Global Trends by Martin Khor

Monday 8 June 2009

Actions needed to follow Obama’s Cairo speech

Last week’s landmark speech by US President Barrack Obama in Cairo was aimed at building bridges with the Muslim world. It must be followed up by concrete actions to avoid the skepticism of unmet expectations.  


It was a landmark and historic speech that United States President Barrack Obama made at the University of Cairo last week.

Perhaps this is what we had anyway expected from the now famous orator in Obama, as he reached out to the Muslim world.

In his wide ranging speech, he attempted to heal the wounds inflicted by the United States in the past, in particular by the eight years of  the Bush administration, that seemed to wage war on Islam whilst pursuing the “war on terror”, and that had sided so blatantly with Israel as it bombed the Palestinians as well as the Lebanese.

If words alone could do the job, Obama’s speech was near perfect.  But, alas, the words delivered in his trademark cool and intellectual style, are not enough. 

They have raised expectations that the US will now change its policies towards the Middle East, towards the Muslim world, and towards the developing countries in general.  And raised expectations can lead to frustration and cynicism, unless followed up by concrete measures and actions.

Thus, the reactions to Obama’s speech ranged from the ecstatic to the skeptical.  History will judge its value not only by the choice of words and the eloquence of delivery but by the harsher standards of follow up action.

For the time being, however, the speech has done a great job of revisiting the past and starting the rebuilding of trust, which seemed to have been cracked by the recent theory and practice of the “clash of civilization.”

Obama acknowledged the great contributions of the Muslim world to science and the arts, criticised the stereotyping of Muslims and called Islam a religion of peace. 

He described the situation of the Palestinians as “intolerable”, recognized the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for a state of their own and called on Israel to improve the daily lives of Palestinians and recognize their right to exist.

But, perhaps to be expected, he assured Israel too, speaking of the unbreakable US-Israel relationship and described as “hateful” those who denied the Holocaust, while at the same time saying the US does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements.

On Iraq, Obama seemed to be at least gently critical of the war waged there by the US, calling it a “war of choice” and reminding that its army will be leaving.  And he said “we do not want to keep our troops in Afghanistan” either.  He even admitted that the US

had plotted the overthrow of the democratically elected government of Iran in the 1950s.

But even as his speech gave many in the developing world a lot of what it wanted to hear from a US President, there was much he also did not say.

He called on the world to reject the stereotyping of the US as a “self interested empire.”  Unfortunately, this “stereotype” merely reflects the reality of US actions of the past many decades as it waged imperialistic wars from Vietnam to Iraq, subverted and overthrew scores of legitimate governments in Central and South America, Africa, Asia and the Middle East, and helped tyrannical regimes it set up to subject their people to torture and killings.

It will take more than a speech to show that the imperialistic ambitions and practices of past US administrations (most recently augmented by the Bush doctrine of the “pre-emptive strike”) are over.  Especially since the US is still expanding its troops in Afghanistan and using drones to strike at and kill hundreds of people (many of who are civilians) in Pakistan and Afghanistan

Thus, the developing world will be watching whether there will be a real follow-up in terms of the US taking measures to give up its imperial ambitions and actions, in the military, political and economic spheres. 

In the economic area, how and whether the US will act in assisting developing countries overcome the global financial crisis that it created, and in taking a lead to build a new global financial order, will be most telling.  So far the Obama administration shows little sign it is stepping up to these tasks.

When Obama said in his speech that the US did not accept continued Israeli settlements in the West Bank, it was not clear whether he meant the expansion or the existence of the settlements.

The need to prevent expansion, including for “natural growth”, will be the first test of wills between the Obama administration and the Israeli government.  If Obama does not pass this test, then his beautiful words in Cairo will come back to haunt him.  And if he does pass this test, he will have to move on to dealing with the existence of the settlements.

Obama slapped the wrist of Israel when he implied it did show enough humanitarian concern about the plight of Palestinians.  Perhaps this was only a start to his being tougher on Israel.

But while he called on Palestinians to denounce violence, he omitted mentioning Israel’s extreme brutality in its blanket bombing of Lebanon and Gaza and its past and continued assassination of Palestinian leaders.  He did not mention let alone denounce Israel’s no-so-secret ownership of nuclear weapons, even as he continues to pursue the US policy of no-nuclear-bombs by Iran or anyone else in the region.

From press reports, there have been many praises from around the world, including from Muslim-majority countries, for Obama’s speech to re-build bridges.  And there have also been skeptical comments that this was only public-relations sweet talk to hide the continuation of US policy.

There is justification for both the positive and negative reactions. President Obama has made an important speech that could prove be a new beginning, and he now has to follow up to prove that it is indeed a new beginning.