Obama in Cairo: A Bush in Sheep's Clothing?

His speech shows little real change. In most regards his analysis maintains flawed American policies intact

Once you strip away the mujamalat - the courtesies exchanged between guest and host - the substance of President Obama's speech
in Cairo indicates there is likely to be little real change in US
policy. It is not necessary to divine Obama's intentions - he may be
utterly sincere and I believe he is. It is his analysis and
prescriptions that in most regards maintain flawed American policies

Though he pledged to "speak the truth as best I can",
there was much the president left out. He spoke of tension between
"America and Islam" - the former a concrete specific place, the latter
a vague construct subsuming peoples, practices, histories and countries
more varied than similar.

Labelling America's "other" as a
nebulous and all-encompassing "Islam" (even while professing
rapprochement and respect) is a way to avoid acknowledging what does in
fact unite and mobilise people across many Muslim-majority countries:
overwhelming popular opposition to increasingly intrusive and violent
American military, political and economic interventions in many of
those countries. This opposition - and the resistance it generates -
has now become for supporters of those interventions, synonymous with

It was disappointing that Obama recycled his
predecessor's notion that "violent extremism" exists in a vacuum,
unrelated to America's (and its proxies') exponentially greater use of
violence before and after September 11, 2001. He dwelled on the
"enormous trauma" done to the US when almost 3,000 people were killed
that day, but spoke not one word about the hundreds of thousands of
orphans and widows left in Iraq - those whom Munathar al-Zaidi's flying
shoe forced Americans to remember only for a few seconds last year. He
ignored the dozens of civilians who die each week in the "necessary"
war in Afghanistan, or the millions of refugees fleeing the US-invoked
escalation in Pakistan.

As President George Bush often did, Obama
affirmed that it is only a violent minority that besmirches the name of
a vast and "peaceful" Muslim majority. But he seemed once again to
implicate all Muslims as suspect when he warned, "The sooner the
extremists are isolated and unwelcome in Muslim communities, the sooner
we will all be safer."

Nowhere were these blindspots more
apparent than his statements about Palestine/Israel. He gave his
audience a detailed lesson on the Holocaust and explicitly used it as a
justification for the creation of Israel. "It is also undeniable," the
president said, "that the Palestinian people - Muslims and Christians -
have suffered in pursuit of a homeland. For more than sixty years they
have endured the pain of dislocation."

Suffered in pursuit of a
homeland? The pain of dislocation? They already had a homeland. They
suffered from being ethnically cleansed and dispossessed of it and
prevented from returning on the grounds that they are from the wrong
ethno-national group. Why is that still so hard to say?

lectured Palestinians that "resistance through violence and killing is
wrong and does not succeed". He warned them that "It is a sign of
neither courage nor power to shoot rockets at sleeping children, or to
blow up old women on a bus. That is not how moral authority is claimed;
that is how it is surrendered." (Note: the last suicide attack
targeting civilians by a Palestinian occurred in 2004)

enough, but did Obama really imagine that such words would impress an
Arab public that watched in horror as Israel slaughtered 1,400 people
in Gaza last winter, including hundreds of sleeping, fleeing or
terrified children, with American-supplied weapons? Did he think his
listeners would not remember that the number of Palestinian and
Lebanese civilians targeted and killed by Israel has always far
exceeded by orders of magnitude the number of Israelis killed by Arabs
precisely because of the American arms he has pledged to continue
giving Israel with no accountability. Amnesty International recently
confirmed what Palestinians long knew: Israel broke the negotiated
ceasefire when it attacked Gaza last November 4, prompting retaliatory
rockets that killed no Israelis until after Israel launched its much
bigger attack on Gaza. That he continues to remain silent about what
happened in Gaza, and refuses to hold Israel accountable demonstrates
anything but a commitment to full truth-telling.

Some people are
prepared to give Obama a pass for all this because he is at last
talking tough on Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank. In
Cairo, he said: "The United States does not accept the legitimacy of
continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous
agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for
these settlements to stop."

These carefully chosen words focus
only on continued construction, not on the existence of the settlements
themselves; they are entirely compatible with the peace process
industry consensus that existing settlements will remain where they are
for ever. This raises the question of where Obama thinks he is going.
He summarised Palestinians' "legitimate aspirations" as being the
establishment of a "state". This has become a convenient slogan to that
is supposed to replace for Palestinians their pursuit of rights and
justice that the proposed state actually denies. Obama is already on
record opposing Palestinian refugees' right to return home, and has
never supported the right of Palestinian citizens of Israel to live
free from racist and religious incitement, persecution and practices
fanned by Israel's highest office holders and written into its laws.

may have more determination than his predecessor but he remains
committed to an unworkable two-state "vision" aimed not at restoring
Palestinian rights, but preserving Israel as an enclave of Israeli
Jewish privilege. It is a dead end.

There was one sentence in his
speech I cheered for and which he should heed: "Given our
interdependence, any world order that elevates one nation or group of
people over another will inevitably fail."

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