People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 23

June 05, 2011


Obama’s West Asia


Yohannan Chemarapally


IT was billed by the White House as the most important speech of President Barack Obama after his Cairo address of June, 2009. But if Obama’s Cairo speech had generated some expectations in the Arab street, his second speech on May 18, 2011  which came in the wake of the turbulence that has gripped the region, has failed to enthuse the Arab world. The speech was high on platitudes and had nothing new or substantive to say on the region and its myriad problems. The American president waxed eloquent about the “Arab Spring” describing it as a historic opportunity to reshape politics in that part of the world, observing that people in the region achieved more change in six months than terrorists have been able to do in decades. “We have the chance to show that America values the dignity of the street vendor in Tunisia more than the raw power of a dictator”, the American president said. He, of course, did not mention that his administration was hedging its bets, both in Tunisia and Egypt till the eleventh hour. The ousted dictators of the two countries were staunch allies of the West.


On the other hand, Obama threatened fire and brimstone against the recalcitrant governments of Libya and Syria, which have generally been following an independent foreign policy. He justified the American led war on Libya, saying that Washington had acted to save innocent lives. There was no mention of thousands of lives lost and the refugee crisis triggered by NATO’s war on Libya. The American president had only mild words of criticism for the government of Bahrain which has brutally suppressed the pro-democracy. Even that criticism was tempered by the observation that the government of Iran was meddling in the internal affairs of Bahrain and taking advantage of the political situation. “We recognise that Iran has tried to take advantage of the situation there, and that the Bahraini government has a legitimate interest in the rule of law”, said Obama. In his speech, the American president did not mention Saudi Arabia at all though he had time to mention India, Brazil and Indonesia, though these countries are not located in the region. The kingdom of Saudi Arabia, along with the other pro-American emirates in the region, has ruthlessly dealt with political dissent.


Obama emphasised that the US would continue to pursue its “core interests” in the region, defining them as “countering terrorism and stopping the spread of nuclear weapons; securing the free flow of commerce; and safeguarding the security of the region, standing up for Israel’s security and pursuing Arab-Israeli peace”. Among the unmentioned core interests was oil, over which America has already fought two wars in the region. As far as nuclear proliferation is concerned, successive American presidents stood aside while Israel accumulated the largest nuclear arsenal in the region. President Obama’s efforts to portray the US as “a champion of democracy” in the region will ring hollow as long as it continues with its support for Israel and the pro-American authoritarian regimes in the region.




The other major talking point of his speech was his call for the resumption of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. Obama said that his administration remains solidly committed to Israel’s “security”. He said that Israel’s pre-1967 borders with agreed “land swaps” should be the basis for the negotiations to set up an independent Palestinian State. This in effect is a green signal to Israel that it will be allowed to retain most of its illegal settlements on the West Bank. According to the Israeli newspaper, Haaretz, Obama has accepted the demands of the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, that peace talks should be a gradual process and not time bound. In his speech, the American president also referred to Israel as a “Jewish State”. This has been a long standing demand of the Israeli right wing. The million and a half Palestinians living in Israel fear that such a development would lead to even more discrimination and eventual expulsion.


The American president also made the demand that the Palestinian side return to negotiating table immediately despite the ongoing illegal settlement activities of the Israelis. The Palestinian Authority (PA) had called off the talks after the Netanyahu government had refused to put a freeze on settlement activity in the West Bank. Obama also called on Hamas to recognise Israel, another long standing Israeli demand. He preferred to talk about Israeli civilians being targeted by Palestinians while ignoring Israeli war crimes against defenceless Palestinians. Hamas and Fatah, the two main Palestinian grouping had recently signed a “unity” agreement, which had come in for strong criticism from the Israeli government but welcomed internationally. The American president, supporting the Israeli government’s stand, was critical of Hamas. “How can one negotiate with a party that has shown itself unwilling to recognise your right to exist”, Obama said referring to Hamas."In the weeks and months to come, Palestinian leaders will have to produce credible answers to that question”.


Obama suggested in his speech that the contentious issues of the “right of return” for Palestinian refugees and Jerusalem, be put on the back burner. More galling for the Palestinians was the American president’s criticism of their efforts to get their statehood recognised in the UN General Assembly later in the year and his insistence that a future Palestinian State should be “non-militarised”. The overwhelming number of member states in the UN, including close European allies of the US have indicated that they will support the move to recognise an independent State of Palestine. The concept of a sovereign state without the right of self-defence, as Obama has suggested in his speech, is a demeaning proposal, coming as it did before formal negotiations with Israel had resumed.


Despite the pro-Israeli tilt in the American president’s speech, the government in Tel Aviv was not happy. Netanyahu was particularly unhappy with Obama’s emphasis on the 1967 borders as the starting point for negotiations for a Palestinian State. “The dream of a Jewish and democratic State cannot be fulfilled with permanent occupation”, Obama had said in his speech. Netanyahu has been repeatedly saying that the 1967 borders do not provide security for the Jewish State and that the international community should recognise the new facts on the ground. “The viability of a Palestinian State should not come at the expense of Israel’s existence”, Netanyahu said in a statement issued just before he flew to Washington for talks with the American president. He again reiterated this point at a joint press conference with the American president on May 20. He said that Israel cannot go back to the 1967 borders “as they don’t take into account certain changes that have taken place on the ground”. The Israeli prime minister’s usual uncompromising posture got immediate support from right wing American Congressmen and political commentators.





Obama is up for re-election in two years time. He has not summoned the political courage needed to challenge the influential Jewish lobby in American politics. Instead, he is going hat in hand, to seek their support. A couple of days after delivering his West Asia speech, the president spoke at the annual convention of the main Jewish lobbying group --- the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). He reassured AIPAC that his administration remains solidly committed to Israel and that the bonds between the two countries are “unbreakable”. He said that he had said “nothing particularly original” in his latest speech on West Asia and that Israel’s “security interests” continued to be the of the highest priority for Washington.   


Obama’s close aides have told the American media that they don’t expect any positive movement forward in the peace process as long as Netanyahu is at the helm of affairs in Israel. Obama had said in his speech that one of his goals is “to save Israel from itself”, warning that perpetual occupation of Palestinian land will be counter-productive. “The status quo is unsustainable and Israel too must act boldly to advance a lasting peace”. He mentioned demographic imbalance, new military technology and the democracy surge in the Arab world, as cautionary factors for the Israeli government. The unresolved issue of Palestine remains central to the Arab psyche. Richard Falk, the internationally reputed jurist and currently a UN Special Rapporteur on Palestinian Human Rights, said that the Obama speech only serves to underline the one sided approach of the US administration to the Israel/Palestine conflict. He wrote that the Obama approach was “deeply flawed, and a barrier than a gateway to a just and sustainable peace”.


No wonder that the latest Obama speech has even fewer takers than his Cairo speech. The new government in Egypt has already toughened its stance on Israel and is positioning itself to once again play a pivotal role in the peace talks. A recent opinion poll showed that only one in five Egyptian wanted close relations with the US. Obama in his speech pledged $1 billion in annual debt relief to Egypt. But his close advisers have told the media that Washington could have a rethink on the subject if the Muslim Brothers play a big role in the democratically elected government that will be taking over.



Obama in his speech also claimed that his policies have made both Iraq and Afghanistan safer places. In Iraq, Obama saw a “Multi-ethnic and multi-sectarian democracy” emerging, despite almost daily incidents of sectarian violence and suicide bombings. In Afghanistan, he said that the American forces have “broken the Taliban’s momentum”. In recent months, the Taliban have escalated their attacks all over Afghanistan. Obama said that the US would “not tolerate aggression across the borders”. The US itself had invaded two countries in the last decade. Israel, its closest ally, has shown no respect for the borders of its neighbouring countries. Saudi Arabia sent troops in March this year to help quell the peaceful civilian protests in Bahrain. Obama’s speech was full of contradictions and in a way exposed the duplicity inherent in American policy towards the Arab world.