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Joseph Massad
Joseph Massad
Joseph Massad is Associate Professor of Modern Arab Politics and Intellectual History at Columbia University.
Emperor Obama vs the Arab people
Despite calling for change in some parts of the Middle East, the US president reaffirmed the status quo where it counts.
Last Modified: 21 May 2011 13:17
By giving Israel his unflinching support, Obama has alienated much of the Arab world [GALLO/GETTY]

In 1960, British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan delivered an important speech titled Wind of Change, first in Accra and later in Cape Town, signaling British decolonisation of its African territories and warning the South African regime to move away from its apartheid policies. In 2011, US President Barack Obama begged to differ. While dubbing his speech Winds of Change, in reference to the uprisings ongoing across the Arab World, his speech made it clear that the same winds were not yet blowing in Washington DC, and perhaps never will. President Obama's second speech on the Arab world, delivered on 19 May, showed such constancy and lack of change in US policy as his first speech, delivered in Cairo on 4 June 2009. This is not to say that the two speeches lacked flair and imperial hubris in the delivery, but rather that their characteristic lack of substance or novelty, let alone their decorative and gratuitous verbosity, demonstrate that imperial climate control in Washington can never be "changed", not even by the wind of the Arab uprisings.

The problem with US policy in the Arab world is not only its insistence on broadcasting credulous US propaganda - easily fed to Americans, yet with few takers elsewhere in the world - but also that it continues to show a complete lack of familiarity with Arab political culture and insists on insulting the intelligence of most Arabs, whom it claims to address directly with speeches such as Mr Obama's.

US diversions

In the past three decades, Arab leaders allied with the United States (and even the few who were not) have been telling their peoples that Iran, Shia, Sunni Islamists, the Palestinian people and their wretched cause, among others, are the reason for the hardship of Arabs. Indeed this conjuring up of enemies started with the US-Saudi-Kuwaiti plan to subcontract an all-out war against revolutionary Iran, as the enemy of Arabs, which was launched by Saddam Hussein in 1981 to defend America's oil wells - and which resulted by 1988 in the death of one million Iranians and 400,000 Iraqis.

In the meantime, and since the late 1960s, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon have engaged in wars with the Palestinian guerrillas and against Palestinian civilians, whom they identified as the enemy. Egypt launched a war against Libya when Sadat was in power, and later, under Mubarak, against its own Islamists and against the Palestinian people. Indeed even Algeria was conjured up as the enemy of Egyptians in Mubarak's last year on the throne.

Saudi Arabia, while repressing all of its population in the name of Wahabism, has not stopped hatching various plans (and plots) since 1982 to bring Israel into the Arab fold. When President Obama peddles the Israeli lie, that his pro-Israel advisors at the White House - and there has been no other kinds of Middle East advisors at the White House since the Clinton administration - feed him, that "too many leaders in the region tried to direct their people's grievances elsewhere. The West was blamed as the source of all ills, a half-century after the end of colonialism. Antagonism toward Israel became the only acceptable outlet for political expression," to which leaders is he actually referring? Sadat, Mubarak, Ben Ali, Kings Hussein and Abdullah II of Jordan, Kings Hasan II and Muhammad VI of Morocco, President Bouteflika, any of the Gulf monarchs or the two Hariri prime ministers, Rafiq and Saad?

Not only are such lies not believable to anyone in the wider world, but also, were the US administration to believe them, explain the ongoing foreign policy failures in a region the US insists on dominating - but which it refuses to learn much about.

Popular opposition and leadership support

Opposition to the United States and Israel in fact is something espoused by the peoples of the Arab world, not by their leaders, who have been insisting for decades that the US and Israel are the friends of Arabs. Indeed the people of the region have been the only party that insisted that US policies and domination in the region and constant Israeli aggressions are what make these two countries enemies of the Arab peoples, while Arab rulers and their propaganda machines insisted on diverting people's anger toward other imagined enemies, which the US conjured up for the region, while making peace with Israel.

Obama's attempt to deny the hatred that Arabs feel towards the United States and Israel because of the actions of these two countries is nothing short of the continued refusal of the United States and Israel (not of Arabs) to take responsibility for their own actions by shifting the blame for the horrendous violence they have inflicted on the region onto their very victims. When Obama and Israel call on Arabs to take responsibility for the state of the region and not blame the US and Israel for it, what they are essentially doing is to refuse to take responsibility for what they have inflicted on Arabs.

Arabs have clearly taken responsibility and have been trying to remove the dictators that the US and Israel have supported for decades - and which they continue to support. The only parties refusing to take responsibility here are the United States and Israel. Obama's speech, sadly, continues this intransigent tradition. 

In the same vein, Obama chastises Syria for following "its Iranian ally, seeking assistance from Tehran in the tactics of suppression. And this speaks to the hypocrisy of the Iranian regime". He would have done well to accuse the French, British, and his own government - with whom the regimes of Ben Ali and Mubarak consulted until their last moment in office. The scandal of French collaboration with Ben Ali's and Mubarak's governments until the last minute, especially in "security" matters, has filled world newspapers over the past months, as did the news that both the Egyptian defense minister Muhammad Tantawi (now in charge of the military council governing post-Mubarak Egypt) and army chief of staff Sami Anan spent much of the Egyptian uprising in Washington DC consulting with the Americans on how best to "deal" with the uprising - leaving aside the other direct line to Mubarak and Omar Suleiman that many US government and security organs had until the last moment of Mubarak's rule - and since.

But Obama thinks Arabs are stupid or ignorant of the fact that it is the US and European countries who train and fund almost all governmental security agencies in the region. Iran's help to Syria may expose Iranian hypocrisy, but US, British and French hypocrisy, thankfully remains unexposed. 

Freedom - for some

Obama spoke of how "there must be no doubt that the United States of America welcomes change that advances self-determination and opportunity", but given his insistence that such change be brought about in Syria and Libya, but not in Oman, Jordan, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain (among others), does raise many doubts. The silence on demonstrations in monarchies (Saudi Arabia, Oman, Jordan, Morocco) and the mild criticisms of Yemen, whose popular uprising precedes Libya's, stand in stark contrast with the vehemence of Obama's criticisms of Syria and Libya.

The belated mention of Bahrain stood out as a sign of a lack of courage, as now weeks after the Bahraini uprising has been successfully crushed through use of a US-supplied and supported Gulf mercenary force led by Saudi Arabia, Obama mustered the courage to speak about ongoing arrests there and the destruction of Shia mosques.

In the case of Syria, however, his criticisms and those of his government started from day one. Indeed when juxtaposed with his statement that "we will keep our commitments to friends and partners", a clearer picture was revealed about where and what kinds of changes the US welcomes - and where and what kinds of changes it does not. Obama even went further by enumerating where America's "core" principles should apply: Baghdad, Damascus, Sanaa, and Tehran, in addition to Benghazi, Cairo, and Tunis - but not Riyadh, Manama, Muscat, Amman, Algiers, or Rabat.

America's alleged core principle of religious tolerance and equality is also highly country-specific. Aside from identifying Iraq, a country the US destroyed and where it instituted the most virulent form of religious sectarianism and ethnic hatred in the region, as "a multi-ethnic, multi-sectarian democracy", Obama's concern for religious tolerance applies to Egypt - and thankfully, but more mildly, to Bahrain only. But when it comes to Israel, this commitment disappears, as Obama insists that Arabs must "recognise Israel as a Jewish State", and once again threatens Palestinians (as he had threatened them in his Cairo speech) to desist from "delegitimising" Israel's right to be a state that discriminates by law against its non-Jewish citizens on a religious and ethnic basis.

"For the Palestinians, efforts to delegitimise Israel will end in failure," he said. Supporting religious tolerance, one would think, should apply uniformly and not selectively. Obama's myopia, however, is such that he thinks Arabs will buy his anti-Arab and pro-Israel rhetoric readily.

This also applies to another of America's "core interests", namely nuclear proliferation. Obama shamelessly declared that his country has "for decades … pursued" a policy of "stopping the spread of nuclear weapons" in the region. But as the entire world has known for almost four decades, Israel is the only country in the region that possesses such weapons, which, at least, on one occasion it threatened to use - and refuses to sign the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.

That the US has supported Israel in its nuclear pursuits, and blocks any UN decision that seeks to penalise it for it seems not to be in contradiction of America's "core interests." Iraq, Syria, and Iran should be prevented from having nuclear reactors, even for peaceful purposes - but Israel can and should be allowed to have all the nuclear weapons it wishes to have. 

Sympathy for colonisers

Finally, Obama comes to the Palestinian question and tells us once again nothing new or substantive, Zionist protestations notwithstanding. First, Arabs are enjoined once again - as we were in his Cairo speech - to sympathise with the poor Israeli Jews who experience "the pain of knowing that other children in the region are taught to hate them". That Israel and the leading US Jewish organisations have for decades been the main global purveyors of the most racist and virulent forms of anti-Arab and anti-Muslim hateful propaganda seems to have escaped Obama and his advisors.

What kind of credibility does Obama think he will have with Arabs who have been on the receiving end of such global hatred for decades, when he wants them to sympathize with the suffering of their persecutors who have been blowing up Arab children non-stop since 1948?

But Obama went further, not only does he believe that, unlike all other countries in the region which must practice religious tolerance, Israel should be exempted from that condition and must be supported in its legal practice of religious and ethnic intolerance - but tells us that such exemption should only apply inside the state of Israel but not in the Occupied Territories.

When Obama declares that "the dream of a Jewish and democratic state cannot be fulfilled with permanent occupation", he is telling us that it is possible to exist without tolerance, meaning that Palestinian citizens of Israel should continue to suffer ethnic and religious discrimination from the "Jewish and democratic state" - but not Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. He remains unclear on whether Palestinians of the city of Jerusalem should suffer or not.

Right to exist

Obama proposes that the negotiations over the Israeli occupation of Jerusalem be postponed, but he simulatenously proposes that Israel should withdraw to the borders of 1967; here he is either showing ignorance of the situation, or outright malice. The 1967 borders of which Obama speaks include East Jerusalem, but Obama seems to have excepted the city from these borders a priori, as if it is not part of them, even though international law and the United Nations recognise it as part and parcel of the territories occupied through war in 1967.

This is aside from the fact that Israel has illegally expanded East Jerusalem at the expense of West Bank lands, with some estimates putting its current municipal size at ten per cent of the West Bank (in 1967 it was a mere six square kilometers). The so-called "mutually agreed swaps" of land that Obama proposes are no such thing. Israel already took a further ten per cent of the West Bank behind its apartheid wall. Add to that the settlements and the Jordan Valley, which Israel claims is the part it wants to swap land for.

What Palestinians have left at the end is less than 60 per cent of the West Bank that could be designated as a "Palestinian state", although even that state should be "non-militarised," yet surprisingly "sovereign", as Obama tells us. 

Obama also remains concerned about Israel's right to exist but not that of the Palestinians. He declared,without irony, in reference to Hamas: "How can one negotiate with a party that has shown itself unwilling to recognise your right to exist?" After all, the Palestinians have been negotiating for two decades with Israel, which refuses insistently to recognise the Palestinians' right to exist in a state of their own.

If Harold Macmillan's speech in 1960 urged the South Africans to abandon apartheid, Obama's in 2011 insists that the Palestinians must recognise Israel's right to continue to be a racist state.

When Obama speaks of how America's "short-term interests" in the region, at times, "don't align perfectly with our long-term vision for the region", he is peddling the biggest imperial lie of all. America's short- and long-term interests in the region have always been control of oil resources, securing US profits, and defending Israel. Until "winds of change" blow on these interests, the position of the United States as the most powerful anti-democratic force in the Arab World will remain the same, Emperor Obama's speeches notwithstanding.

Joseph Massad is Associate Professor of Modern Arab Politics and Intellectual History at Columbia University. He is author of The Persistence of the Palestinian Question (Routledge, 2006).

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

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