Friday, 12 June 2009

Obama's speech

There is lots to say about Obama’s speech, the most significant is that a black man is touring the region apologising for what white men have done. A point lost on many, but the symbolism is clear.

That Obama can deliver this speech in Cairo university is itself astounding.

If Bush had attempted to speak at the campus it would have been burnt to the ground. Obama instead is greeted with standing ovations from an audience that has not been shy in booing Egyptian ministers.

Fickle Arabs easily swayed by smooth words? That’s what many commentators would do doubt be thinking. But Obama’s tone is important.

Some, such as Noam Chomsky, have have dismissed it.

In his analysis Chomsky warns that “Those familiar with the history will rationally conclude, then, that Obama will continue in the path of unilateral US rejectionism.”

Others, such as William Pfaff, see it as a heralding a new era.

It is neither. But it does mark a shift in US strategy.

This speech needs to be seen in two parts. First what has not changed.

Echoing Bush’s 2002 “axis of evil” speech, Obama is committed to the “war on terror” . “When violent extremists operate in one stretch of mountains people are endangered across an ocean,” he announced.

Obama also warns Iran over its nuclear ambition and sets out to continue the war in Afghanistan.

Here is what’s different.

Gone is the rhetoric of “clash of civilisation” and “crusades” that characterised Bush and his supporters (especially from the pro-war left).

It is replaced with an acceptance of Islam, and the contribution of Muslims in creating civilisation. Easy words maybe, but a noteworthy departure from Islamobobia.

Obama said that, “Unlike Afghanistan, Iraq was a war of choice that provoked strong differences in my country and around the world... I also believe that events in Iraq have reminded America of the need to use diplomacy and build international consensus to resolve our problems whenever possible.”

And although Bush referred to Iran as part of the “axis of evil”, Obama acknowledges that the US bears responsibility for the tensions.

He said: “In the middle of the Cold War, the United States played a role in the overthrow of a democratically elected Iranian government.”

He follows this with an appeal for negotiations.

This is not a continuation of Bush policies, but a departure. Bush wanted to invade Iran, Obama wants negotiations.

This softening of attitudes towards Iran is a recognition, if any is needed, that the US desperately need Iran to help out in Afghanistan and Iraq.

It is with Israel that real change of tone.

The president’s standard commitment towards Israel is laced with criticism.

He said, “It is also undeniable that the Palestinian people, Muslims and Christians, have suffered in pursuit of a homeland. For more than 60 years, they've endured the pain of dislocation.

“Many wait in refugee camps in the West Bank and Gaza and neighbouring lands for a life of peace and security that they have never been able to lead. They endure the daily humiliations, large and small, that come with occupation.

“So let there be no doubt, the situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable. And America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity and a state of their own.”

In a remarkable passage he states:

“For centuries, black people in America suffered the lash of the whip as slaves and the humiliation of segregation. But it was not violence that won full and equal rights. It was a peaceful and determined insistence upon the ideals at the centre of America's founding.”

There are two messages here. The first is that Palestinians must lay down their weapons. But in a radical departure from previous US leaders, Obama is saying Palestinians are suffering as black slaves did.

Note the language: “lash of the whip”, “segregation”, “daily humiliations”, “the pain of dislocation”.

These words have caused deep concern inside Israel.

Israeli ministers have been running around Washington waving bits of paper signed by Bush that allow them to continue settlements in the West Bank. Obama has instead told them they had to stop.

So here is Haaretz on the reaction inside the Israeli government: “Netanyahu now understands what he already knew before the speech: The moment of political reckoning that he so feared is now rapidly approaching.

“The thunder he hears in the distance is the sound of the Likud legions and the West Bank settler hordes rolling down the mountains. The light on the horizon is not that of a new day, but of a train coming right at him—a night train from Cairo.

“Netanyahu will have to decide over the coming weeks whom he would rather pick a fight with: the powerful US administration, whose president sees himself in an almost messianic role, or his own coalition and members of his party.”

In these circumstances it is easy to dismiss Obama's words as rhetoric, and we know that he faces deep problems reconciling the tensions between US imperialism with its Arab allies. But tension there are—caused partly by popular anger over Palestine, but more directly by the deep hatred of the Arab regimes.

And although the Israelis care little of what happens in Afghanistan, or which government rules in the Arab world. Alfter all they have the comfort of a powerful army and some 50 nuclear warheads.

But it matters deeply to the US and the rest of the West. And if they needed any reminding then last Sunday’s victory by Hizbollah in the Lebanese elections is very sobering. The resistance won largely because of Israel’s 2006 war on the country.

Would another Israeli assault on Gaza mean the US loses Cairo? For the US the stakes are now too high abd the Israelis must be reigned in.

Obama's speech is a recognition of the deep problems faced by US imperialism in the region. He no doubt hopes he can charm his way out of this sticky situation.

The ultimate test is what happens in practice, on this point Chomsky is right. But what is significant is that it will be the Israelis who ensure that Obama will fail.

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