Tag Archives: US Relations With Muslim world

Obama’s historic speech the platform for Middle Eastern peace?

The birth of a “new beginning” with the Muslim world, hoped as a new beginning for the elusive peace process

It was no secret that improving ties with the Muslim world was to become a core component of US President Barack Obama’s new administration. On 4th June president Obama delivered his highly anticipated speech at Cairo University, where a “new beginning” for ties with the Muslim world based on “mutual interest and mutual respect” took on strong emphasis. A strong symbol of this new start is the peace process between the Israel and the Palestinians and the establishment of a Palestinian state. However, as we have seen many times before, emotive words and real action and tough decision making do not always translate to the same thing.

Furthermore, by looking at the greater whole of the Middle East, will parts such as Kurdistan miss out?

One of the greatest historical problems in the Middle East has been the establishment of elusive peace between Israel and the Palestinians that has become almost symbolic of the US relationship with the Muslim world. Obama’s seemingly new tough approach with Israel signalled a new phase in the peace process. Successfully achieving peace between the Jews and Arabs and ultimately the establishment of a Palestinian state may well prove to be the platform on which Obama is judged at the end of his term.

The speech was refreshing, warm and conciliatory. Any speech that even grabs the mood and attention of customary US nemesis, speaks volumes about the influence and importance of the speech. However, deep and powerful rhetoric is by no means a measure on how such broad goals will be achieved in reality.

New ties with the Muslim world

A frequent theme of Obama’s speech was his emphasis on the positivity and role of Islam on the global stage. He pointed out the significance of Islam on contemporary history and human development and indeed the part that Islam has played in America’s history, while referring to civilisations “debt” to Islam.

Relations with the Islamic world under George W. Bush and indeed before that became strained and introduced dangerous levels of animosity and mistrust. The perception of the US in the last several years has been tarnished by its foreign policy, with many Middle Eastern views portraying the US as “anti-Islamist”.

Obama downplayed such beliefs of an ideological clash and stated “America and Islam are not exclusive, and need not be in competition. Instead, they overlap, and share common principles – principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings.” Obama was evidently keen to eradicate somewhat negative stereotypes that surround both Islam and the US, and the cycle of distrust that had undermined common ties.

Obama frequently highlighted a great respect for Islam while aiming to show that there was more common ground than differences.

The whole is greater than the sum of the parts

From the outset, Obama has clearly been keen to reach out to the greater Middle East. A common theme of his tenure as president is that the US will aim to “listen rather than dictate” to the Muslims.

Indeed, the Middle East is as much of an interlinked web as ever, and no solution or stability in any one country will achieve the greater goals of the region.

Peace and success in the Middle East can not be achieved without a broad consensus amongst the social mosaic of the region. The American experience in Iraq and Afghanistan has shown that individual achievements will only ever be hampered by greater obstacles in the surrounding environment.

More importantly, US relations in the Middle East have reached a vicious and perilous cycle, which Obama has been clearly intent on breaking.

Obama tried to win the hearts of the Islamic audiences by making references to texts from the Quran, and by emphasising that with a “proud tradition of tolerance”, the positive role that Islam plays in solutions rather than as a source of problems.

Ties with Israel and Palestinians

In his quest to turn a new page with the greater Muslim world, there can perhaps be no greater starting point than resolving the historical Palestinian dilemma.

Peace between Israel and the Palestinians formed a core focus of the Bush era, however, the much-hyped peace road map never really started.

Obama speech echoed a neutral stance with regards to the present Israeli-Palestinian standoff. The Islamic view of America has long been defined by the strong historical support of the Jews, seemingly at the expense of Arab suffering and the deprivation of Palestinian rights.

This notion has only served to add to the view that US foreign policy was hypocritical and unequivocal.

In his keynote speech, Obama once again reaffirmed the strong bond between the US and Israel, which is “…based upon cultural and historical ties, and the recognition that the aspiration for a Jewish homeland is rooted in a tragic history that cannot be denied.” However, Obama was clearly keen to ensure that Palestinian rights and sufferings were treated on equal footing, describing the situation of the Palestinians as “intolerable”, who he believes “endure the daily humiliations – large and small – that come with occupation. ”

Shifting US ties with Israel?

Many have pointed to a shift in US policy towards Israel. However, this policy is needed if the overall “reach out” of his administration to the Muslims is to be taking seriously.

It remains to be seen how much political or public pressure, the US government is willing to place on their historical ally in the region.

US Middle East envoy George Mitchell, visiting Israeli and Palestinian leaders on the back of Obama’s speech, reiterated that the US views a two-state solution as the “only viable political solution” to the conflict.

A key note of Obama speech on the peace process was the firm need to halt all Israeli settlement building activity in the occupied West Bank, which is deemed illegal under International law.

This caused a potential confrontation with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who previously vowed to at least to accommodate “natural growth” building in the settlements. Furthermore, Netanyahu and his cabinet have appeared reserved to endorse the principle of a Palestinian state in public, much to the contrary of American support to the idea.

Netanyahu is due to deliver a key speech later this week, which will go a long way to underlining the path that his Israeli government will pursue. Either way, the Israeli government will need to make concessions in terms of cabinet personnel or policy, as they realign with the new realities in Washington.

Many in Israel are evidently concerned about the new shift of support from the US government. With Obama placing equal focus on both the Israelis and Palestinians, many will now be looking at the political movements and initiatives shown in each camp. On the back of the historical speech by Obama, there is now a danger for either side to be singled out depending on the steps they undertake.

Both the Israelis and Palestinians have been cautiously warm to the renewed efforts called for in Obama’s speech.

Moreover, Israel may need to make greater concessions not just in the face of US pressure, but also in their quest to win greater endorsement from the Arab world and particularly support against the growing Iranian nuclear threat.

The US has been keen to emphasise to their Israeli counterparts that the resolution of the Iranian nuclear issue must come hand-in-hand with the peace process between the Israelis and Palestinians. What is certain is that no side can act against the Tehran government without a broad support of the greater Middle East.

Any Israeli unilateral action on Iran, as much as its nuclear programme is also feared by many Arab regimes in the region, would go a long way to ensuring further isolation of Israel.

The need for tough measures

For Obama’s brave new policies to become a reality, the US government must go beyond strong rhetoric and mixed this up with tough action and decisions.

For example, while the US have been insistent that no Israeli settlement building continues, what will they do if Israeli continues their justification of further construction in one form or another? Furthermore, the US should be clear on their exact policy regarding settlement building, so that there is no doubt or misinterpretation to suit one side. Does opposition to settlement building mean future settlement expansions or the presence of these settlements altogether?

In his speech, Obama was signalling the prospects of a new definition of ties with Hamas, if Hamas refuses to change its policy towards Israel and does not become an apart of a new unity Palestinian government, then how will the US react to the entity that affectively rules the Gaza strip?

If the peace process goes down a productive and positive path, then the stance of the US will look after itself, however, such similar paths in the past have seldom followed such positive motions. The position of the US will come under much scrutiny, if key differences emerge between Israel and the Palestinians or if indeed outright violence erupts again.

Obama is correct in that no ideology or principle, such as democracy can or should be imposed on a nation. It is indeed down to the real will of a nation, on what they choose to adopt or how they want to be ruled.

By that token, Israelis and Palestinians must make the real concessions and choose what kind of a future they want, but obviously the right US policy has great bearings on the decisions and directions taking by each nation. One thing that is certain is that the current status-quo will serve no side.

All sides, particularly Israel must realise that peace measures should not just be political, more opportunities and economic progression in the Palestinian territories will be a major influence to sway Palestinian sentiments.

The dangers for the Kurds

One side that has clearly benefited from the US foreign policy of recent years are the Kurds. A pro-American, democratic and secular nation does not come around too often and the US and Kurds have developed positive ties. However, many Kurds have grown disillusioned at lack of US support or appreciation of these bonds.

Clearly, when one takes a greater view of a subject matter, certain components that make up key parts of the whole, may miss out.

Too often in the past, the US has neglected so-called “smaller” actors to attain their bigger strategic goals with the perceived more dominant powers in the region.

The US must not forget that that as the fourth largest ethnic group in the Middle East, the Kurds deserve recognition as a firm actor in the region and to be credited for their recent gains, their path towards prosperity and democratisation.

Too often reach-outs in the Middle East have been represented by Jews and Arabs. Reach out to the Muslim world, includes all such parties, including Kurdistan, which is after all a predominantly Muslim nation.

However, there is an inherent fear that the US can not keep all sides happy, which is next to impossible and as a result the Kurds have to be careful no to over rely on fickle foreign policies in the region, be it from the US or neighbouring countries.

By keeping the “major” parties happy in the Middle East, the US may well choose to do this at the expense of others. The Kurds have to ensure that they achieve self-sufficiency for their experience and reinforce their region based on a future that is not necessarily dependent on Western powers whose support is conditional and reserved at the best of times.

Support against extremism

Clearly, the war of the modern era has been the battle against terrorism and extremism. This new battlefield is one that is unconventional and high-impact. As the last several years have highlighted, it is one war that the might of ones military alone can not win in the long-term.

The battle against fanaticism and fundamentalist can be won on ideological grounds alone, by affectively winning the hearts and minds of the populations or uprooting the support base of these elements.

In Palestinian, Iraq, Lebanon, Iran and Afghanistan, it is indeed that battle against extremism that has handicapped reconstruction, social advancement and peace. In any of these cases, US can not win these “battles” by merely imposing their ideology or military might. In other words, they strongly need the support of the greater Muslim “moderates” to establish long-lasting peace.

It is only with the establishment of a strong moderate support base, that the extremists can then be uprooted. The previous cycle of animosity and alienation between the US and Muslim powers, further distanced such moderates and indirectly encouraged support for more radical elements.

Obama was quick to emphasis that violence is not a part of Islam. In the case of Palestine, Obama stated that violence was a “dead end” and that “resistance through violence and killing is wrong and does not succeed”.

Obama, although stating that America was not at war with Islam, openly warned that the US would continue to confront extremists that threatened its security. This is a clear reminder that the US has not necessarily gone soft on its determination to battle radicals or employing a complete shift in foreign policy, particularly against elements like the Taliban in Afghanistan or the regime in Tehran.

First Published On: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: eKurd, PUK Media, Peyamner, Various Misc.

Obama’s pledge to listen instead of dictate bodes well

While not a “miracle worker”, Obama is set to change the way the Muslim world perceives the US.

The Middle East will prove a Tough Nut to Crack for Obama, But “listening” is a good start

In the time since his widely publicised inauguration in front of million of expectant onlookers from around the world, US President Barack Obama has wasted no time in getting to work.

So lofty is the level of expectation and responsibility placed on his broad shoulders that Obama needs to use every minute to live up to the billing he has received as “global saviour”. 

The Middle East will prove as much of a ubiquitous agenda item as any in Washington, and may well be the platform on which he is measured at the end of his tenure. So keen was Obama to showcase the new determination to engage more actively in the Middle east, that within hours of his appointment as US envoy to the Middle East, George Mitchell, was half-way across the Atlantic en route to a Middle Eastern tour.

Bush’s imprint on the Middle East

Without a doubt, the era of George W. Bush will forever be symbolised by key failings in the Middle East. Bush’s track record left behind an uncertain region and no significant results, in spite of the democratic projects and peace roadmaps his administration tried so hard to implement.

Some benefitted greatly from Bush’s foreign policy: just ask the much repressed Kurds and Shiites who suffered immensely under decades of barbarian dictatorships in Iraq; however, the overall consensus is that Bush lost the support and respect of the greater region.

One of Obama’s first goals will be to draw a line in the Middle Eastern sand. His eagerness to highlight the birth of a new chapter and all the opportunities that it brings could not make this intention clearer.

Obama does not want to be prejudiced, for the perceived failing of a predecessor, before his work has even begun. In this light, even the staunch foes of the previous regime, are addressed in the most diplomatic and tactful manner.

Under Obama burnt bridges are being restored and there now exists an opportunity for anyone willing to “unclench their fist”.

Obama’s message of hope and friendship

Above all the aspiration, dynamism and guile, Obama is a realist. Long before he ran for presidency, he would have known from his extensive network of advisors, the size and complexity of the task facing him in the Middle East. Obama knew long before his accession to prominence, that unless he worked diligently to alter policies, even the more established relationships in the region could be threatened.

The first public statement on the Middle East by Obama was judged along the same lines as before, but in a recent television address on a prominent Arabic news channel, Obama was able to put his oratorical skills to great use, in the quest to strike a different tone in the region and build new ties with the Muslim world.

Leaving Iraq responsibly

In many ways, Iraq was Bush’s Achilles heel and became the cornerstone of Obama’s election campaign. In spite of the early promise, and almost six years of a costly occupation, Iraq continued to be a vicious thorn in the side of the Bush administration.

Obama never supported the war from the outset, was against the troop surge in 2007, and pledged to withdraw troops within 16 months of taking oath.

A security agreement took affect on January 1, 2009, effectively handing over full sovereignty to the Iraqi government and setting a timetable for withdrawal. However, the task of withdrawing thousands US troops is only half the battle in Iraq. Obama requires a long-term vision for Iraq and a strategic understanding with Iraq as well as neighbouring countries. The troops may ultimately leave but this does not always mean the headache will go.

Iraq has come a long way in the past couple of years, especially in respect to security. But with so much attention being paid to the US exit strategy, not much emphasis has been placed on the exit strategy of the Iraqis themselves.

The US would do well to leave “responsibly”. Nonetheless, much in the same way as the word “success” in reference to Iraq provided a rather ambiguous term for the previous administration, leaving Iraq in “reasonable shape” may prove to be similarly ambiguous.

Key long-term problems remain unresolved in Iraq, and this is one battle over which, in practice,  the US may have little sway. It is down to the Iraqis to compromise and seek greater national reconciliation, but if all sides do not embrace democratic conventions and companionship in the same manner, there is little the US can do.

Key spanners in the Iraqi works

Iraq is a case in point that illustrates that imposing ideals on a population, even those taking for granted in the West, will never work if those same ideals are not embraced by that population – however logical they may seem to a Western onlooker.

More importantly, the West needs to allow time for its ideals to take effect, without supervision and forceful steering, and must appreciate that the result or outcomes are not always going to be as hoped.

The Iraqi transitional road to democracy is as uncertain as ever. Many key issues continue to blight the national horizon, but none more so than the unwillingness of some sides to reach true compromise.

To his credit, Obama has been insistent on thorough planning. This “planning” must finally show a realisation that objectives in Iraq must be viewed in the long-term and not just in short-term success measures, which will allow the US a much needed and credible escape route.

Iraq represents a fragmented society and classic diplomacy, unfortunately, is not always their option of choice when it comes to bridging historic ethnic and sectarian differences.

Whether Obama adopts the much discussed plan by his now vice president Joe Biden, to divide Iraq into three semi-autonomous federal entities, remains unclear, but what is certain is that it will take the pioneering mindset of someone like Biden with a policy that is genuinely out of the box, to prevent further bloodshed in Iraq, let alone preserve its long-term unity.

Outgoing US ambassador Ryan Crocker ominously warned Obama about the challenges that lay ahead in Iraq and the difficulty in pinning timescales for their resolution.

Key milestones in Iraq

In many ways, 2009 will be a decisive year for Iraq and a litmus test for the readiness of Iraqis to go it “alone”. Events in the next six months may well shape events in years to come.

In most of the country voting took place on January 31, to appoint provincial councils with parliamentary balloting also set to be concluded by the end of 2009.

It remains to be seen whether Iraq will be better leveraged and balanced on the national stage as a result of these elections.

Obama administration will need show new vigour and flexibility as the same rigid mentality of the previous regime will prove counter-productive.

Common mistrust among politicians and a simmering war of words between Kurdistan Regional Government and Baghdad, show that the appetite for true reconciliation and a common vision will remain elusive for some time to come, regardless of the number of elections held.

Listen rather than dictate

A real welcome to all in the Middle East was Obama’s pledge to listen rather than dictate. This may yet prove to Obama’s biggest strength. By planning and analysing the facts, the US can slowly reach out to the predominantly Muslim population of the Middle East. The new administration must steer away from the perception that the US is anti-Islamic.

Perhaps, this is an underlying reason why peace between Israelis and the Palestinians under Bush fast became a mirage. Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and prospective wars touted for so long in Syria and particularly Iran, only encouraged Islamist sceptics who long-alleged an anti-Islamic agenda and the ambition of the US to shape the Middle East according to colonial mindsets and a thirst for oil.

The desire for an open diplomatic approach stressed by Obama was evident as he emphasised that Israelis and Palestinians will have to make some tough decisions and the US could not dictate proceedings.

The US appears intent on looking at the bigger picture when resolving matters in the Middle East. Clearly, from Iraq to Palestine, one can not foster long-term prosperity without appreciating the ripple affects and the influence that neighbouring countries often induce.

Obama implied that in the future the US would have to take into account all the factors involved, this was a clear dig at Bush and the chaos that ensued in the aftermath of Iraq’s liberation.

Hoping for a miracle

Although, a new platform of optimism is badly needed in the region, Obama is not a miracle worker. No guarantees can be provided that decade’s long conflicts and disputes, so elusive to many US presidents, can be fixed by injections of pragmatism alone.

There is always room for manoeuvre in foreign policy, but the fundamental blueprints of US policy, such as its historical support of Israel can not be shifted all too easily.

What is clear is that with Obama’s new thinking and an active approach, he may get closer than any former president in building new peaceful ties in the region and setting a genuine stage for much needed progress.

First Published On: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: Online Opinion, Peyamner, Various Misc.