Sunday, June 06, 2010

Can Obama's Muslim engagement survive Gaza?

There's a very good article in Foreign Policy by Marc Lynch and Kristin M. Lord which reminds us that we are at the first anniversary of Obama's speech in Cairo where, he pledged "a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world, one based on mutual interest and mutual respect".

It then asks whether Obama's reaction to the Gaza flotilla outrage makes Muslims more or less likely to believe that Obama cannot deliver on his promise.

But the high expectations raised by Obama's Cairo speech led to a backlash when few concrete programs immediately materialized. Within months, grumbling began about America's failure to match words with deeds. To the frustration of the White House, Muslims focused more upon America's failure to compel Israel to freeze settlement construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem than on the call for a broad new relationship between the United States and the Muslim communities of the world.

This should not have been a surprise: as Obama himself clearly recognized when he decided to prioritize it in Cairo, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has for decades been the litmus test by which Muslims and Arabs judge American credibility and intentions.
Obama set the bar high in Cairo by daring to mention some of the most contentious issues between the US and the Muslim and Arab world, the most contentious of all being the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

But, once again, we find almost the entire world expressing shock at Israel's actions whilst the US Vice President goes to absurd lengths to justify the unjustifiable.

Lynch and Lord continue:
The inability to make progress on a Middle East peace agreement, the lack of progress on closing Guantanamo, and the widely reported use of drone strikes in Muslim countries such as Pakistan and Yemen have fueled a narrative that Obama has in fact changed little despite his more appealing rhetoric. For months there has been a palpable sense that the Obama bubble has burst. Gallup tracking polls show that between February and April of this year approval figures dropped 9 percent in Mauritania, 4 percent in the Palestinian territories, and 18 percent in Egypt.

The Gaza flotilla crisis therefore threatens the President's ambitions far more than his administration appears to recognize. The initial U.S. response, perceived as reflexively supporting Israel against near-universal international criticism over the blockade of Gaza and its attack on the aid convoy, has sparked a torrent of outrage. The new networks based on common interests, so central to the administration's vision, will likely disintegrate in the face of sharp disagreements over policy.

If Obama genuinely believes in the urgent strategic imperative of rebuilding relations with the world's Muslim communities, he must quickly--and personally--address the ongoing blockade of Gaza and use the crisis as an opportunity to underscore the need for a peace process and the delivery of humanitarian aid to Palestinians.
If he tries to ignore the issue or simply defend Israel's actions, then the first anniversary of the Cairo speech will also be its epitaph.
Obama promised change, especially between the US and the Muslim and Arab world. But when it comes to the dispute which most enrages the Arab world - the Israel Palestine issue - we have seen no real change at all. Obama had his moment when Netanyahu embarrassed Biden and, for a brief period, it looked as if Obama was going to press home his advantage.

But the more outrageous Netanyahu behaves - and killing nine peace activists really has to very high on any list of outrages - the more Biden, Wiener and many other Democrats fall into line with their knee jerk support for all things Israeli.

And the more they do that, the more meaningless Obama's speech in Cairo appears to have been. And Andrew Sullivan thinks that this has been Israel's plan all along:
From the very beginning of Obama's election, it seems to me that the prime objective of the Israeli government - both Kadima and now Netanyahu - was to use Gaza to destroy the U.S.'s attempt to reach out to the Muslim world. This is a chance to fight back - for the sake of broader American interests.
If Obama wants to change the US relationship with the Muslim and Arab world, he has to stop the blockade. And he then has to show that he is serious about a peace deal. Until he shows that he is serious about these two things, the speech in Cairo was - as people often accused him during his long election battle - "just words".

Click here for full article.

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