By Khaled Diab
Obama may gain some trust, but America's deceptive belief that it is not an empire condemns its leader to repeating old mistakes.
Obama's masterful Cairo speech is an eloquent sign that Washington is under new management, but can his shift in rhetoric deliver the kind of change Arabs and Muslims can believe in?
Whatever else he achieves during his stint as president, one thing we can be sure of is that Barack Obama will consistently deliver masterful speeches. Not only does he put his bumbling predecessor to shame, he easily outshone his drab and cautious Egyptian host, Hosni Mubarak.
His Cairo speech was both daring and cautious, conciliatory and confrontational, nuanced and simplistic. Despite the undoubted heat he will face for it from his conservative opponents back home, Obama did not shy away from praising Islamic culture and highlighting the centuries-old mash of civilisations, which stands in stark contrast to the clash favoured by the previous administration. I was also surprised that he referred to the Qur'an four times in his 45-minute speech.
This rhetorical shift away from the clash of civilisations is laudable and, to his credit, Obama did not shy away from criticising some aspects of US foreign policy. But can the master orator's eloquence deliver the kind of change in American attitudes and foreign policy needed?
Well, hints of the Real McCoy American arrogance were clear to see. Obama insisted that “America is not the crude stereotype of a self-interested empire”, but is “founded upon the ideal that all are created equal, and we have shed blood and struggled for centuries to give meaning to those words – within our borders, and around the world.”
Of course, America is not the evil empire, as some outsiders allege, but nor is it the benign superpower, as too many Americans believe. Obama's description smacks too much of American exceptionalism and the country's wishful self-image as the “Land of the Free” standing up for liberty wherever it is threatened. And it is this self-deception, this belief that America is not an empire, that it is not motivated by imperial designs, that it is somehow more virtuous than the rest of the world that will condemn it to keep repeating the same mistakes.
And it is not Obama but this empire that dare not speak its name that many people around the world ultimately distrust. The president's words went down quite well among many Arabs, while a poll carried out shortly before this visit found that Obama's approval rating among Arabs hovers around the 45% point – a far cry from George Bush's public villain number one status. But just because they are fond of the emperor, it does not mean that Arabs trust the empire: a full three-quarters still regarded the US as the second greatest threat in the world.
And, to a certain extent, they have a point: beneath the inviting and embracing surface gloss, there still lurks the outline of the same old American foreign policies, especially relating to Afghanistan, where Obama insists on pursuing a military solution in a part of the world where decades of superpower intervention have only brought misery. While he seems willing to spend hundreds of billions more on a war that has already cost hundreds of billions, he could only find a paltry $2.8bn for development in Afghanistan over an unspecified period of time.
His refusal to acknowledge US culpability in invading Afghanistan was dishonest, since America did not have to succumb to kneejerk vengeance after the 11 September attacks, especially since the Taliban were a monster of US-Pakistani making. However, it is welcome that he recognises that the US should not have invaded Iraq, but whether he will do anything to return control of the Iraqi economy to Iraqis once US troops pull out remains to be seen.
Obama has indicated a greater willingness to take a more robust and hands-on approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and has used much tougher words than his predecessor when referring to Israel, which has sparked anger and panic among Israel's new rightwing government. But Obama comes to the table with nothing new – besides the weathered and worn road map – and he may well meet with the same kind of failure Bill Clinton did.
One reason why the peace process broke down is that Washington has never succeeded in playing the role of an honest and impartial broker. How likely is it that Obama, as a self-described “friend of Israel”, will lean hard enough on an Israel led by the populist, rightwing Binyamin Netanyahu and his demagogical deputy and foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, especially with the presence of the equally extremist Hamas sitting among the Palestinian leadership? At this point, gradual grassroots efforts offer the best hope for a breakthrough.
Obama's stance on global nuclear disarmament is a noble one in principle. However, how likely is it that the US and the other major nuclear powers will give up their membership in the nuclear arms club?
On the topic of democracy and freedom, Obama delivered a breath of fresh air when he said: “No system of government can or should be imposed upon one nation by any other … America does not presume to know what is best for everyone, just as we would not presume to pick the outcome of a peaceful election.”
His insistence that change must come from within and that the US could only help indirectly was a very mature position to take. However, his failure to directly criticise the dismal record of Washington's to closest Arab allies, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, left a bitter taste in the mouths of opposition figures and reformers.
In fact, quite a few Egyptians questioned the wisdom of Obama's choice of Egypt as his podium. “Obama, a man of democracy and diplomacy, has made a mistake coming to Cairo as opposed to a secular and democratic state, such as Turkey,” opined Kholoud Khalifa, a young Egyptian journalist.
To help the process of democratisation, Washington does not need to oppose the regimes in Cairo or Riyadh actively, but to withdraw its current support, such as the $1.3 billion of military aid that goes to Egypt each year.
With Obama, change will almost certainly come, but whether there is enough change to make a real positive difference is something only time will tell.
This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited's Comment is Free section on 5 June 2009. Read the related discussion.