Middle East: Can Obama bring peace?

June 13, 2009

US President Barack Obama's June 4 speech at Cairo University has been reported in the Western media as a decisive change in US foreign policy. It has been presented as the fulfilment of his election promise to find a way out of the wars and conflicts that his predecessor, George Bush, had started or helped fuel.

The contrast between Obama's articulate call for peace, mutual respect and understanding on one hand, and Bush's inarticulate insults and threats was striking. However, where the speech shifted from rhetoric to specifics, it represented fundamental continuity in US policy.

Entitled "A New Beginning", the speech called for "bridges", rather than "clashes" between civilisations.

However, using the concept "clash of civilisations" to explain the US led wars in the region, and Israel's occupation of Palestine, is itself a continuation of Bush administration arguments. "Cultural differences", especially over religion, are seen as the root cause of the conflict rather than imperial interests.

Throughout the speech Obama referred to the relationship between the US, or the West more generally, with Islam rather than the Middle East.

As with past US presidents, rhetoric about democracy and human rights was combined with endorsement for tyrants. Obama even held up the fundamentalist dictatorship in Saudi Arabia as a model of religious tolerance.

Anti-war sentiment helped to propel Obama into the White House. However, by the end of the year, the Obama administration will have increased the number of US soldiers occupying Afghanistan to 70,000 — up from 38,000 in January. It has also extended the war into neighbouring Pakistan.

Civilian deaths from US air strikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan have also increased.

Obama has followed Bush in using the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks as justification. Referring to the more than 3000 innocent civilians killed in the Al Qaeda attacks, he said: "We would gladly bring every single one of our troops home if we could be confident that there were not violent extremists in Afghanistan and Pakistan determined to kill as many Americans as they possibly can."

This ignores the fact that the Al Qaeda and Taliban extremists were created with US support. Also, the forces installed in Afghanistan by the US-led occupation force are just as extreme fundamentalists and the ongoing presence of occupying troops is leading to a resurgence of the Taliban — not just in Afghanistan but also in Pakistan.

Obama neglected to mention the much larger numbers of equally innocent civilians killed by US aggression in the Middle East before and after September 2001. The death toll in Iraq as a result of the US-led occupation has exceeded 1 million.

While of the neo-conservative ideologues associated with the Bush administration were willing to be blunt about the US drive for domination over the oil-rich region, Obama blamed Muslims' "fear of modernity".

Obama also signalled continuity in US policy towards Iran, although with less threatening language.

Obama is the first US president to acknowledge the US role in the overthrow of the democratically-elected Iranian government in 1953, which resulted in the Shah dictatorship being installed. He has also offered negotiations with Iran's government without condition.

However, Obama still discussed the "problem" of Iran in the framework of nuclear weapons proliferation. This is despite Iran not having nuclear weapons, no evidence it is seeking them and US intelligence assessments confirming that Iran lacks the capacity to produce them.

Rhetoric about nuclear proliferation was used by the Bush administration to cover US interests in regaining control over a country with one of the world's largest reserves of oil.

Obama failed to mention Israel's undeclared arsenal of several hundred nuclear warheads. He also "strongly reaffirmed America's commitment to seek a world in which no nations hold nuclear weapons", but ignored the fact that the largest nuclear weapons stockpile is in his own country.

He said that "any nation — including Iran — should have the right to access peaceful nuclear power if it complies with its responsibilities under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty".

However, the economic sanctions the US government continues to apply against Iran are for its attempts to obtain a civilian nuclear energy program that complies with the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

On the Israel-Palestine conflict, Obama also offered no substantial change.

While he reminded his audience of the trauma suffered by European Jews in the Nazi Holocaust, he made no mention of the violence suffered by Palestinians from Israel's establishment in 1948 — through the ethnic cleansing of 78% of Palestine.

This event is known to Palestinians as al Nakba (the catastrophe). He said nothing about new Israeli laws that make it a crime to refer to al Nakba.

Palestinian liberation movements, but not the Israeli state, were lectured on the wrongs of armed struggle, even for legitimate aims. Israel's slaughter of more than 1300 Palestinian civilians in Gaza at the start of the year in a bloody exercise in collective punishment went unmentioned.

However, Obama did acknowledge that Palestinians suffered "indignities" from occupation and frustrated national aspirations.

He called for a "two-state solution" to the conflict, and for no new Jewish-only settlements in the Palestinian territories occupied by Israel since 1967.

Both Bush and Bill Clinton made similar statements while in office.

He did provoke a ridiculous response from Yossi Peled, a minister without porfolio in the Israeli government. Peled suggested Israel place economic sanctions on the US, which donates billions of dollars annually in military and economic aid to Israel.

However, such ludicrous statements from an Israeli minister are also nothing new and reflect confidence that Israel can continue to ignore US calls for a two-state solution and no new settlements with impunity.

Obama has kept the US sanctions against Gaza, which help Israel's starvation siege against the enclave.

Despite ongoing US sanctions against the Gaza territory it governs, Hamas responded by welcoming Obama's more conciliatory tone. Inter-Press Service said on June 8 that Hamas political bureau head Khaled Mashaal reiterated Hamas's position of a ceasefire and negotiations with Israel without preconditions.

He reiterated Hamas's willingness to accept a permanent truce with Israel in return for a two-state solution. However, he rejected Obama's call for the Palestinians to disarm unilaterally.

In May, US Vice-President Joe Biden used a visit to Lebanon to tell voters that US economic assistance may be affected if the June elections resulted in a government not favoured by the US. So much for respect between cultures.

The biggest change in substance from the Bush administration in Obama's speech related to Iraq. He reaffirmed his previous claim that US troops will leave by the end of 2011.

However, while 100,000 troops will be withdrawn, a "residual force" of 50,000 will remain. US advisers will continue working with Iraqi armed security services, including paramilitaries.

A June 3 Nation article reported on the existence of special force in Iraq less accountable to the Iraqi government that to their US special forces advisers. The US advisers are commanded by veterans of operations where the US helped create death squads in El Salvador and Colombia.

The plan to extract US troops from ongoing war in Iraq does not include plans to relinquish control.

Obama has opposed the invasion of Iraq as a mistake. But he still claimed Iraq has benefited, despite the massive death toll, destruction of infrastructure and ethnic and religious civil conflict it has caused.

Obama appealed for the Shia-Sunni divide to be bridged in Iraq. But he neglected to mention that the religious sectarian violence was consciously created by the US occupation forces to divide resistance.

Obama's shift in rhetoric from his predecessor has been widely welcomed as a step forward. However, a change in actions not words is required — and that change is yet to come to Washington.

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.