The recent remarkable and revolutionary unrest in the Arab world and particularly in Egypt has created an awkward dilemma for the Obama administration. Despite his campaign rhetoric of “change,” Barack Obama has continued the basic George W. Bush policy of encouraging an anti-Iran alliance between Israel and so-called moderate Arab states. These “moderate” states include Egypt’s atrocious police-state dictatorship and Saudi Arabia’s misogynist theocracy, which is perhaps the most reactionary government on earth. All of these states have continued to be lavishly funded by the United States under Obama—ironically enough given Obama’s following comment in his (not-so) anti-Iraq war speech in Chicago in the fall of 2002: “You want a fight, President Bush? Let’s fight to make sure our so-called allies in the Middle East, the Saudis and the Egyptians, stop oppressing their own people, and suppressing dissent, and tolerating corruption and inequality and mismanaging their economies so that their youth grow up without education, without prospects, without hope…” Six and a half years later, Obama as U.S. president refused even to call Egypt’s dictator Hosni Mubarak “authoritarian” (much less a dictator). He praised the Egyptian government as “a force for stability and good in the region.” He claimed to have been “struck” by the “wisdom and graciousness” of Saudi king Abdullah, the head of state in a nation that regularly practiced public beheadings. These comments amounted to a clear endorsement of torture, martial law, secret police, and worse in the Middle East.1
As feared and predicted by many Middle Eastern democracy activists, Obama’s much ballyhooed trip to the Middle East in early June of 2009 blessed repression in the Middle East. Obama used his high-profile diplomatic visit to Cairo, the heart of the Arab world, to call for a cooperative era of ambitious regional diplomacy. He made no far-reaching calls for political reform, reflecting his determination to tolerate repression on the part of Middle East allies willing to assist the U.S. on “regional issues” (the U.S. occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, the general U.S. support for Israel and its vicious oppression of the Palestinians, and the U.S. campaign against Iran). President Mubarak and other Middle Eastern authorities naturally interpreted Obama’s reluctance to raise questions of democracy as a green light to crack down on regime critics.
It was depressing for many who sought peace in the Middle East to hear Obama’s Cairo speech buy heavily into the language of an epic global conflict between the Judeo-Christian world and the Muslim world. As left Middle East scholar Gilbert Achcar noted the day after the address:
[Obama’s] speech was lamentably constrained within the parameters of the “clash of civilizations” paradigm—whose main theoretician, the late Samuel Huntington, did not advocate the clash, as his non-readers believe, but warned of it. The paradigm was one of a world divided into blocs, the majority of which are constituted around a single religious criterion. Thus, Obama in Cairo exclusively addressed the “Muslims,” scattering his speech with quotes from the Koran, expressing a view of the world dominated by religion—and only Abrahamic religions at that, forgetting that in his own country there are millions who do not belong to any [sects] of Christianity, Judaism or Islam, not to mention those who refuse to belong to any religion at all. In doing so, he paid an unintended tribute to the man whom he mentioned at the beginning of his speech and built up as its main target: Osama bin Laden.2
Jon Alterman, a State Department Middle East advisor under George W. Bush, offered an interesting perspective on the unchanged bipartisan and imperial continuities beneath and beyond Obama’s trip to the Arab world. “Our policies,” Alterman explained at a forum in Washington, “are a reflection of our interests and our alliances and while they may change moderately from administration to administration, the underlying interests are simply not allied with the policies that many Muslims around the world would like to see the United States pursue. We’re going to have to agree to disagree, and that’s the first task for the President—to frame U.S. policy in a way that takes some of the passion out of the widespread hostility for the United States [emphasis added].”3 Obama’s real task, Alterman felt, wasn’t to change actual U.S. policy in the Middle East; it was rather to take the dangerous sting out of how those policies were perceived across the predominantly Muslim and Arab region. It was about public relations and re-branding.
Here we are a year and a half later. The alienated, drastically under-employed and hopeless Arab and Egyptian youth that Obama claimed to care for in 2002 have led an epic outpouring of protest that challenges the power of the arch-authoritarian governments the U.S. continues to bankroll under Obama. Contrary to the president’s religious-civilization-clash rhetoric, the struggles in Tunisia, Yemen, Egypt and elsewhere are not being waged by and for Muslim extremism but in the name of the modern, secular- democratic values that Washington claims to support and embody (notwithstanding its captivity to its own unelected and interrelated dictatorships of money and empire). Insofar as Obama now appears to be cautiously willing to appear to side with the people in the streets in Cairo and Alexandria, the primary administration motive is clearly imperial-strategic. It arises from the fear that the American and Obama brand will be irrevocably poisoned in Egypt and the Middle East if the U.S. appears to have stayed to the end with a doomed dictator. But then, American foreign policy has never supported democracy overseas for other than contingent and highly qualified reasons. Beneath its claim to represent and advance universal democratic values, Washington has long sponsored, protected, and equipped authoritarian and dictatorial regimes that it has seen as favorable to the U.S. corporate sector’s economic interests and the American military’s related global designs. When those regimes collapse under the weight of popular rebellion the U.S. never wanted to see, Washington does the best it can to identify itself with and control the opposition
- Michael Brull, “Obama Just Updated U.S. Double-Speak,” New Matilida, June 11, 2009; U.S. Liberals, “Barack Obama’s Stirring 2002 Speech Against the Iraq War,” October 2002. [↩]
- Gilbert Achcar, “Obama’s Cairo Speech,” ZNet, June 6, 2009. [↩]
- Jon Alterman quoted in Michael Scherer, “Obama Seeks to Win Muslim Hearts and Minds,” Time, June 3, 2009. [↩]