EVERYBODY, IT SEEMS, in the Arab world is waiting for Obama, save some journalists who make a career out of suspicion and pessimism about anything to do with America – not a difficult stance to assume for the past eight years, or to be frank and non-partisan, for at least the past 12 years.
Let me define “everybody” – obviously the man in the street: taxi drivers, shopkeepers and their customers, security guards, habitués of a Cairo coffee shop in the shadow of the mosque of Sayyidna Hussein, my Egyptian colleagues at the American University, waiters, my tailor.
Nearly all are delighted that Barack Hussein Obama won – with a big flourish for those who invoke his middle name, though curiously enough and encouragingly (from an anti-sectarian point of view), few do mention his middle name. For most he is simply “Obama”.
Obama, as the litany goes, “understands us”, the “us” being implicitly Egyptian, Saudi, Jordanian, to a lesser degree Palestinian, and beyond to the greater Muslim world and even explicitly the entire developing world. Many will suggest that is because “he is one of us” – his father, everyone knows, was an African Muslim, and the better read know that his stepfather was an Indonesian Muslim. They also, by and large, know that he is a Christian and no one, a New York Times op-ed column during the campaign to the contrary, thinks of him, much less condemns him, as an “apostate”.
In fact the attention paid to this election campaign by everyone but obviously most intensely among the educated, who were particularly sensitive to the relevant issues involved (the end of the American occupation in Iraq, an Arab-Israeli peace settlement, a deescalation of regional tensions with Syria and Iran) with an incredibly obvious undercurrent of enthusiasm for Obama is unheard of in the 39 years I have spent in and out of Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world.
The closest I can recall to such mass enthusiasm for an American president was the extraordinarily positive popular emotions at the time of Nixon’s visit to Cairo in 1974. Mind you, Nixon was about to be impeached, his standing in America at a terrible low, but that was irrelevant, if even known. Here in Cairo he was the beneficiary of popular optimism – the Egyptian army had redeemed national honor only months earlier, storming across the Suez Canal to raise the flag over the Bar Lev Line, Israeli prisoners taken during the first spectacular days of the war, actually paraded through the streets.
Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s man in the Middle East, had secured an Israeli pull-back; the Russians (with their very bad street rep for tipping poorly along with their presumed atheism) had been expelled by Sadat, and now the prosperous, successful Americans, obviously impressed by Arab valor and the possibilities of economic opportunity, would put an end to this miserable ArabIsraeli conflict in which so many Egyptian lives had been lost (in the wars of 1948, 1956, above all, 1967 and 1974, far more lives than the Palestinians, or for that matter any other Arabs had been called upon to give) according to an undercurrent at the time, of popular opinion.
Of course it was a terrible misreading that would result, along with many other disappointments, in disillusionment and, in much more recent years, deep dislike for the American government. But by and large, Egyptians, like other Arabs but even more so, always have differentiated between the government in Washington and the American people, so that extraordinary dislike of the government and its policies in general, and George W Bush in particular is only manifest in conversation and opinion polls and American tourists could forgivably be unaware.
As for the journalists, most are optimistic about the new administration, some emphatically, many cautiously. But those who dissent from the popular mood do so quite typically because they know more than the man/woman in the street, but not nearly as much as they could, if there were a tradition of serious investigative journalism, even via secondary sources and at that fairly easy these days with Google at hand in a culture where opinion trumps fact-finding all too often.
So all too frequently many journalists know just enough to get it wrong.
It is these dissenting journalists who know about APAIC and Obama’s invocation of standard American mantras that reassure a pro-Israeli public opinion that is not limited to the American Jewish community. Most Americans are causally pro-Israeli. As for the Christian Zionists, who are by no means “most Americans” but who number in the many millions, they are far more fanatic in their commitment to Israel than most American Jews – most of whom favor two state and a peace settlement that is anathema to the typical Christian Zionist who has a theological stake in a Middle Eastern apocalypse. The leadership of the American Jewish community and particularly of AIPAC (which tends to be far more hardline than the community as a whole) had good reasons to be worried about Obama – his call for direct negotiations without conditions with Iran and Syria much earlier in the campaign, his past expressions of concern for the fate of the Palestinians under occupation, his friendship, while a faculty member at the University of Chicago, with the brilliant Palestinian scholar Professor Rashid Khalidi (who happened to have PLO associations dating back to the eighties,) a friendship thrown in Obama’s face by the McCain camp in the final weeks of the campaign, and a wide range of advisors, official and unofficial who constitute a spectrum that includes respectable yet very serious critics of US policy towards Israel and the Palestinians. Some were distanced from the campaign when it became clear last Spring that the American Jewish vote, a bastion for the Democratic Party since the 1930s , was dangerously up for play, with pro- McCain campaigners and right-wing bloggers stressing Obama’s middle name “Hussein” and the stealth campaign that he was a Muslim, and by that definition, pro-terrorist, which even by election time still had about 18 percent of the electorate convinced.
One has to read someone like Joel Mowbray, a neo-conservative, pro-Likudist columnist, who covered the AIPAC conference , remained worried about Obama and no doubt voted for McCain (I hope I am not doing Joel an injustice) – to realize that it was the younger members of AIPAC – the rank and file at the annual meeting, who accepted Obama’s homilies as adequate and were swept up by his powerful and elegant rhetoric and his charm, as most educated younger American voters were, who prevented the older and more committed pro-Likud leadership from confronting Obama.
The Jewish vote, concentrated in a few key states like New York, California, Florida and Pennsylvania, has been a bastion of support for the Democratic Party since the 1930s and in the spring of 2008 it looked like significant numbers would defect to the Republicans if Obama got the nomination sufficient to cost the Democrats at least Florida and Pennsylvania.
The dissenters in the Arab press appeared to be oblivious to a monstrous campaign that involved the massive distribution in October to an estimated 28 million Americans, concentrated in the swing states including Florida and Pennsylvania, as well as Virginia, and Colorado, of a documentary, Obsession, produced by a mysterious foundation (The Clarion Fund) whose leaders are employees of Aish HaTorah International, a well-funded, Jerusalem-based Israeli organization associated with the most extremist and fanatical Israeli settlers, and whose websites indicated that whoever opposed “radical Islam” had to oppose Obama and support McCain. While the documentary, whose production and above all mass distribution is estimated to have cost $50 million, initially notes that most Muslims are not violent, by the end the indictment of radical Islam has shifted to imply complicity of the religion itself with terrorism. Even before the mass distribution, hundreds of thousands of copies had been sent to Jewish organizations and various Jewish Republican groups openly promoted the film.
In the end Obama turned the tide: his own well-organized and massive counter-disinformation campaign among American Jews, his continuous declarations of support for Israel’s security, his distancing himself from those advisors most troubling to the Israel Lobby, and McCain’s appointment of Sarah Palin, whose racist-populist remarks about True Americans (Republicans) frightened many American Jews with a reasonable fear of any whiff of fascism, averted massive defections. The Jewish vote remained firmly in the Democratic camp despite President Bush’s historic accomplishment as the most pro-Israeli American President since the establishment of the state of Israel.
Arab journalists who have dissented from the popular mood have also been troubled by some of Obama’s appointments, most notably the appointment of Congressman Rahm Emanuel as his Chief of Staff. Emanuel’s father is Israeli and suddenly rumors swept across many Arab, Muslim and left-wing websites about Emanuel, who as Rashid Khalidi recently noted, is a tough, very effective politician, architect of the Democratic Party Congressional victory in 2005, and is very pro-Israeli. But as Khalidi also noted, as chief of staff, Emanuel has little or no influence on policy. When Emanuel’s father was quoted in the Israeli press, slurring Arabs, Emanuel disassociated himself and condemned his father’s remarks.
Jim Zogby, who heads up the Arab American Institute and is probably one of the most effective, politically engaged Arab American community spokesmen, responded in still greater detail, refuting the rumors: Emanuel was not an Israeli national nor a dual national, he did not serve in the Israeli armed forces (the IDF), he was not fired from the White House in 1988 for being part of a Mossad plot (along with Monica Lewinsky) to spy on then-president Clinton. Zogby also notes that Emanuel is “a strong supporter of Israel”. But Zogby asks, “How many members of Congress are not?” Zogby finds the rumors about Emanuel “as reprehensible in their own way as the ‘Barack Obama is a secret Muslim/Manchurian candidate’ tale or the anti-Arab anti-Muslim canards to which I and many of my colleagues have been subjected over the years.”
What matters for Zogby is this: “Emanuel is Jewish and his father is an Israeli. Arab Americans should be especially sensitive to attacks on anyone based on religion or ethnicity. He (Emanuel) has worked closely with and is liked by the Arab American Members of Congress from both parties, and he was the architect of the 1983 White House lawn signing ceremony for the Oslo Accords that brought Arab American and American Jews together. When in 1984 Emanuel accepted my invitation to a luncheon with Arab American community leaders, those who met him were impressed by his openness and honesty.” ‘
I gather that in contrast to some of the Arab journalists, the Arab heads of state are overwhelmingly pleased by the election results, and particularly by the calculated initiatives and the calm and wellmanaged way Obama conducted his campaign. But few would go on record prior to the inauguration out of respect for the presidency. However, Egypt’s President Mubarak did inform the senior editors of the government newspapers, in a briefing just after Eid, that relations between Egypt and America would improve dramatically when the new administration takes over.
President Mubarak, along with Syria’s late President Hafez alAsad, was a key ally in the American-Arab Alliance that forced Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait in 1991, but he opposed the invasion of Iraq, predicting quite accurately that an American invasion would result in chaos and stimulate terrorism. Obama’s opposition to the invasion, and his intention to end the occupation as quickly as possible, have all been quietly welcomed by the Arab leaders.
Much is to be made of Obama’s appointments. But what of policy? David Ignatious, deputy managing editor of The Washington Post, says: “Obama wants to make an early push on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, despite political turmoil in Israel. He has learned from watching Presidents Clinton and Bush that you can’t wait until the eleventh hour to be an active mediator. On Iran Obama wants to open the door to a process of engagement and dialogue even though his advisers aren’t confident it will succeed. They think Iran may not yet have found the language of ‘yes’ but that’s no reason not to explore areas of possible mutual interest.”
Back in July 2007, when the possibility that Obama might beat front-runner Hillary Clinton for the nomination and then go on to win the election was barely conceivable, Obams sought a meeting and advice from former national security adviser Zbigiew Brezezinski, an establishment figure who has been vilified by the Israel Lobby for his criticism of US policy towards the Middle East. Brezezinski came away from that meeting deeply impressed and he became an informal Obama adviser. He remained “informal” precisely because of his pre-election political liability.
Although Rashid Khalidi warned his predominantly Egyptian authence at the American University in Cairo last December not to expect too much too soon given the incredible domestic crisis that Obama must deal with, and particularly since domestic crises, Khalidi points out, will always be paramount to any successful politician which Obama very much is. But Igantius still insists that Obama wants to make an early push on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
Certainly the Arab leadership hopes and even expects that he will move accordingly and the opinion piece contributed by one of Saudi Arabia’s most articulate statesmen, Amir Turki al-Faisal, former ambassador to Washington and London and former director of Saudi Intelligence, that appeared in the 26 December edition of The Washington Post, makes that very clear . Writing about “Peace for the Mideast; How Our Plan Could Aid Barack Obama’s Efforts”, Prince Turki notes that Obama inherits a “Middle East that is sick with discord”, but that there are reasons to be optimistic. “If Obama joins with forces for peace and stability and acts boldly, his presidency could have a marked impact on world affairs.”
Turki offered as a prescription for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Saudi-inspired Arab Peace Initiative of 2002 endorsed and more recently re-endorsed by all the Arab states. Before laying down the well-known Unes of that initiative, Prince Turki quickly reviewed the history of the problem and pulled no punches: that the establishment of Palestinians “the Catastrophe” in which the dream of an independent, Arab Palestinian state and the principle of self-determination were shattered.
It is easy for those distant from the problem to dismiss this as “old history”, but it must be intellectually and emotionally assimilated if Americans and Israelis are to grasp why, in Turki’s mind, and the mind of all Arabs, the recognition of the state of Israel as a legitimate state, and the normalizing of relations, which the Palestinians did at Oslo, is considered “a high price for peace.”
Moving to the 1967 War and its aftermath, Turki observed that there is universal agree- ment that the Palestinian people are under occupation and have been deprived of their land. He considers the Olso Accords of 1992 a “turning point” – the first direct agree- ment between the Palestinians and Israelis. “There was a true spirit of cooperation expressed through the mutual desire of Israelis and Palestinians to live together in peace. The assassination of Yitrhak Rabin in 1995 tragically ended this hopeful development.” Turki noted that since the failure of Oslo, the waves of violence and counter-violence has been almost as predictable as the tides.
In return the Arab Peace Initiative calls upon Israel to withdraw completely from the lands occupied in 1967, including East Jerusalem (which would become the capital of a Palestinian state living peacefully side by side with Israel), and to accept a just solution to the refugee problem according to UN General Assembly Resolution 194. It is significant that the Arab Peace Initiative talks about a “just solution”, and not about an absolute Right of Return.
Is it conceivable that Obama and his policy advisers will respond positively to the Arab Peace Initiative? Well ,why not? Israel’s President Shimon Peres, who back in the 1960s was a hawk, has declared that he is prepared to talk anywhere with any Arab leader about the peace initiative and Prime Minister Olmert, once a man of Likud and disciple of Sharon, has, at the very end of his leadership, basically endorsed the Initiative.
One could argue that Israeli military superiority, and the intransigence and arrogance that has accompanied that superiority, has accomplished little more than stimulating and justifying the rise of Hamas and the immense popularity in the Arab world of Hizbollah. An increasing number of Israelis, at least among the elite, have come to recognize this.
And one might add that the past eight years of failed American Middle Eastern policy characterized by President Bush honoring Sharon as “a man of peace” and the growing recognition, in America as well as in Israel, that contrary to the Bush administration’s take on the region, it is the settlements which today stand as the major obstacle to peace.
People learn and change. And when they do that affects policy. Late last September, after more than a year and a half of deliberation and staff consultations, 34 Americans, characterized as the Leadership Group of the US-Muslim Engagement project, and convened by two leading conflict resolution organizations in America, issued its nearly 150-page policy report, “Changing Course: A New Direction for US Relations with the Muslim World.” The report, which includes a seven-page executive summary, which was presented to the Congressional Foreign Relations Committee where it promptly secured the endorsement of the Committee chair, Representative Howard Berman.
The premise of the report is that “creating partnerships for peace with Muslim countries and communities is one of the greatest challenges – and opportunities – facing the United States today. Currently conflict, misunderstandings and distrust plague US relations with Muslims in many countries, imperiling security for all. Despite these tensions, the vast majority of Americans and Muslims around the world want peace, amicable relations, good government, prosperity and respect. Policies and actions – not a clash of civilizations – are at the root of our divisions.”
The 34 Americans who signed on the report are a most diverse and bi-partisan group. They include 11 American Muslims of the group, a presence that reflects the report’s belief that American Muslims can be a bridge in the reconciliatory policies and projects proposed in the re- port. (Disclosure: I am one of the Muslim members of the group.) Among members are former Secretary of State Madeline Albright, Richard Armitage, former Deputy Secretary of State under Colin Powell; former US Undersecretary of Defense Dov Zakheim, former US Middle East envoy Dennis Ross, two former Republican Con- gressmen, a Catholic Bishop, Ingrid Mattson, head of ISNA – the largest Muslim organization in America; Faisal Abdul Raouf, author and imam of a New York mosque engaged in global interfaith work as well as Red Cavaney, president of the American Petroleum Institute, Ziad Asali, president of the American Task Force on Palestine, and Thomas Dine, former Executive Director of AIPAC.
The report takes note of the conditions that enable a tiny minority of Muslims involved in violence to recruit, operate and inflict harm by drawing on more widespread set of active or passive supporters, that Muslims consider America to be complicit in those conditions. And that Muslim anger is compounded by the sense that the US has favored Israel in its conflict with the Palestinians, and exercised a double standard on the development of democracy in the region. The report goes on to advance four detailed goals: resolving conflicts through diplomacy; improving governance in Muslim countries without taking up a partisan role; promoting broad-based economic development in Muslim countries and regions; and building mutual respect and understanding. 2
The most immediate call for action is for President Obama to spotlight the critical importance of improving US-Muslim relations in his inaugural address, to reaffirm a US commitment to prohibit all forms of torture, to initiate serious negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians in the first 100 days of the administration, and to engage Iran diplomatically during the same period.
Members of the Leadership Group and among the public endorsers include members in Obama’s transition team and the report has been circulating at the highest levels of the new administration. In December, in an exclusive interview with The Chicago Tribune, Obama described his presidency as an opportunity for the US to reboot its relations with the Muslim world, starting the day of his inauguration and continuing with a speech he intends to deliver in an Islamic capital during the first 100 days.
One old time-Egyptian observer of regional politics read that story as well as “Changing Course” and said, “Now’s the time for the Arabs and the Muslims to come out aggressively for peace and for new and better relations with a new and better administration in Washington DC. We have to meet Obama half-way.