February issue 2009

By | News & Politics | Published 15 years ago

It was a powerful show of solidarity and outrage. Across the Muslim world, people took to the street in droves, just hours after Israel started its aerial raid of the Gaza Strip. Thousands gathered in the West Bank, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, Qatar, Sudan, Morocco, Iran and Turkey to protest the indiscriminate killing of civilians. The protests went on for days. Demonstrators burned Israeli flags and asked, “How long will the silence last?”

While many were looking to their own governments to stand up for their Palestinian brothers and sisters, others were also looking to the West for condemnation of Israel’s violence, which seemed to reach new extremes.

On December 30, three days after the crisis began, the European Union called for an “immediate and permanent” ceasefire and a reopening of border crossings. But the UK’s Gordon Brown offered less, simply asking Israel to “show restraint.” Still, these voices were somewhat meaningless to many on the Arab street. They were looking further west.

What they found coming from a Bush Administration living out its last days in office was the same old pro-Israeli rhetoric. “Hamas must stop launching rockets into Israel. The United States holds Hamas responsible for breaking the ceasefire.” White House Spokesman Gordon Johndroe even regressed by calling the democratically elected Hamas “nothing but thugs.”

The Arab world, however, didn’t care about the lame duck President Bush. People in the Middle East knew where he stood. They wanted to hear what the incoming president had to say. All they got was silence.

Four days into the conflict, the death toll in Gaza crossed 360 and pressure grew strong for some type of public statement. But president-elect Barack Obama, then holidaying in Hawaii, said nothing. His silence sounded like complicity. “People recall his campaign slogan of change and hoped that it would apply to the Palestinian situation,” Jordanian analyst Labib Kamhawi told Liz Sly of the Chicago Tribune. “So they look at his silence as a negative sign. They think he is condoning what happened in Gaza because he’s not expressing any opinion.”

Soon people wondered if he even cared at all. Al Jazeera amplified Obama’s silence by juxtaposing footage of the deadly bombing of Gaza with images of the president-elect playing golf.

Obama’s statement that he couldn’t comment because “there is one president at a time” had Arab commentators screaming hypocrisy: Obama had already been actively involved in domestic and international issues by addressing the financial crisis and denouncing the Mumbai attacks.

So even before Obama took the oath of office, public disillusionment was forcing the inevitable question to be asked: Is he like every other politician? Is he untrustworthy?

Some commentators — and they weren’t Arab — went further, saying his reputation was already tarnished. Writing in the Huffington Post, Ben Cohen, editor of the political site TheDailyBanter.com, implied Obama’s promises of hope were never intended for the Palestinians. “Barack Obama had to do two things to persuade the powers that be that he was a viable candidate for president. The first was to assure the financial community that he would commit to a centrist economic platform, and the second was to sell out the Palestinians immediately and jump in bed with AIPAC. Obama did both.”

AIPAC is officially known as “America’s Pro-Israel Lobby.” And it’s reported that as soon as Obama defeated Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination, he rushed to an AIPAC conference to secure support for his presidential run. “It was a triumphalist conference. Even this powerful organisation had never seen anything like it,” writes Uri Avnery in Counter Punch. “Seven thousand Jewish functionaries from all over the United States came together to accept the obeisance of the entire Washington elite, which came to kowtow at their feet. All the three presidential hopefuls made speeches, trying to outdo each other in flattery. Three hundred senators and members of congress crowded the hallways. Everybody who wants to be elected or re-elected to any office, indeed everybody who has any political ambitions at all, came to see and be seen.”

Avnery says that Obama’s fawning over the Israel lobby is more reprehensible than that of other candidates. “Why? Because his dizzying success in the primaries was entirely due to his promise to bring about a change, to put an end to the rotten practices of Washington and to replace the old cynics with a young, brave person who does not compromise his principles.”

But he did. His failure to commit to change can be seen in black and white in his foreign policy agenda on the White House website. Israel gets more ink than any other nation, except for Iraq. The Obama Administration pledges three main points: ensuring a strong US-Israel partnership, saying that its “first and incontrovertible commitment in the Middle East must be to the security of Israel;” supporting Israel’s right to self-defense; and supporting foreign assistance to Israel, saying it has “advocated increased foreign aid budgets to ensure that these funding priorities are met.”

This is not a new Middle East policy.

It was a television comedy programme, though, that proved Obama’s promise of change was an illusion. And they did it by illustrating the unthinkable: Obama isn’t much different than his predecessor.

On The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, the host mercilessly tore apart Obama’s inauguration-day rhetoric just hours after the speech. “Our nation’s relationship to The Almighty, a message for our enemies?” asked Stewart of one of his correspondents. “Isn’t that Bush?” This was followed by a back-and-forth montage, showing Obama echoing the former cowboy president from Texas on the issues of freedom, defending the American way of life and ushering in a new era of peace. “Why are you doing this?” asked Stewart’s devastated colleague. “It’s ‘Hope — Day One.’”

There was lots of hope when it came to South Asia too: hope that Obama would change the approach to dealing with terrorism in the region. Five days before the November elections, Obama said, “We should probably try to facilitate a better understanding between Pakistan and India and try to resolve the Kashmir crisis so that [Pakistan] can stay focused not on India, but on the situation with those militants.” This was over three weeks before the Mumbai attacks, which stirred a bevy of commentators to pronounce that a resolution to the Kashmir dispute was necessary in any South Asia peace equation. Many leaders in Jammu and Kashmir welcomed Obama’s resolve to settle the crisis.

But eventually this goal disappeared from Obama’s official foreign policy agenda.

Kashmir was not mentioned at the press conference on January 22 where President Obama introduced the heavy hitters of his new state department team: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and special envoys Richard Holbrooke and George Mitchell. Moreover, Holbrooke’s title was very country specific: special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan. The term “South Asia” was conspicuously absent — India wouldn’t have it.

Well known political analyst Selig Harrison predicted this in an opinion piece published in The Washington Timesin November. Harrison called Obama’s Kashmir comment “his first big foreign policy mistake,” saying that any US Kashmir-related initiative “would poison relations between New Delhi and Washington.”

India has become too important to the US. India is both a key trade partner and key ally in a changing region. A strong and powerful India is America’s best balance against an increasingly muscular China. It is this strengthening relationship with India that forced Obama to strike Kashmir off his to-do list. It’s a relationship that President Bush nurtured. His deals on nuclear cooperation and his successful campaign to move the Nuclear Suppliers Group to drop the ban on India show that the US needs India on its side. A letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh confirms Obama’s commitment to continuing his predecessor’s India policy: “I would like to see US-India relations grow across the board to reflect our shared interests … Our common strategic interests call for redoubling US-Indian military, intelligence and law enforcement cooperation.”

This clearly reminds the world that a changing of the president rarely means a changing of national interests. And while Obama has waxed lyrical about “a new era of American leadership” and diplomacy over force, his plans sound pretty hawkish: raising troop levels in Afghanistan, a complete destruction of Al-Qaeda and continuing drone attacks in Pakistan’s tribal regions.

In Pakistan, the American drones have always been an explosive issue. For years, the drone game played out like this: US drones bombed targets on Pakistani soil while the federal government played dumb, throwing up its arms and issuing a letter of protest to the US ambassador, saying, “You’re violating me.”

But the old drone game is ending. For many months, the PPP-led government has been changing the focus of its protests over Predator attacks from an issue of sovereignty to one about their counter-productivity in the war on terror. The controversy accelerated in late January when Defence Secretary Robert Gates said that Pakistan had given the US the go-ahead to strike militants within its territory. Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gillani calmly denied the claim. “I want to put on record that we do not have any agreement between the government of the United States and the government of Pakistan,” he told CNN in an interview at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

During the election primaries in late 2007, Obama famously said that if he had actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and Pakistan failed to act, then he would. Well, Pakistan remembers that. Now Islamabad is saying, “Give us the intelligence. We’ll act on it.”

The ball is now in Obama’s court. Will he provide a shift in strategy that will help reduce anti-American sentiments and keep the local tribes on the right side of this war? Will he stand by his words from his inaugural address: “To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect.”

Special Representative Holbrooke will slowly unveil the direction. Pakistan is hoping that the changes involve more than implementing a performance-related military-aid scheme. The Biden-Lugar Bill that provides Pakistan with $7.5 billion in non-military aid over five years sounds like a promising start. That non-military aid falls under what Obama’s advisers call “dignity promotion” over “democracy promotion.”

But it’s still early, and after Obama’s early failure in Gaza there are doubters about his ability to commit to dignity promotion.

Was the Gaza crisis the first “test” that Vice President Joseph Biden had talked about during the run-up to last year’s presidential elections? “The world is looking,” said Biden in October. “We’re gonna have an international crisis, a generated crisis, to test the mettle of this guy.”

If the Gaza crisis was it, then all Obama’s post-election speeches aimed at lowering expectations were unnecessary. His early actions have already done it.