Tuesday, February 16, 2010

"And All We Have To Do Is... Nothing!"

Shahed Amanulla has an editorial in The Guardian complaining that the Obama Administration, specifically Hillary Clinton, has disappointed the Muslim world.
In his April 2009 speech in Cairo, President Obama pledged to create a new relationship between America and the Muslim world through shared values, cooperation, and a renewed effort to alleviate specific policy concerns commonly felt among Muslims.

Nearly a year later, however, Secretary Clinton faced a tough crowd at the sixth annual US-Islamic World Forum, where she pleaded for patience in the face of unrealised goals. "I understand why people might be impatient," explained Clinton. "But building a stronger relationship cannot happen overnight or even in a year." That may be so, but it was little solace for many Muslim observers who momentarily put aside their skepticism in the hope that the US would use its newly-found moral high ground to press for change.
Now, no doubt, there are many things that the U.S. could do on its own that could benefit the Middle East, and it can act unilaterally on any number of issues. But... why should it? There are entrenched political interests that favor the status quo, and many citizens of the U.S. are very disappointed in how difficult it is to achieve change, domestic or international, even to the point of questioning if the Obama Administration wants change. Even when there aren't entrenched interests that favor a particular policy, the government is slow - if it only takes months to change a policy position, by any comparative measure that's government moving at the speed of light.

There are entrenched interests in the U.S. that want to continue the status quo in the Middle East. There are entrenched interests that believe the U.S. is not sufficiently confrontational with the Middle East. There are factions that would like the U.S. to invade Yemen, and would love it if the U.S. invaded Iran. There are huge numbers of U.S. voters who are terrified of the Muslim world, and are easily stirred up over trivialities arising in the so-called "war on terror".

In that context, what has the Muslim world offered to Obama, that he can hold up as evidence that a softened approach will bring about results beneficial to the United States?
It is disappointing to have hopes dashed, but maybe a bit of cold water is a good thing. While it has been great to see a real shift of attitude in Washington towards the Muslim world – and, unrealised goals aside, there is no reason to believe this has changed – perhaps it is more realistic for those involved in conflicts in the region to not depend on others to lead the charge in solving their problems.
Or perhaps it's more realistic to recognize that if the nations of the Arab world don't change their approach to their internal problems, to regional problems, and to extremism, they make it difficult for any U.S. administration, no matter how sympathetic to the need for change, to effect change. "Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results."

The author's focus is in no small part on the situation in Israel, the occupied territories and the situation in Gaza. Understandable. But for decades the Arab states of the Middle East have shamelessly exploited the Israel-Palestine conflict in order to divert the public's attention from internal problems, and some states have actively perpetuated or worsened the plight of Palestinian refugees who live outside of Israel and the occupied territories. When can we expect the Muslim world to insist upon relief and equality under the law for the Palestinian refugees who live, for example, in Lebanon? Or to pressure Hamas to reform its charter - a big psychological hurdle, certainly, but one that could have tremendous symbolic importance? Arab states need no help from the United States to resolve problems that are entirely under their own control, and they have no room to blame Israel for what happens outside of its borders. For their own policies.

Having a U.S. Administration that wants to change its approach to the Muslim world is in no way a justification for failure to work for change from within. If you think about it, it's a time when reformists should be working harder than ever.

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