What was missing in Obama’s speech? (June 13, 2009)

Was Barack Husain Obama’s speech rhetoric only? Did the Cairo speech herald a major shift in the US administration policy towards the issues that agitate the Muslim minds? Is the speech an acceptance of the fact that most of the 1.4 billion Muslims around the world are angry with America and for genuine reasons? Should the skeptic Muslims believe in Obama? And then what was in the speech for Pakistanis to rejoice or condemn?

Keeping aside the usual anti-Americanism and anti-neocolonialism feelings, the very fact that Obama has tried to reach out to the Muslims is a sign of the shifting US foreign policy. This speech, we have to bear in mind, was not the first where Obama has tried to build damaged bridges with the Muslims since his swearing-in in January this year. He did that in his inaugural speech and then when he visited Turkey a couple of months ago.

Usually big powers and large multinationals deliberately avoid building high expectations unless they are serious about what they say. In this case the US government created hype about the speech before it was made. The venue of the speech and consultation with the Saudi King before that is also meaningful. The world’s most powerful President was cautious not to build too many expectations. He admitted that his speech would not change the world. But at the same time he took pain to counter the perception created by the Bush administration implicitly that US was a Christian power. He emphasized that US is a secular country with population belonging to all faiths. His policy statement was a clear departure from Bush era disastrous policies.

Talking about Muslim women’s right to wear Hijab, if they want it, or allowing Zakat contribution to Muslim charities in the US was the easy bit. Religious or cultural overtures are more symbolic than a concrete step. On most of the burning issues that breed anger against US among many Muslims across the globe he was cautious but expressed the desire to work with the Muslim countries to resolve the issues.

Accepting the fact that US policies of using Muslim countries in proxy war during the cold war period were wrong was a brave move. How many Head of States are willing to accept that the global policies pursued by their countries were wrong? Is Pakistan willing to accept that building India phobia was a disastrous policy? Or would India accept that they have mishandled the Kashmir issue? The answer is NO.

Though Obama did support the idea of two-state solution and clearly mentioned Palestine, he quickly balanced it with the statement about strong US-Israel relations. He criticized the building of settlements on the West Bank thus distancing himself from the Israel far right that is led by Benjamin Netanyahu. Former Knesset member and leading Israeli intellectual Uri Avenery, who has always supported the creation of Palestine says that Obama’s speech was music because it lashed on the racist-fascist Israelis. But he also chided Hamas for its violent policies and urged the Palestinians to bury their internal conflict so that they can bring peace to their people. Now the big question is would Obama be able to exert pressure on the Netanyahu far right government to go back to the Oslo accord?

Many analysts doubt that he would be able to deliver what he promised from the pulpit of Al Azhar University. Obama would have to counter the strong Israeli lobby in the US and their supporters in the Congress and the Senate. America has enough clout which can be used to make Israel fall in line. US provide $3.5 to $5 billion annual aid to Israel; gives high-tech military equipment; allows tax free donations to the Likud-linked charities; and vetoes all the resolutions against Israeli high-handedness in the region. Israel gets the carrot but no stick, because it has perfected the art of lobbying and is spending billions of dollars to keep the US governments under pressure. The problem of Gaza and West Bank linking and Palestinian refugees was missing in his speech. Muslim countries can counter the Israel lobbying only if they could pool their resources to lobby for the Palestine cause in the US. On the contrary they only lobby for their countries respectively and that too quite inefficiently.

However, one thing is clear that US has started realising that the Palestine problem is not a localized Middle Eastern issue. Six decades of Israeli oppression under US patronage has created strong resentment against their godfather – USA. It’s about time that the US government should start supporting the political parties and civil society organisations that are willing to accept a dignified solution of the Palestine issue. Obama should take leaf from Eisenhower’s policy who forced the British and French government to pull back from the Suez Canal war. This made the US a darling of the Muslims of Middle East.

Another important message in the speech which is of direct consequence to Pakistan was that Obama made it clear that the US does not want to build bases in Afghanistan. And that it plans to get out f Afghanistan once the country gets rid of Al Qaeda and US is “confident that there were not violent extremists in Afghanistan and Pakistan determined to kill as many Americans as they possibly can.” Now for the Afghan Taliban and the Pakistanis, the message is clear that Americans and their NATO alliance forces can only be sent home by brining peace through peaceful means. Taliban and their apologists are mistaken if they think that they can defeat the Americans out of Afghanistan. Taliban who are second generation Afghan Mujahideens live under a self-deception that they defeated the USSR forces. They could not have pushed the Soviets out without the support of Pakistan, US, China and Saudi Arabia. This time no other country is supporting them.

The most disappointing thing about Obama’s speech for the Pakistanis was the conspicuous omission of any reference to the Kashmir conflict. The success of India is that it has always prevailed upon US not to meddle in the Kashmir issue. At least not overtly. Tales about behind-the-curtain diplomacy are that the Obama administration is trying to nudge the Indians to find some workable solution to the Kashmir imbroglio. But even an indirect reference to the South Asian problems could have solaced the Pakistanis. Kashmir issue is directly linked to the Afghanistan stability. Pakistan has nurtured ‘violent militants’ only to pressurize the Indians at the negotiation table. Pakistani establishment knows well that it cannot fight with India and conquer Kashmir so the only card in their hand is that of militants who cross-fertilise with Afghan militants also. At the same time if the Kashmir issue is not solved Pakistani establishment would continue to be afraid of growing influence of India in Afghanistan. And to dislodge that they have to rely on Afghan Taliban’s support as the present government in Kabul is tilted towards Delhi.

Now whether Pakistani establishment policy is right or wrong is not the issue here. What is important is the situation on ground and Obama has to deal with it if he really wants to bring peace to Afghanistan and pull out his forces. Crudely it can be said that it has to be a trade off: Obama pushes India to walk half way and workout a solution of the Kashmir issue that is acceptable to its Kashmiris and ensures uninterrupted water supply to Pakistan under the Indus Water Accord; and Pakistan brow beats the Afghan Taliban to shun violence, join the democratic process and workout a timetable of the withdrawal of US forces. Without this initiative Obama’s dream to build bridges with the Muslims of South Asia will remain distant. (ayazbabar@gmail.com)

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