and Pakistan, views are even more negative than they were one year ago.

With the exception of Indonesia, Obama remains unpopular in the Muslim nations polled, and most disapprove of the way he has handled calls for political change roiling the Middle East. Moreover, many of the concerns that have driven animosity toward the U.S. in recent years are still present – a perception that the U.S. acts unilaterally, opposition to the war on terror, and fears of America as a military threat. And in countries such as Jordan, Lebanon, and Pakistan, most say their own governments cooperate too much with the U.S.

As Obama tries to “reset” relations with a Muslim world another survey released on Wednesday highlighted one of the most fundamental questions about U.S. involvement there.

Why are Muslims, by and large, so mad at America?

The survey published in the form of a new book Feeling Betrayed: The Roots of Muslim Anger at America, reflecting five years of research on the ground by political psychologist Steven Kull, suggests a pair of startling explanations. Kull performed polls and focus groups throughout the Middle East, North Africa and the Asian Pacific from 2006-2010.

“Out of this process, we identified a widespread Muslim narrative of why they are mad at America,” he said, presenting his findings Wednesday at the Brookings Institution.

“It was really striking to me how common this was. All the way from Morocco to Indonesia, they were singing off the same song sheet. The closer you get to the Middle East, there’s more intensity, but the themes are really very much the same.”

Kull recounts four themes common to Muslim complaints of oppression:

1. The US as Coercively Dominating

The United States seeks to and largely succeeds in coercively dominating the Muslim world, using the threat of military force to shape it in ways that serve its interests.

Large majorities of people polled throughout the region told him that they believe the U.S. coercively dominates the Muslim world – often through the threat of military aggression — to shape it in America’s interests.

“How much of what happens in the world today would you say is controlled by the U.S.?” he asked. Majorities throughout the Muslim world went with “nearly all” or “most” of what happens. Fifty-nine percent of Egyptians (pre-Arab uprising) said “nearly all.”

“That the U.S. is really this 800-pound gorilla in the minds of people in this part of the world, and they feel threatened by it,” Kull pointed out.

2. The US as Hostile to Islam

The United States is hostile to Islam and seeks to undermine it and to impose a secular social order or even Christianity. They frequently cited American support for Israel as an illustration of the fear that the U.S. dislikes Islam and maneuvers to dominate the region.

3. Support for Israel

Driven by anti-Islamic prejudice and seeking regional domination, the United States supports and enables Israel in its victimization of the Palestinian people.

4. The US as Undermining Democracy

The United States undermines democracy in the Muslim world so as to preserve its control and to ensure that Islamism is kept under wraps.

Majorities in every country but the United Arab Emirates said they believe democracy is not a real U.S. objective in the region. They argued that the U.S. favors democracy in Muslim countries, but only if the government is cooperative with the U.S.

People frequently told Kull that they admired the values America once embodied — fairness, equality, self-determination, respect for human rights — but that at some point in a linear timeline, the U.S. had abandoned those values, and on its responsibility as a world superpower to promote them abroad.

Abdus Sattar Ghazali is the Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of America.