When it comes to Obama’s Cairo speech, what matters are actions, not fine words

Israel/PalestineUS Politics
on 16 Comments

Antony Loewenstein responds to Obama’s speech in Cairo:

Back in 2005, then US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice gave a rousing speech at Cairo’s American University. “For sixty years”, she argued, “my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region here in the Middle East – and we achieved neither. Now, we are taking a different course. We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all peoples.”

Rice spoke passionately to a skeptical Arab world. Few were convinced after the Iraq war’s chaos. Before Barack Obama’s Cairo address today, Egyptian bloggers were largely cynical, local journalist Hossam el-Hamalawy demanded Washington sever its ties with the brutal Egyptian dictatorship and a recent study found that Egyptians still negatively viewed US foreign policy.

“It may serve President Obama well to remember”, wrote the former Al-Ahram correspondent in Washington DC, Ayman El-Amir, “that terrorism is rooted more in the economic, social and political marginalisation of hundreds of millions of people under the control of self-perpetuating autocracies than in religious fervour.” Obama had little to say about the US-backed despots his country funds and arms – Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

Obama’s speech was at once moving, revealing, predictable, rhetorically elegant, largely empty and devoid of detail. Words matter, of course, and the current US President has the gift of the gab. Jeffrey Goldberg was swooning, but Ali Abunimah understands the Middle East far better.  There was “overwhelming popular opposition to increasingly intrusive and violent American military, political and economic interventions”, Abunimah argued. Obama spoke as if American behaviour in the Middle East was well meaning, if sometimes misguided. Tell that to the tens of millions of people living under US-backed rule.

On Israel/Palestine, Obama at least acknowledged the pain of the truly aggrieved party:

“…The Palestinian people – Muslims and Christians – have suffered in pursuit of a homeland. For more than sixty years they have endured the pain of dislocation. Many wait in refugee camps in the West Bank, Gaza, and neighboring lands for a life of peace and security that they have never been able to lead. They endure the daily humiliations – large and small – that come with occupation. So let there be no doubt: the situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable. America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own.”

While it’s important for America to understand the squalor in which the Palestinian people live – largely due to Zionist aggression, Western-support and Arab government inaction – Obama’s dismissal of the democratically-elected Hamas party was disappointing. “Palestinians must abandon violence”, the US President bluntly stated. He’s right; targeting Israeli civilians is a crime without justification. But resisting occupation is both legitimate and necessary and the Muslim world knows all-too-well the silence and complicity during this year’s Gaza onslaught, the 2006 Lebanon war and West Bank pogroms. This kind of violence went unremarked. Should this not stop, too?

“The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop.”

Abunimah points out that Obama isn’t here objecting to the colonial project per se but rather settlements “continuing” to expand. Even if Israel ceased all settlements today, there would still be around 500,000 settlers in the occupied territories, rendering any two-state solution dead on arrival. J Street, though, are just happy that Obama mentioned the two-state solution at all.

In many ways, Obama’s speech is the kind of event that only a US President would arrogantly presume needs to be given. Many Americans will cheer, oblivious to the damage their country has done to the region for decades. Words are necessary and important and Obama attempted to address all concerns (Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran etc.)

His challenge to the US “empire” was laughable, however. Facts on the ground speak for themselves. An increase in air-strikes in Afghanistan has caused carnage. Afghan warlords are backed, funded and armed by Washington. Permanent bases in Iraq, including America’s largest embassy in the world, are visible to the Iraqi people. Unaccountable private, military contractors roam across Iraq and Afghanistan, their numbers having increased under Obama.

After the speech, The Nation’s Richard Dreyfuss was positive, but The Angry Arab was scathing. I can see why:

“He spoke about the repugnant practice of Holocaust denial but did not mention that the literature is entirely Western in that regard. And he then moves from a discussion of the Nazism to the Arab-Israeli conflict. What is his point here: that because of Nazi crimes, the Palestinians need to accommodate Zionist crimes on their lands? This is the most offensive section of course: he talks about the Palestinians without identifying who was doing those bad things to them. Look at this sentence: “have suffered in pursuit of a homeland. For more than sixty years they have endured the pain of dislocation.” So their suffering is due to their pursuit of a homeland: so they should stop the pursuit and the suffering will go away.”

Having spent time in the Arab world, Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism are undoubtedly real beasts that need to be tamed. Addressing them head-on is probably unavoidable. But Zionist denialism is just as pernicious, in my view. Last weekend’s Salute to Israel parade in New York didn’t even mention or acknowledge Arabs or Palestinians. How is this any less of a danger than ignoring the suffering and reality of Jews in Israel and Palestine? Zionist ideology is predicated on dominating the physical, psychological and military space, never allowing the Palestinian side to breath. Obama certainly acknowledged the “other” and in the sick American political system that’s probably an achievement.

The largely fawning response in the mainstream media to Obama’s speech is indicative of failed ideals. America speaks about being a beacon of hope to the world, something the US President stressed again in Cairo, but millions of global citizens know the truth. It’s the height of American arrogance to dictate terms of understanding and tolerance to the Arab world and should be viewed as such. It’s far too early to tell what Obama intends to actually achieve in the region, but his foreign policy actions thus far have differed very little from the Bush administration. Witness the carnage in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

What matters are actions, not fine words.

16 Responses

  1. Oscar
    June 4, 2009, 6:54 pm

    Antony, agree with many of your points, but isn't it a game changer that he's doing this in the first six months of his presidency rather than the last two years. Bush had no interest in peace in the M/E, nor did his neo-con cabinet who arranged the Annapolis "accord." It was a smoke screen while settlements could continue to be built in occupied territory unabated. I think Obama knows his legacy will not be defined by soaring rhetoric — but actions will be initiated by just this sort of speech. It's still the first inning of a nine-inning presidency, but I like Obama's hitting power so far . . .

  2. Jake in Jerusalem
    June 4, 2009, 6:55 pm

    "On Israel/Palestine, Obama at least acknowledged the pain of the truly aggrieved party" Excuse me? The Pals are aggrieved? Thousands of terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians and the Palestinean terrorists are the aggrieved party? Israeli children with arms blown off, teenagers blown to smithereens in shopping malls, commuters going to work and having their faces blown off – and the PALS are aggrieved????? Oh, that was written by Antony Lowenstein. Nevermind. He must be having a bad day. Lowenstein doesn't make sense on a GOOD day. Bigots never do.

  3. Mythbuster
    June 4, 2009, 7:25 pm

    Reading your post, I was struck by this irony: Ted Bundy was probably offended by animal cruelty. To compare Israeli suffering to Palestinian suffering is like comparing the lightning bug to lightning.

  4. thedhimmi
    June 4, 2009, 7:27 pm

    " Last weekend’s Salute to Israel parade in New York didn’t even mention or acknowledge Arabs or Palestinians." Acknowledge what? That they have been hit with countless Palestinian suicide bombings? That the day Israel became a state that they were viciously attacked?

  5. ThorsProvoni
    June 4, 2009, 7:41 pm

    Now that we have more access to Russian, Polish, and Soviet archives, any discussion of the Holocaust is completely inappropriate unless contextualized by the history of ethnic Ashkenazi financial crimes, sabotage, radical violence, targeted assassinations, mass murder, ethnic cleansing, and genocide. Forbes: Zionist ethnonational Financial Warfare Summary: Holocaust and Ashkenazi Genocidalism Because Neocons acting as a Jewish Zionist special interest formulated policies that forced millions to become refugees, an even handed US foreign policy must treat the removal of criminal Zionist conglomeration from the ME as a completely valid option that would stabilize the ME and benefit US interests. Why Not Remove Zionist Interlopers?

  6. ThorsProvoni
    June 4, 2009, 7:50 pm

    Under Nuremberg Law, which is an integral component of International Law, any Zionist in Stolen or Occupied Palestine is a legitimate target. Under the Internation Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide to which the State of Israel is a signatory, the signatories have the obligation at the very least to remove the criminal Zionist conglomeration from the ME and arguably may have the obligation to destroy it.

  7. Dagon
    June 4, 2009, 9:02 pm

    Since a lot need to be said about this silly speech,I point you to the Angry Arab blodg he tells it like every arab would.

  8. deathtoisrael
    June 4, 2009, 9:30 pm

    Was jake in Jerusalem one of the interviewees in max blumenthal's new video? He and I agree on one thing. Israel is the PERFECT place for someone like him.

  9. Marion
    June 4, 2009, 10:11 pm
  10. Mamadou
    June 4, 2009, 11:03 pm

    Peace , peace , peace…We must believe in Peace. We can not change what was

  11. DICKERSON3870
    June 4, 2009, 11:40 pm

    RE: "Permanent bases in Iraq, including America’s largest embassy in the world, are visible to the Iraqi people." SEE: "Iraq redux? Obama seeks funds for Pakistan super-embassy", McClatchy Newspapers 05/27/09 (excerpt) ISLAMABAD — The U.S. is embarking on a $1 billion crash program to expand its diplomatic presence in Pakistan and neighboring Afghanistan, another sign that the Obama administration is making a costly, long-term commitment to war-torn South Asia, U.S. officials said Wednesday. The White House has asked Congress for — and seems likely to receive — $736 million to build a new U.S. embassy in Islamabad… …"This is a replay of Baghdad," said Khurshid Ahmad, a member of Pakistan's upper house of parliament for Jamaat-e-Islami, one of the country's two main religious political parties. "This (Islamabad embassy) is more (space) than they should need. It's for the micro and macro management of Pakistan, and using Pakistan for pushing the American agenda in Central Asia."… ENTIRE ARTICLE – ” target=”_blank”>http://www.mcclatchydc.com/251/story/68952.html

  12. yonahred
    June 5, 2009, 2:43 am

    again we are treated to antony loewenstein's imprecise language. at least philip weiss seems to write with some precision. "while it is important for Americans to realize the squalor in which the Palestinian people live". the phrase as presented means that all Palestinians live in squalor. this is undeniably false. i'm sure mister lowenstein considers the arabs living in israel to be palestinians, they do not live in squalor. is the living standard of west bank palestinians worse than the standard of living of syrians? certainly the question of freedom is relevant, but squalor is a word with a meaning unattached to freedom. mister loewenstein does not care about the meaning of words. the two state solution will be rendered dead on arrival by the settlements. mr. abunimah is against the two state solution, so one would not trust him to use the right side of the stethescope to gauge the viability of the two state solution. the geneva "agreement" of 2003 between left wing israelis and moderate palestinians did not consider the two state solution dead six years ago. how many settlers have been added in the territorial arrangement according to that agreement. of course mr. abunimah and mr. loewenstein are not interested in the geneva agreement of 2003. they are interested in the perpetuation of the conflict until victory, i guess. they will never be satisfied with anything that mister obama will present.

  13. No israel
    June 5, 2009, 2:53 am

    What utter stupidity. It wasn't for Abunimah to reject or accept Geneva or the Saudi offer which called not only for full recognition but full normalization of relations with israel—signed by the PLO and entire Arab league and subsequently endorsed by Hamas. It was the Nazis of shithole Israel who rejected it as they have rejected every offer ever made and have rejected the totality of world opinion, minus the US and a few coral atolls that you can't even find on a map. That's the reality.

  14. No israel
    June 5, 2009, 2:57 am

    david GROSS MAN has the nerve to write about the great bruno schultz in this week's new yorker. The way these Israelis parasitize Jewish victims of the holocaust and try to claim diaspora Jews as part of their Nazi cult is disgraceful.

  15. RichardWitty
    June 5, 2009, 10:40 am

    I also was disappointed with Abunimeh's comments. I once thought that his proposal for a fully democratic single-state of consented unification was sincere. I don't really believe it now.

  16. MelissaL
    June 11, 2009, 1:13 pm

    Every Israeli civilian death is tragic, but look at the disproportionate numbers. The number of Palestinian civilian deaths far exceeds the number of Israeli civilian deaths. So yes, the Palestinians are very aggrieved. In what alternate universe does it make any sense to claim otherwise? Here are some facts: ” target=”_blank”>http://www.rememberthesechildren.org/remember2008… “From September 29, 2000, when the current Palestinian intifada erupted, through January 18, 2008, at least 1056 Palestinian and 123 Israeli youths under the age of 18 were killed in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories. Thousands more have been injured, many permanently.” ” target=”_blank”>http://www.mepc.org/resources/mrates.asp “From Sept. 29, 2000 to November 30, 2008: Israeli Dead: 1065 Palestinian Dead: 5200” “The above numbers do not include Palestinian suicide bombers (or other attackers) nor do they include Palestinians targeted for assassination, though bystanders killed during these assassinations are counted. However, IDF soldiers killed during incursions into Palestinian lands are counted.” The above websites are non-profit, non-partisan and seem credible to me.

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