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A central question for the Barack Beat

Where does the United States go first to shape then sustain Muslim world policy in the Barack Obama presidency?

The argument for Gaza becomes weighty if the index is human misery, misery on a level, even without international coverage (limited by Israeli censors). It is pitched most poignantly in the Will Youmans blog posted on the Palestine Center website.

As President Barack Obama assumes office, his first diplomatic overture to the region should be to immediately address Palestinian suffering in Gaza. Treating Gaza’s health care crisis with action would go a long way to address the urgent medical needs of Gazans and re-position the United States, whose image suffered tremendously due to the government’s complicity in the recent Israeli offensive, as a force of good in the region.

As Palestinian hospitals and doctors struggle to care for the wounded, any medical relief steps by the United States would help fill an urgent shortage in medical care, and send a powerful message to the Arab world. Amjad Atallah, director of the Middle East Task Force at New America, proposed early on that the United States should “do something to show everybody, the Arab world, the Muslim world, that the US cares and empathizes with the casualties that have resulted from this conflict.”[1] He recommended the United States set up a field hospital on the Egyptian-Gaza border with the International Committee of the Red Cross shuttling the injured out of Gaza.

Is Youmans, a 24/7 Palestine watcher, right? What would be the consequence of this bold act for other steps forward in hearts and minds diplomacy, with George Mitchell, he of Irish peace fame, in the driver’s seat for the Obama administration?

Another argument is for laser-like focus on Afghanistan, but not through laser targeted air strikes into Pakistan. Popular Middle East blogger and University of Michigan Professor Juan Cole recently offered his own critique of this strategy on Salon.com.

Despite the positive harbingers from Obama of a new, civilian-friendly foreign policy that will devote substantial resources to human development, the very first practical step he took in Pakistan was to bomb its territory. This resort to violence from the skies even before Obama had initiated discussions with Islamabad is a bad sign. It is not clear if Obama really believes that the fractious tribes of the Pakistani northwest can be subdued with some airstrikes and if he really believes that U.S. security depends on what happens in Waziristan. If he thinks the drone attacks on FATA are a painless way to signal to the world that he is no wimp, he may find, as Lyndon Johnson did, that such military operations take on a momentum of their own, and produce popular discontents that can prove deadly to the military mission.

Is Cole, a seasoned Middle Expert, right? Will the logic, and the momentum, of these early strikes carry the Obama administration into a no-exit, no-win war–in effect, another Vietnam?

–Bruce Lawrence, Nancy and Jeffrey Marcus Humanities Professor of Religion

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