US president Barack Obama made a number of promises during his “address to the Muslim world” in Cairo in June 2009. Not all of them have been met.
With Obama set to deliver another major speech in a Muslim-majority country – this time, in Indonesia – we assess how well he has fulfilled the promises of his Cairo speech. He has come through with many of his concrete “deliverables,” like expanded educational exchanges and a fund to encourage science and technology. But his administration has failed to deliver on the more fundamental issues of reorientating US policy.
Click on the items below, or scroll down, for more information.
|Close the Guantanamo Bay prison by early 2010|
|Remove troops from Iraqi cities, and keep withdrawal timeline|
|Invest $1.5bn per year, for five years, in Pakistan|
|“The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements”|
|Democracy promotion: “We will support [it] everywhere”|
|A “new way forward” with Iran|
|Expanded exchange programmes with schools in Muslim countries|
|Host an “entrepreneurship summit” to encourage businesses in Muslim countries|
|Funds to support science and technology in the Muslim world|
Of all the promises he made, the pledge to close Guantanamo Bay is perhaps Obama’s most glaring failure: 176 prisoners remain at the prison camp, and many of them are likely to stay there for years to come.
His limited efforts to close the prison camp have met with nearly uniform opposition on Capitol Hill. The federal government acquired a prison in Illinois to house Guantanamo detainees – which some critics dubbed “Guantanamo North,” since dozens of detainees would simply be relocated and held indefinitely – but Congress has passed a number of resolutions blocking the transfer of detainees to the United States.
Particularly uncertain is the fate of 57 Yemenis detained at the prison. Following the failed Christmas Day bombing attempt on a US-bound airliner – carried out by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen – Obama halted the return of Yemeni detainees to their home country.
White House officials and congressional leaders now say it is unlikely Guantanamo will be closed during Obama’s first term in office.
Obama has already completed a major drawdown of US troops: from more than 140,000 when he took office to less than 50,000 today, the lowest level since the US-led invasion in 2003.
Iraq remains an occupied country, of course: In addition to tens of thousands of US troops – officially there to “advise and assist” Iraqi forces, but fully armed and capable of conducting missions nonetheless – the US state department is fielding what’s been described as a “small army” of its own from private security firms.
But Obama has stuck to the withdrawal so far, and the White House has shown no intention of wavering from its plan to withdraw almost all troops by the end of 2011 – despite pressure from some US Republicans to delay the timeline.
Administration officials acknowledge that a small force – perhaps several thousand troops – will likely remain after 2011 to provide technical assistance and training for the Iraqi army.
The White House has vastly expanded its aid to Pakistan. Much of that is still military aid: Just last month, Obama offered Islamabad another $2bn.
But the administration has also promised $7.5bn over five years in civilian aid, a fulfillment of his pledge in Cairo. The two countries launched a “strategic dialogue” in Washington in March, and held their second high-level meeting in Islamabad in October. Money from the US has already been earmarked for a number of projects in Pakistan, including new hospitals, water infrastructure and agricultural investments.
The US also spent hundreds of millions of dollars on relief efforts following Pakistan’s catastrophic flooding this summer.
Obama took a hard line during his speech on Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem. “It is time for these settlements to stop,” he said.
Initially, he stuck to his guns: The demand for a settlement freeze hovered over US-Israeli relations during the summer of 2009.
But Obama dropped that demand in the fall, and Binyamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, agreed to a 10-month construction freeze in the West Bank – a moratorium that was violated hundreds of times and did not include East Jerusalem. Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, nonetheless praised it as an “unprecedented” step.
The freeze ended in September, and settlement growth is once again moving forward – 800 new homes in the Ariel settlement were announced on Tuesday, for example, and another 1,300 in several parts of East Jerusalem. The US reaction was tepid: “We were deeply disappointed by the announcement,” PJ Crowley, the state department spokesman, said.
Obama called democracy and the rule of law “human rights” and vowed to support them, but his administration has often done the opposite.
The state department, for example, is considering an “endowment fund” for the Egyptian government. The proposal would set aside a pool of foreign aid for Cairo with very few conditions attached – none of them requiring the Egyptian government to advance human rights or democracy. High-ranking White House officials blessed a Sudanese election in April that was widely considered a fraud.
The administration is deepening its ties with unaccountable rulers across the region – in Yemen, for example, where Ali Abdullah Saleh has maintained his grip on power for two decades (longer, if you count his time as president of North Yemen).
Shadi Hamid, the deputy director of the Brookings Institution in Doha, penned a tongue-in-cheek op-ed in April suggesting that Arab reformers might be feeling “Bush nostalgia” – missing the former US president’s (admittedly often rhetorical) emphasis on democracy.
After nearly two years in office, Obama’s Iran policy looks quite similar to his predecessor’s. There were a few moments of “openness” – his much-touted Nowruz message last year, for example – but America’s Iran policy has largely been defined by a cycle of fruitless negotiations and escalating sanctions.
Obama is not solely to blame for the paralysis in US-Iran relations, of course. But he has pursued no transformative policy initiatives – nothing demonstrating the “courage, rectitude and resolve” that he said would be necessary for relations to move forward.
And a shift is even less likely following the recent Republican victories in congressional midterm elections. As Tony Karon wrote in Time magazine, “He’ll find it even more difficult, after the election, to compromise with a regime so widely reviled on Capitol Hill.”
Rashad Hussain, the US special envoy to the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, said in a speech earlier this year that funds for education exchange programmes in Muslim-majority countries have increased by 30 per cent since Obama took office.
The US state department created a programme that allows American high school students to spend a semester or a full year abroad in Muslim-majority countries.
US embassies in individual countries have also set up lower-level efforts. In Qatar, for example, the embassy runs a “sister schools” programme that pairs US and Qatari high schools.
The White House held that summit in April, and it featured a number of well-known Muslim entrepreneurs, including Muhammad Yunus, the Nobel Prize-winning founder of the Grameen Bank microfinance firm in Bangladesh. It also launched a number of programmes, including an “entrepreneur exchange” that exchanges “young professionals” between the US and Muslim-majority countries.
The White House’s approach to entrepreneurship came in for some criticism. Andrew Albertson, the director of the Washington-based Project on Middle East Democracy, argued that “Washington does the region no favours by offering an entrepreneurship summit … while avoiding the root problems hindering business such as political decay and corruption”. But the White House can nonetheless count this summit as a promise fulfilled.
In October 2009, the White House announced the Global Technology and Innovation Fund, which provides between $25m and $150m to “catalyze and facilitate private sector investments that promote access to and growth of technology … throughout Asia, the Middle East and Africa”.
The White House also dispatched three “science envoys” to Muslim-majority countries in north Africa and southeast Asia.