Changing the Discourse: First Step Toward Changing the Policy?

President Barack Obama's much-anticipated Cairo speech
reflected a significant shift away from the ideological framework of
militarism and unilateralism that shaped the Bush administration's
war-based policy toward the Arab and Muslim worlds. His "not Bush"
focus was perhaps most sharply evident in his public denunciation of
the Iraq War as a "war of choice." Obama's call for a "new beginning"
based on "the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive and need
not be in competition" was followed by a move to shift the official
U.S. discourse toward something closer to internationalism -
particularly by pointing to parallels between historical (and some
contemporary) grievances and treating them as equivalent. This included
his reference to the U.S. "role in the overthrow of a democratically
elected Iranian government," along with Iran's "role in acts of
hostage-taking and violence against U.S. troops and civilians."

Certainly, the equivalences were limited. Equating Palestinians and
Israelis as "two peoples with legitimate aspirations, each with a
painful history ..." doesn't reflect the reality that Israel is an
occupying power with specific obligations under the Geneva Convention,
while Palestinians living under occupation are a protected population
under international law. But in the context of decades of U.S.
privileging of Israelis as the only ones who have suffered, equating
the two was a major step forward.

As expected, Obama focused first on the historic contributions of
Arabs and Muslims to global civilization and to U.S. culture and
history. His articulation of U.S. policy - and particularly U.S. active
obligations - on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the wars in Iraq
and Afghanistan were addressed only in broad strokes, although there
was more detail regarding Iran.

The shift in discourse, away from justifying reckless imperial
hubris, unilateralism, and militarism, and toward a more cooperative
and potentially even internationalist approach was potent. The actual
policy shifts were much smaller. It remains the work of mobilized
people across the United States - starting with the millions who
mobilized to build a movement capable of electing Barack Hussein Obama
as president - to turn that new language into new policies - reversing
the escalation and moving toward ending Obama's war in Afghanistan and
Pakistan, ending the occupation of Iraq immediately rather than years
from now, ending U.S. military aid to Israel and creating a policy
based on an end to occupation and equality for all, launching new
negotiations with Iran not based on military threats, implementing U.S.
nuclear disarmament obligations, and more.

That's the next step.

The Wars

Obama began by framing Washington's regional wars in the context of
"violent extremism." He pointed to Iraq as a reminder of the need to
"use diplomacy and build international consensus to resolve our
problems," though he undercut that claim with the added "whenever
possible." He did reiterate the claim that "we pursue no bases, and no
claim on their territory or resources" in Iraq, and that the United
States will honor the agreement with Iraq "to remove combat troops from
Iraqi cities by July, and to remove all of our troops from Iraq by

But on Afghanistan, Obama's own war, he continued to claim that
"Afghanistan demonstrates America's goals," and that the United States
invaded Afghanistan "because of necessity." He claimed "we do not want
to keep our troops in Afghanistan" and "we seek no military bases
there." But he went on that the U.S. troops are there because there are
"violent extremists in Afghanistan and now Pakistan, determined to kill
as many Americans as they possibly can." This was a clear statement of
intention to remain occupying or militarily engaged in those countries
for a long time to come. As an after-thought, Obama added that
"military power alone is not going to solve the problems" and bragged
of a plan to invest $1.5 billion a year in Pakistan for schools and
hospitals and refugee assistance, and that the United States is
"providing more than $2.8 billion to help Afghans develop their
economy." That claim might have had legitimacy if it reflected more
than a tiny pittance of the current $97 billion of war-funding the
Obama administration has requested for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars
just through September.


Obama began with a reassertion of the "unbreakable" bond between the
United States and Israel. He traced the history of Jewish persecution
"around the world," but despite his focus here on the Islamic world,
made no mention of the history of Jews finding refuge and welcome in
Muslim lands during some of the worst periods of anti-Semitism. (He did
refer to Islam's "proud tradition of tolerance ... in the history of
Andalusia and Cordoba during the Inquisition" but did not mention
Islam's protection of Jews.)

And on settlements, he said that 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." Although he
did not specifically refer to ending so-called "natural growth" in the
settlements, the reference to "earlier agreements" was clearly designed
to remind the audience of Israel's 2003 agreement to freeze all
settlement expansion including "natural growth."

Obama's overall language was stronger than that of any earlier U.S.
president: Israel "must acknowledge that just as Israel's right to
exist cannot be denied, neither can Palestine's." His description of
Palestinian suffering went beyond earlier U.S. accounts, including
references to 60 years of "the pain of dislocation" and "the
displacement brought about by Israel's founding." And he described the
Palestinians' situation as "intolerable." His definition of the
"legitimate Palestinian aspiration," however, was limited to "dignity,
opportunity, and a state of their own," and despite the reference to
Palestinian refugees and 60 years of dislocation, he did not mention
the right of return.

Obama mentioned Israel's obligations only as statements - "Israel
must also live up to its obligation..." "Israel must acknowledge," etc.
He did not, in the crucial weakness of the speech, make any U.S.
commitment to ensuring that compliance - such as conditioning all or
even part of the $3 billion annual U.S. military aid to Israel on a
complete settlement freeze or adherence to other aspects of U.S. or
international law.

Similarly, regarding the Arab peace initiative, Obama ignored the
reality that the initiative's starting point - a complete Israeli
withdrawal to the 1967 borders - has never been implemented. Instead he
demanded that the Arab states "must recognize that the Arab Peace
Initiative was an important beginning, but not the end of their
responsibilities." He called on them to "help the Palestinian people
develop the institutions that will sustain their state, to recognize
Israel's legitimacy, and to choose progress over a self-defeating focus
on the past," as if it were a Palestinian choice, rather than the
consequence of continuing Israeli occupation and apartheid, that make
creation of a Palestinian state impossible.

Obama did move the discourse significantly by his linking the
Palestinian struggle to that of the U.S. civil rights movement and
those in South Africa. While Obama referred only to the non-violent
nature of those struggles, and didn't explicitly describe the
Palestinian struggle for human rights as a civil rights or
anti-apartheid struggle, those parallels are now part of the U.S.
framework for understanding the fight for Palestinian rights. This
gives new legitimacy to the anti-apartheid and "BDS" (boycott,
divestment, and sanctions) movements that shape the global civil
society mobilizations in support of Palestinian equality.


The Iran discussion was perhaps the most significant in actual
policy terms. Obama again turned to his pattern of equivalence,
describing the U.S. "role in the overthrow of a democratically elected
Iranian government" and Iran's role in "acts of hostage-taking and
violence against U.S. troops and civilians." While that's hardly an
equal comparison, for a U.S. president to take full responsibility for
the overthrow of a government andlink it to Iran's later actions, is a huge step forward.

And on the prospects for diplomacy, Obama used language that
parallels almost word-for-word the way Iran intellectuals, diplomats,
and government officials describe what Iran is looking for in future
negotiations: "we are willing to move forward without preconditions on
the basis of mutual respect." That commitment to respect, and the lack
of a preliminary demand for what Iran must acquiesce to, could be the
hallmark of a potential new diplomatic process. He didn't,
unfortunately, call for a regional peace conference, involving all
countries in the region including Iran, to replace his current call for
Arab governments to join the United States and Israel in a regional
anti-Iran alliance.

Importantly, Obama did restate the U.S. commitment "to seek a world
in which no nations hold nuclear weapons." And he stated officially
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." Unfortunately, Obama
simultaneously indicated an old-style unilateralist super-power
approach to U.S. and international obligations to that treaty (NPT). He
described the "core of the treaty" as the commitments of those nations
wanting access to peaceful nuclear power not to seek nuclear weapons -
Article IV of the NPT. But he made no mention of the reciprocal and at
least equally (if not more) important Article VI - which requires the
recognized nuclear weapons states - including the United States - to
move toward comprehensive nuclear disarmament. So Obama's own
commitment to "seeking" nuclear abolition is not linked to recognition
of an actual treaty obligation to end Washington's own nuclear arsenal.

He also didn't call for a Middle East-wide nuclear weapons-free and
weapons of mass destruction-free zone, as called for in the U.S.-backed
Article 14 of Security Council resolution 687 that ended the 1991 Gulf
War. Such a call would have included the need to disarm Israel's
dangerous 100-300 high-density nuclear weapons, and at least tacitly
recognized the destabilizing impact of that nuclear arsenal in
fomenting a Middle East nuclear arms race.


Obama took an important step in acknowledging that the war in Iraq,
and specifically the Bush administration's claim that it was a war "for
democracy," had undermined the U.S. claim of supporting democracy. He
said "no system of government can or should be imposed by one nation on
any other."

He went on to say that the United States "would not presume to pick
the outcome of a peaceful election" and that "we will welcome all
elected, peaceful governments - provided they govern with respect for
all their people." Good positions - but ones that ignore the reality of
continuing U.S. positions in the Arab world in particular. Certainly
the January 2006 Palestinian election - deemed "free and fair" by U.S.
and European monitors - that brought Hamas to majority power in the
elected parliament was not "welcomed" by the United States. And just in
recent days, Vice President Joe Biden told Lebanon directly that future
U.S. support would depend on the outcome of their forthcoming election
- an unmistakable reference to U.S. intentions of cutting aid if
Hezbollah, already the second-largest party in Lebanon's parliament,
achieves greater elected power. (In this, the Obama administration is
channeling President George H.W. Bush's position in 1990 regarding
Nicaragua - telling the population that if they voted for the
Sandinistas they would face years of continuing war, while a victory
for the U.S.-backed opposition would lead to new economic assistance.
The popular Sandinistas were roundly defeated.)

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