President Barack Obama’s speech next month in Cairo is highly anticipated by the Arab world, but there is considerable trepidation about what the future holds for us since U.S. foreign policy affects not only our perception about the United States but also how we go about our lives.
Obama has already demonstrated that he wants a new and different relationship with the Ummah, but sincerity often takes a back seat to reality. There has never been a lower point between the United States and Arabs and Muslims than right at this moment.
For Obama to repair the damage he must state unequivocally his break from former President George W. Bush’s Middle East foreign policies. We must hear it directly from Obama. There should be no tip-toeing with the niceties of respecting a former president’s foreign policies with silence. The damage has been so great that it must be acknowledged.
While Obama has spoken in positive generalities, his foreign policy goals remain elusive for the Muslim world. But if we can expect him to hold the stick in the middle and practice a balanced and nuanced foreign policy, then we are on the right track to reestablishing.
Naturally, that means a new and bold approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The so-called peace process over the past two decades has reached ridiculous proportions with the parsing of each act, each word and each event.
Obama has already stumbled with his administration’s suggestion to the Arab League that it abandon its demands for the right of return for Palestinian refugees. If Obama hasn’t read the 2002 Arab Peace Plan perhaps now is the time to take a look. Israel’s primary concern is its security and safety. What better guarantee than Arab nations recognizing Israel’s right to exist and establishing diplomatic relations in exchange for the right to return to Israel and return to its pre-1967 borders?
Many Western leaders have adopted the position that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not the cause rift between the West and Islam and the rise of terrorism. I’m not sure what reality these leaders live in. An Arab’s view of U.S. foreign policy is colored by the conflict. It colors our view of the West’s intentions in Iraq and Afghanistan and even how we view ourselves in a world of blind loyalty to a country that inflicts human suffering without consequences.
The recognition by Arab nations of Israel, if Obama sincerely wants it, will not satisfy the likes of Al-Qaeda. While Al-Qaeda has its supporters within the Muslim community their attitude is not reflective of most Muslims. Yet the Bush administration’s misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan have made the issue so complex that Muslims are conflicted.
Obama has made it clear he seeks withdrawal of American troops from Iraq, but now we wait to see how he rebuilds a destroyed country. The reconstruction of schools, hospitals and infrastructure, long a failure in Iraq, is paramount to winning the hearts and minds of Muslims. Awarding university scholarships to Iraqi students to study abroad and funding university research in Iraq to pave the way for Iraqis to become members of the international community also will be a good start.
Obama is rethinking U.S. strategy by installing new a new military commander to direct operations in Afghanistan. But is Obama willing to assist, not control, operations in northwest Pakistan to defeat the Taliban? Is he willing to help stabilize the Pakistan government to ensure a consistent and effective campaign to minimize Taliban influence?
The key to winning the confidence of Pakistanis and Afghans is to demonstrate that collateral civilian casualties are not acceptable at any level. Diplomacy should be the primary directive, and assistance, not a military campaign, will win that confidence.
But given the behavior of the United States over the past eight years, Muslims perceive the U.S. as a destroyer, an invader and a country to be feared. Given the choice between joining the Taliban, Al-Qaeda or the U.S., it seems that Pakistanis and Afghans prefer the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. It’s the lesser of evils. It’s the old cliché of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” It seems to me that some Afghans and Pakistanis believe that it’s better to side with an odious regime like the Taliban than with an army that is killing their neighbors and destroying their homes.
Obama next step in Afghanistan and Pakistan is a delicate one. He is better equipped to handle the war there than Bush, but Muslims are straddling the fence in that region deciding which way to go. His speech next month will help them make that decision.Originaly published in Saudi Gazette.