Tuesday, April 7, 2009 at 8:24 pm
Obama's Touchy-Feely Middle East
Posted by Scott MacLeod
The smooth-talker-in-chief is packing the house in the Middle East.
Three weeks ago, President Obama delivered the most conciliatory message to Iran by any American president in 30 years. It was on the occasion of Nowruz, the Persian new year that is among the most cherished holidays for Iranians. In a videotaped message specifically addressed to Iranians, Obama extolled the greatness of Persian civilization and held up the "common humanity" shared by Americans and Iranians in such things as the joy of celebrating holidays with family and friends.
Advancing his campaign proposal to open talks without preconditions, Obama directly addressed Iran's leaders, saying the U.S. government is "now committed to diplomacy" and seeks "engagement that is honest and grounded in mutual respect." Obama told them: "The United States wants the Islamic Republic of Iran to take its rightful place in the community of nations."
When I interviewed President Ahmadinejad in Cuba three years ago, I asked him what it would take to repair relations with the U.S., and he said, "They should put aside their animosities. They should change their approach." At some polititical risk, Obama is doing just that. In contrast with a Bush administration that questioned the legitimacy of Iran's leaders and threatened a military attack on Iran over its nuclear ambitions, Obama is demonstrating full acceptance of Iran's 1979 revolution against the U.S.-backed Shah and is unequivocally offering Iran's regime a meaningful future relationship with the U.S.
On Monday, Obama pointedly addressed the entire Muslim world when he spoke to the Turkish parliament. Acknowledging that America's relations with Turkey and other Islamic countries have been strained in recent years, Obama said, "So let me sat this as clearly as I can: The United States is not, and never will be, at war with Islam." He emphasized his "deep appreciation for the Islamic faith, which has done so much over the centuries to shape the world, including my own country." He said that rather than focusing only on fighting terrorism his administration would propose specific programs to promote education, health care and economic growth in Muslim countries. Echoing what he told Iranians, he said, "We seek broader engagement based on mutual interest and mutual respect."
I had dinner with an Egyptian friend tonight who was beaming about Obama's speech. His outlook was what I have seen in many people in the region since Obama's election. Obama's message of "mutual respect" strikes a chord among Arabs. Many still have a hangover about colonialism, and Bush was a disaster in this respect, vowing to wage a "Crusade" after 9/11, presuming to invade Iraq for the benefit of the locals, providing wholesale support to hard-line Israeli leaders, etc. But Arabs not only like what Obama is saying, they believe he is actually sincere and therefore credible because of his ability to empathize as someone with roots in the African, Muslim and otherwise colonized worlds.
For Obama, however, the hard part is still to come. The parties involved in all the disputes Obama hopes to resolve are stubborn in their views. Iran analyst Farideh Farhi pointed to some of the difficulties in an astute analysis of the reaction to Obama's Nowruz message by Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Noting Khamenei's litany of examples of how U.S. policies have harmed Iran, including economic sanctions that Obama has now renewed, Farhi says Khamenei wonders whether Obama's friendly gestures are of any real value. She quotes Khamenei saying, "They say they have extended their hands towards Iran. If the extended hand has a velvet glove but under it is a cast iron hand, then this does not have a good meaning."
In other words, sweet talk is not enough. To preserve the vital credibility he is acquiring, he'll have to start producing deliverables. Perhaps with Iran, that might mean an early suspension of economic sanctions. On the Arab-Israeli conflict, that could translate as effective U.S. pressure on the Netanyahu government in Israel to freeze Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
That still won't do the trick, of course. Even if Obama musters the courage to take such political risks, he faces the task of convincing the Iranians and Palestinians to do their part to keep the progress going. With Iran, that might entail some concrete step to recognize the State of Israel or at least enlist Iran to publicly call on Hamas and Hizballah to cease their armed struggles. With the Palestinians, it will eventually have to involve some kind of clear and united Palestinian support for a negotiated settlement with Israel. Obama has been too nice to say so thus far, but if Iran doesn't signal a significant change in its hostility toward Israel, no American president is going to partner with Tehran in the building of a new Middle East. And if Hamas doesn't stop firing rockets and sending suicide bombers into Israel, no U.S. president is going to pressure the Israeli government to withdraw from Palestinian territory. That's just a political reality, even if the president's middle name is Hussein.
--By Scott MacLeod/Cairo