January 7, 2010
Obama and the Muslim world
M. K. Bhadrakumar
The Muslim opinion will keenly watch how Barack Obama navigates to bridge the growing hiatus between the blueprint that he laid out in his two landmark speeches last year and the U.S. policies.
The former Prime Minister of Malaysia, Mahathir Mohamad, wrote on his weblog that U.S. President Barack Obama “has not even fulfilled one of his promises” to the Muslim world. He said Mr. Obama is “preparing for a [military] offensive on Iran with the help of his ally, the Israeli regime.” Mr. Mahathir is a highly experienced statesman who tends to be far-sighted, but we can only hope that he belies his fame to be prescient.
The growing sense of disenchantment with the youthful U.S. President is not at all a rare phenomenon. Mr. Obama’s early promise to overhaul the strained relations between his country and the Muslim world will be on trial through 2010. The Muslim opinion will keenly watch how he navigates to bridge the growing hiatus between the blueprint that he of his own volition laid out in his two landmark speeches last year — in Ankara in April and Cairo in June — and the U.S. policies. To be sure, the U.S. foreign policy’s most explosive challenges in the coming one-year period are fated to come from the arc of countries stretching from the Levant to Xinjiang, which the Americans call the Greater Middle East.
For the U.S.’ allies and partners, including India, this poses an acute policy dilemma. To what extent do they identify with the U.S. regional policies? To be a natural ally usually means sharing sorrows and joys alike. But close identification with the U.S. policies can provoke a deadly backlash. The big question is: how do you remain a strategic partner of the U.S. and yet insulate from the “collateral damage” of its policies over which, in any case, you have no control? Considering the high hopes that the Obama presidency held out, it is truly extraordinary that things have come to this sorry pass. The latest regulations issued by the U.S. Transportation Security Administration stipulate that travellers from 14 nations would be subjected indefinitely to “full-body pat-down and physical inspection of property” before they can board a plane to the U.S. The 14 countries also include Cuba but anyone with a modicum of common sense will make out that it is a smart cosmetic touch applied in the desperate hope of obfuscating the shocking reality that all the countries in the U.S. watch-list happen to be Muslim — Saudi Arabia, Iran, Lebanon, Libya, Algeria, Iraq, Syria, Nigeria, Somalia, Yemen, Sudan and, of course, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The U.S. administration has claimed that the action “establishes a global security system” insofar as, to quote New York Times, “in some countries that have more advanced screening equipment, travellers will also be required to pass through so-called whole-body scanners that can look beneath clothing.” Conceivably, machines that look beneath our undergarments do not tell lies and they can be trusted to ensure that the David Headleys of the world don’t dupe the U.S. But a startling detail is that even if a citizen of any of the 13 Muslim countries has lived in a western country for decades, he still remains a suspect and will be subjected to extra security checks. In other words, he will be circumscribed by the burden of his religion, no matter his lifestyle or political beliefs. Period. Unsurprisingly, within hours of the U.S. announcement, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown went on record that whole-body scanners would be introduced in the U.K’s airports. The airport in Amsterdam is following suit. Winston Churchill could have said, an “iron curtain” is descending.
Mr. Obama had promised to move beyond terrorism and security and to address the U.S.’ relations with the world’s 1.57 billion Muslims with “mutual respect” and on the basis of “mutual interest.” But the opposite seems to be happening. A feeling is growing in the Muslim opinion that Mr. Obama articulated fine sentiments bordering on flattery but hasn’t taken any concrete actions. The prognosis is also gloomy. Afghanistan is about to witness one of the bloodiest years of its history as the U.S. troop surge is completed and the NATO-led military operations start accelerating. Ironically, this is even as mainstream opinion in the U.S. strategic community freely admits that it is impossible to defeat the Taliban militarily. Now, the war in Afghanistan is slouching toward neighbouring Pakistan. The U.S. analysts and experts are openly discussing that it is a matter of time before the U.S. Special Forces directly undertake operations on the Pakistani soil.
There has been an exponential increase in the activities of the CIA in Afghanistan and Pakistan — and, without doubt, in the surrounding region too. Iran denounces the U.S. covert support to the Jundullah terrorist group operating out of Pakistan and Afghanistan. While the exact background remains shrouded in mystery, the incontrovertible evidence is that there has been a movement of militants into Central Asia, including Xinjiang. In short, the “pre-emptive” wars that George Bush launched have seriously destabilised a region, which was even otherwise barely coping with acute problems of poverty and nationhood. No country in the region can today consider itself immune to the deepening instability.
However, Iran becomes Mr. Obama’s number one test case in the year ahead. He apologised in his Cairo speech for the CIA-sponsored coup against Iran’s Mohammed Mossadeq in 1953. That seemed an extraordinary gesture of humility and genuine repentance that statesmen seldom make. Mr. Obama followed up with an offer of engagement of Iran. But he soon came under immense pressure from the vicious Israeli lobby in the U.S. and being an astute politician, he began backtracking. The U.S. policy lapsed back to one of seeking a “regime change” in Tehran. An avalanche of media propaganda has been let loose against the Iranian regime. Last Wednesday’s massive demonstration involving hundreds of thousands of Iranians clarified that the social base of the Iranian revolution still remains intact and if history is any guide, the Iranian regime will once again blunt the U.S. assault.
A flashpoint will soon arise when it becomes difficult to fudge that the U.S. policy is in a cul-de-sac. Washington has a terrible choice to make between attacking Iran and acquiescing with an Israeli military attack on Iran, both of which hold the potential to literally trigger a “holocaust” in the Middle East. Meanwhile, the focus on Iran hasn’t quite succeeded in distracting the attention from the Middle Eastern crisis, which essentially taps into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the presence of American forces in the region. The Israeli policies of subjugating the Palestinians go to the heart of the Muslim anger towards the U.S. Mr. Obama has so far simply sidestepped or prevaricated on the core issue and taken no solid steps to quell the fury of the Arab opinion. On the other hand, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has successfully ignored Washington’s demands that he freeze illegal Jewish settlement activity.
Again, the U.S.’ anticipated rapprochement with Syria seems to have stalled and its continuing hard line on the Hezbollah and the Hamas grates on political reality. To quote Chas Freeman, former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia (and Mr. Obama’s original nominee to head the National Intelligence Council), “There is a general concern now, especially in the Arab world, that the [Obama] administration is not delivering with respect to any issues in the region. I think there’s been quite a difference between how Obama as a person is perceived and how the U.S. government as an institution is perceived. I think what may be happening is that Obama is sinking into the generally negative view of the U.S. government in the region rather than transcending it as he once did.”
All in all, what is the balance sheet of the Obama presidency? The U.S. is escalating the war in Afghanistan and it threatens Pakistan’s territorial integrity. The slow U.S. drawdown from Iraq barely appears to be on track, as the spectre of renewed ethnic and sectarian violence is rising. The U.S. is actively subverting Iran. The Israeli siege of the Palestinians continues and the U.S. won’t jettison its bias toward Israel.
As if all this is not enough, there are signs that the U.S. is on the verge of launching yet another expeditionary war on yet another Muslim country on yet another pretext of fighting the elusive al-Qaeda in the vicinity of the oil-rich Persian Gulf region — Yemen. The drone aircraft have already begun raining death and destruction in Yemen and it transpires that the Green Berets and the U.S. Special Forces are operating in that country. American politicians are speaking ominously about Yemen being a “failed state,” meaning the U.S. needn’t legitimise intervention. As the ultra-hawkish chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security, Senator Joe Lieberman, put it, “Iraq was yesterday’s war. Afghanistan is today’s war. If you don’t act pre-emptively, Yemen will be tomorrow’s war.”
A war in Yemen will also dash the remaining hopes regarding Mr. Obama’s offer to repair the badly battered image and influence of American power in the Muslim world.
(The writer is a former diplomat.)