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Duke Senior’s Crib Sheet on Obama’s Initial Reception in the Middle East

August 30, 2009 1 comment

Edith Chen, now a senior, studied and lived in Amman, Jordan from February until early May of this year. Jordan is the primary US ally in the region, and the close relationship between the governments have made the royal family’s legitimacy  more tenuous.

This is Edith’s always-relevant assessment of how Jordanians received President Obama’s June 4th address.

The upper middle class is generally more skeptical about Obama’s ability to change US policies in the Middle East (Christian, Muslim, and Palestinian Jordanians alike).

A man in a Palestinian refugee camp in Amman watches the US Presidents address to the Middle East and Muslims June 4th.

A man in a Palestinian refugee camp in Amman watches the US President's address to the Middle East and Muslims June 4th. The Guardian

The prevailing issue to Amman’s Jordanians has always been Israel-Palestine, which is unsurprising given the large Palestinian urban and refugee population. Thus Obama’s silence during the Israeli air attacks on Gaza really set back Obama’s credibility as the “anti-Bush” (at least when I first arrived, and Gaza was still a fresh topic of discussion). I think whether Obama can follow up his support for a Palestinian state in speech with actions (and exert pressure on Israel) will be critical if he wants to reach out to Jordanians.

There is also some privately expressed skepticism towards the Jordanian monarchy, which is seen as too cozy with the US government. This feeling is even stronger for Palestinian-Jordanians. It’s noteworthy, however, that skepticism towards governments is common in the Middle East, since during my time there, I has also encountered complaints about the governments of the Gulf states, Egypt, Iran, and even Turkey, trying to inject their influence and ideology in regional affairs.

Regarding whether Obama’s message can effectively reach the people, it is a matter of local consciousness than the effectiveness of his message. Something I noticed in my family was that the nightly Turkish musalsal seems to have priority instead of the news. I don’t think I ever saw our TV tuned into a news channel during my 3 month stay, except during the Pope’s visit, and I’ve never seen a newspaper in the home; so I am not certain how or if they keep up with  political developments. I don’t know if this apathy towards politics is common to the urban upper class. The inertia of cynicism–that the more things change the more they stay the same–is a challenge Obama will have to beat if he wants a more receptive and enthusiastic urban audience in the Middle East.

Working class Transjordanians, or Jordanians without Palestinian lineage, (such as taxi drivers, store keepers) have expressed more positive attitudes towards Obama. But I believe these responses may be due to a self-selective sample. The ones who aren’t keen on Americans are unlikely to engage in conversations with us. At another time, a Palestinian driver (originally from Kuwait before the first Iraq war) was outraged that he was stuck living in Jordan and complained about the country and its shortcomings relative to life in a Gulf state.  His outburst was so intense that we didn’t want to bring up the fact that America is the reason he was forced to evacuate Kuwait.

Bedouin Transjordanians seem to have a positive attitude towards Obama, but not the US government. As tribal Transjordanians, they have a higher esteem towards the monarchy and respect the king’s traditional ties to the US. For instance, my host family’s Bedouin grandfather used to travel with King Hussein and named his sons after the princes. For the Bedouins I believe the Iraq war was a major factor that hurt their perception of the American administration, since there was a time before Iraq’s sanction that they helped the Jordanian economy by providing subsidized oil. Hence, many other students were also surprised to find their Bedouin households decorated with portraits of Saddam Hussein. Likewise, my Bedouin grandfather said Obama was a good man and so was Saddam, while Bush was majnun (so in the twist of analogy meant he approved of Obama on some level). How Obama handles the Iraq situation might be important in changing their perception about the US. A continued perception of the US as an aggressor and an occupying force will hit the traditional tribal sensibilities the wrong way.

As senator, Obama toured the Middle East to engender enthusiasm for a new era of US-Arab relations.

As senator, Obama toured the Middle East to engender enthusiasm for a new era of US-Arab relations. Handout/Getty Images Europe

Satellite television beams in 24-hour global news into most households, even in the remote Badia where the Bedouins lived and herded. Therefore, Obama’s approach of giving direct speeches would be an asset in winning his case with those in the Middle East. Unlike my Amman host family, my Bedouin family kept up to date with news development and frequently watched CNN and al-Jazeera. Bedouins also have more political leverage on a per-capital level, since the electoral districting system was designed to give more power to the tribes. More than this, social and political connections, or wasta, awards Transjordanians with priority for government jobs. As a result, how they perceive the situation will be influential. But the Jordanian tribal political system is so complex and I’m uncertain as to what this might mean.

In short, what Obama decides to do about a Palestinian state will be the foremost determining factor in how he will be received by Jordanians. The diversity of actors in Jordan could also create numerous problems in the country that is one of America’s most helpful allies in the Middle East: exacerbated tension between Palestinian-Jordanians and Transjordanians; diversion of resources and support from other areas of social development and modernization. These issues of contention could possibly jeopardize Jordan’s national stability and generate support for opposition political parties. The monarchy also has a history of “protecting” the country from another Black September with crackdowns on civil liberties and rollbacks of the budding democratizing process.

If Obama can clean up the previous administration’s mistakes in Iraq, Guantanamo etc. in a responsible manner and seek dialog with the region’s important players, the President could repair the perceptions.

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The Economist States The Age-Old

August 29, 2009 Leave a comment

BarackBeat will soon feature regular updates, and I have decided to mark the occasion with the Economist’s explanation of why and how the Arab world has gone to rack and ruin.

On July 23, The Economist printed two articles entitled “Waking from its sleep.”

The special report hits the sore spot almost immediately,

To revisit the Arab world two decades later is to find that in many ways history continues to pass the Arabs by. Freedom? The Arabs are ruled now, as they were then, by a cartel of authoritarian regimes practised in the arts of oppression. Unity? As elusive as ever. Although the fault lines have changed since Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait 19 years ago, inter-Arab divisions are bitter. Egypt, the biggest Arab country, refused even to attend April’s Arab League summit meeting in Doha. Israel? Punctuated by bouts of violence and fitful interludes of diplomacy, the deadly stalemate continues. Neither George H. Bush at Madrid in 1991 nor Bill Clinton at Camp David in 2000 nor George W. Bush at Annapolis in 2007 succeeded in making peace or even bringing it visibly closer.

These articles make no new pronouncements. Their greatest indictments– the anti-Israeli attitude, oil and corrupt leadership– are among the most well-known hindrances to development in the region (see the Arab Human Development Report). The real power in these articles lie in their pointed (even frustrated) condemnation of the region’s leadership. They make no bones about the fact that it is the ravenous scramble for power in the Arab world that has brought it to its ruinous state. It is not Islam or even the legacy of imperialism.

Not one ruler in today’s Arab League got his job through a free election. Whatever legitimacy these regimes enjoy derives mainly from tradition, fear, or an unwritten contract between ruler and ruled: in return for your loyalty I will meet your basic economic and social needs. That may be a splendid contract in times of plenty. But a bursting population is already making it hard for governments to keep their side of the bargain.

“Waking from its sleep” say that a social bargain of co-optation does not endure, and that political change is not a nicety but a necessity for economic and social progress. One gets the feeling that the Economist is not just addressing the Arab world, but is using its story as a parable, an example for much of the Third World.

— Tina Carter, Trinity ’10

Azerbaijani Scholar Niyaz Yagublu on Iran

Niyaz Yagublu is Chairman of Development Watch Research Center, Research fellow of Azerbaijan National Academy of Sciences and Professor of International Affairs at Odlar Yurdu University Azerbaijan – Baku.

At first, I would like to begin with some of my notions about the events taking place in Iran following the presidential elections. Here in my comments for our local media, I have predicted that the results of the elections would be falsified as a strong probability based on the last parliamentary elections held there.

The regime of velayat-e faqih ruling Iran is not and cannot be open to any change and criticism, and few gleams of democracy such as TV debates of candidates and their meetings with the population during the campaign was intended to show vital capacity of the regime and to justify and ground following frauds and falsification of the results. In the beginning one could assume that the Islamic regime would allow Mir Hossein Mousavi to win as an interchange tactics between its reformist and hardliner supporters as all of the candidates were among the founders and supporters of the Islamic regime, in other words, their own men (as it is expressed in Persian khudi-ha). But the experience with M.Khatami’s presidency especially his first term had convinced the spiritual leader’s team not to run risks with a cosmetic change that could result in larger and maybe unpredictable radical shifting in the format of governance and rule.

But the most apparent feature of this election is linked to more explicit rifting among those who are at the helm of the state, and between them and the reformist Islamic. This situation is getting more complicated, especially taking into consideration the long-lasting implicit rivalry between Khamenei and Rafsanjani, who is enjoying larger authority and economic and political influence. All the while, antagonism between Rafsanjani and Ahmadinejad has clearly been rising. Ahmadinejad is considered a puppet of the leader and executor of “Hojjatiyyeh” ideals. Ayatollah Khamenei began a speech during Friday prayer in Tehran (it is noteworthy that he delivers speeches in Friday prayers rarely) by threatening those who would organize and protest with blood shed in the streets. This shows once again that even if the unrest escalates, the regime is ready to punish those who spread fear among the populace, and it will not compromise. Nonetheless, the non-official information about the Experts Council carrying out referendum on results of the election does not seem convincing.

Another aspect of the current situation which is not touched upon, is related to massive support of Azerbaijanis living in Iran, whom number above an estimated 30 million, for Mousavi. Mousavi and Karrubi promised radical changes in national policy of the state towards non-Persian population which is very crucial for Azerbaijanis.

Analysis of the situation indicates that even in the case that the regime manages to quiet the current anti-government fever with repressive methods and mass arrests and killings, the situation will not be fully under their control and will get more tense. Iran never will be as it was before June 12, 2009.

Barack Beat would like to thank Mr. Yagublu for his commentary and Kelly Jarret for passing it on to us.
Categories: Commentary, Iran

S Abdallah Schleifer on Obama’s Speech

Sheikh Abdallah Schleifer is a former NBC Cairo Bureau chief, present Distinguished Professor of Journalism at the American University in Cairo, and Adjunct Scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington D.C.

The first time I met S Abdallah Schleifer, my fellow DukeEngagers and I were at Cairo’s Garden City Club for a roundtable discussion with Naguib Mahfouz translator Raymond Stock. However, once Abdallah took his seat,  Stock and Schleifer were in a world of their own, remembering and conjecturing the very history of Egypt, unfurling the rind from Mahfouz to Muhammad Ali Pasha and back again. Needless to say, I learned then that he is a man of great experience and conviction.

The following is Schleifer’s  sincere reflection on President Obama’s Speech June 4th.

It was at Cairo University’s Festival Hall that the great diva of Egyptian song, Umm Kalthoum, held her greatest concert triumphs in the 1950s and 1960s.
In the hall with a massive beige dome that made it look like an elegant concert hall or even opera house, she moved educated, influential Egyptian men and women to tears and ecstasy – a joy that has not been felt in this crowded and often chaotic city for years.
Until today.

Barack Obama entered from the far right of the stage and the audience of a few thousand of Egypt’s great and good rose almost as one body.

Ministers of state, Coptic bishops and Muslim imams, senior Egyptian journalists – supporters of the regime and its critics – successful businessmen and leading academics, along with a large contingent of carefully chosen students from Cairo University and the American University of Cairo, applauded and waved back to the US president as he strode with an athlete’s grace to centre stage.

Moving speech

An Umm Kalthoum song could go on and on without losing its intensity for more than an hour, and Obama sustained the rapt attention of his audience – most relying on simultaneous translation and the earnestness of his body language, his lean, appealing physical presence – for nearly as long.

Obama’s speech was watched live by millions around the world [AFP]One minute into his speech he won nearly every heart and mind in the great hall, announcing his pride to be carrying “the goodwill of the American people, and a greeting of peace Muslim communities use in my country: asalaamu alaikum.

The audience rose to its feet and I was not the only one in that vast hall with tears in my eyes.

I never imagined, as an American and a Muslim, that I would ever hear an American president invoke the blessing of Islam or to go on to quote from the Quran, as he would do several times with great relevance.

Or to refer to Muhammad as “the Prophet upon whom be peace”.

But this extraordinary event was more than superb pacing and performance, more than the soaring, almost classic oratory Obama is famous for and that translates so well into modern literary Arabic.

It was more than soothing and conciliatory words for a predominantly Arab audience here in the Festival Hall, or the millions who watched and listened at home and the office, at universities and cafes courtesy of a dozen live Arab satellite feeds.

A vast Arab audience nursing the grievances of decades sharpened by the blows of the past eight years that preceded Obama’s presidency – the invasion and occupation of Iraq, the collapse of the Arab-Israeli peace process, the brutality of the siege and war on Gaza that cry out for justice and conciliation.

‘New beginning’

Obama vowed that he was in Cairo “to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world”, a new beginning based  on respect – a word that figured significantly in this speech – as well as “mutual interests and shared values”.

The US president vowed a “new beginning” with Muslims worldwide [AFP]But it quickly became clear that he was basing that new beginning on acknowledging realities and speaking hard truths – to Americans and to Israelis as well as to Arabs and Muslims.

He went well beyond the at-best well-meaning but almost meaningless platitudes about Islam as the religion of peace, to call his distant American audience’s attention to Western civilisation’s debt to Islam, “that carried the light of learning through so many centuries paving the way for Europe’s Renaissance and enlightenment”.

He recalled a Muslim civilisation that was based on innovation, science, mathematics, printing, medicine, the fine arts, and in general, religious tolerance and racial equality.

But for his audience here and throughout the Arab world, he insisted that the impulse behind the creation of the state of Israel was a tragic history that could not be denied, alluding to the persecution of the Jewish people for centuries, culminating in an unprecedented Holocaust.

And he denounced Holocaust denial just as he denounced Israeli indifference to the suffering and the hardships of the Palestinians and the daily humiliations of occupation.

Finally, hard talk that his audience was ready to meditate upon.

Perhaps it is Obama’s deep reading in philosophy that led him to seek synthesis of apparent tension and conflict.

Even in his opening words, he honoured his official hosts – Al Azhar, the citadel of Sunni orthodoxy, and the University of Cairo, the launching pad in the 1920s and 1930s for secular education – as two remarkable institutions “that represent harmony between tradition and progress”.

Obama differentiated between the invasion of Iraq, which he had opposed, and the war in Afghanistan which he defined as a war of necessity, and repeated his pledge to pull out all US combat units from Iraqi cities by next month, and all troops by 2012.

Broad alliance

He continually stressed the importance of broad alliance and international support that the US had when, in the wake of 9/11, it went into Afghanistan in pursuit of al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

Obama, left, was hosted by Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president, during his Cairo visit [EPA]But he engaged rather than denounce those in the Muslim world who doubted America’s intentions, in effect renouncing that overbearing theme of his predecessor that “whoever is not with me is against me”.

So when Obama condemned al-Qaeda for killing innocent men, women and children, it was not just American victims of 9/11 but the murder “of people of different faiths – but more than any other, they have killed Muslims”.

He acknowledged that in response to the trauma of 9/11 America had in some cases acted contrary to its best traditions and ideals and he spoke of “concrete actions to change course” by unequivocally prohibiting the use of torture and ordering the Guantanamo prison to be closed by early next year, drawing significant applause.

This was also a moment for giving assurances.

Obama insisted that the US sought no military bases in Afghanistan and he acknowledged that military power alone would not solve the problems in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Rather, he was committed to spending many billions of dollars partnering both countries to build schools, hospitals, roads, businesses and to help the many displaced by war.

Obama was clearly responding to those supporters newly turned into critics who claimed he had been co-opted by the lure of a military solution in Afghanistan and by extension, in Pakistan.

The range of the US president’s speech was broad, reaffirming his commitment to human rights, democracy and women’s rights, but also stressing the importance of development, job creation and extending education, particularly to women, that is problematic for much of the Muslim world.

Middle ground

As usual he sought the middle ground, saying that America has no business imposing its own system on different societies, but he insisted on basic human rights – the rule of law, freedom of expression, freedom to practise one’s religion, equal justice, a voice in government that is free of corruption.

Obama is pushing for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict [AFP]Typical of his instinct for ethical realism, however, instead of threatening or denouncing his ultimate host – the Egyptian government – or any other state in the region practising political repression, he said governments respecting those universal rights would enjoy more stability, security and prosperity.

Along with the hard truths there were some very significant, if subtle, messages.

An idea circulated by Israeli official circles and Americans enthralled by the Jewish state, that Obama was in the Middle East to put together a Sunni Arab-Israeli alliance to isolate and combat Shia Iran, was nowhere to be found in his speech.

Nor did Iran occupy an equal amount of concern or time with the Afghan-Pakistani issue, the Iraqi war and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

But slipped into a most unconfrontational discussion of American-Iranian relations that included an acknowledgment of America’s role in overthrowing a legitimately elected nationalist government in Iran during the Cold War years, Obama reaffirmed an early election campaign commitment, too controversial at the time for him to pursue, that the US government was ready to talk with the Iranian leadership without any preconditions.

Even more significant was his acknowledgment that Hamas enjoyed popular support among Palestinians and it was in this context that he made the usual call for Hamas to renounce violence, recognise past agreements between the Palestinians and Israel, as well as recognise Israel’s right to exist.

Suddenly he was advising Hamas, not denouncing it, to accept the responsibility of governing. Perhaps historians will remember this speech as the moment America’s engagement with Hamas began.

S Abdallah Schleifer is Distinguished Professor of Journalism at the American University in Cairo and Adjunct Scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington DC.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

This essay is also posted on Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya.

Exclusive Interview: Marda on the Middle East

June 17, 2009 Leave a comment

Marda Dunsky, the author of the recently published book Pens and Swords: How the American Mainstream Media Report the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict,  by Columbia University Press recently gave two presentations on media reporting of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and of the Muslim world in general. Following one of these presentations, I was given the opportunity to sit down with Mrs. Dunsky and discuss her thoughts.

It goes without saying that media shapes public opinion and policy. In her new book, Mrs. Dunsky criticizes American broadcast media for its failure to place events “in context” or to admit an administration’s defiance  of international laws or consensus.

Even in the most seemingly balanced story on Israeli settlement, there is no reference to what international law and consensus has to say about the issue, she said.

In another illustration, Dunsky quoted Senator Dick Durbin who said that when the mainstream media irresponsibly followed the Bush Administration’s assertion of WMDs, it created a climate of incredible pressure. Under such pressure, “the only safe vote was the vote for the war.” Otherwise senators would fall prey to their constituencies.

Dumskey also touched on President Obama.

Obama’s been in office for more than a month. What he’s done immediately is to recognize that this is a very pressing issue. On the second day he was in office, he had a big meeting at the state department where he introduced his two special envoys: Holbrook and Sen. George Mitchell as his envoys to the Middle East. Obama right out of the gate is telling the world, ‘We think this is really a pressing issue and we’re going to get back involved right away.’

Starting with his interview on Al-Arabiya (which can be found in an earlier post here), Obama showed that he is intent on improving relations in the region and showing that the issues in the area are a priority for America.

Dunsky cautioned, though, that it is still mostly rhetoric at this stage and that concrete policies are required.

On the campaign trail Obama visited Sderot in southern Israel and expressed his sympathies for living under constant rocket fire. This was where he said the famous phrase “if my daughters were sleeping and someone was shooting rockets at them, I would do anything I could to protect them.” So while he sympathized with Sderot and kept with the standard American policy of unflinching support for Israeli security, as Dunsky pointed out, Obama neglected to travel the two miles into Gaza and show that he empathized with the average Gazan who was living under siege with little access to food or medical supplies–which in itself does not mark a change in American policy.

I would like to encourage all to take heed Mrs. Dunsky’s advice and to scrutinize the mainstream media. By doing so, the viewer can be much more informed and gain a better understanding of the truth.

Marda Dunsky is a professor at DePaul University and a former journalist at the Jerusalem Post.

This interview took place March 2009.

Senior Adviser on Middle East Peace Turned Over

Just one week ago, The Washington Post reported that Dennis Ross, a senior adviser for the State Department on Iran and former heavy-hand in Middle East peace negotiations, was a “diplomatic troubleshooter…legendary talker.”

As one of the main architects of the Obama administration’s Iran policy, Ross is crafting a way to reach out to Iran to persuade its leaders to abandon any plan to develop nuclear weapons. President Obama says this effort will have to show results by the end of the year.

Imagine their surprise when news broke of Ross’ transfer to the National Security Council Monday. A speculative uproar followed.

Al Jazeera English wrote, “The White House and state department declined to comment on the matter but denied a report in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz that Ross was being removed from his job.”

According to Haaretz, Iran objected to Ross’ Jewish heritage and his close ties to Israeli civil and defense government officials.

Ross also endorsed military action against Iran with former journalist and co-author David Makovsky in their new book, “Myths, Illusion and Peace: Finding a New Direction for America in the Middle East.”

“Tougher policies – either militarily or meaningful containment – will be easier to sell internationally and domestically if we have diplomatically tried to resolve our differences with Iran in a serious and credible fashion,” they wrote.

Haaretz also speculates that Ross may have been dissatisfied with his position in the State Department, especially considering the rise of George Mitchell and Richard Holbrooke, two other Washington envoys whose clout has surpassed that of Ross.

Of these suppositions, it seems most likely that the man who was once behind Iran foreign policy came to be seen as a diplomatic handicap for a cautious administration.

“…in the Middle East, many officials view him as too pro-Israel, raising concerns about whether he is the right person for the job of coaxing the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Even a former colleague, Aaron David Miller, wrote last year that “Dennis, like myself, had an inherent tendency to see the world of Arab-Israeli politics first from Israel’s vantage point.”

Whatever the truth behind Ross’ move, his absence may make it easier for the Obama administration to gingerly coax Iran out of its nuclear amibtions, support of terrorism, and other great diplomatic misdeeds.

— Tina Carter, Trinity ’10