A step forward for U.S. policy

June 23, 2009

AS A person who has read and learned much from what Gilbert Achcar has to say about U.S. and European imperialism in the Middle East, I was really looking forward to reading what he had to say about Barack Obama's speech in Cairo ("Returning to the mainstream").

I was really disappointed. Achcar recognizes that Obama's speech was a break from the "over the top" rhetoric which characterized the Bush era of direct colonial rule justified by overt anti-Arab racism, Islamophobia and the sweeping proclamation of a global war on terror. In the end though, Achcar is underwhelmed by the speech and characterizes it as merely a return to the mainstream policies of Clinton or Bush Sr.

While I think there is truth in what Achcar is saying, I think his dismissiveness to the speech misses the crucial changes in U.S. policy that are taking place, and the potential opportunities for an antiwar movement that they represent.

First off, Achcar is right in pointing to how the speech represents a return to policies reminiscent of the pre-Bush era. That is true. But this, in and of itself, represents a stunning defeat for a U.S. ruling class united on refashioning the entire Middle East under "Pax Americana" only six years ago.

That vision has been decisively crushed and beaten back--in part by an antiwar sentiment at home that refuses to die, but mostly by the heroic resistance of Iraqis, Afghans and Palestinians who refuse to give in to the will of two of the largest militaries on the planet, the U.S. and Israel. Obama's speech is not just a return to the past, but a decisive retreat on the part of a U.S. ruling class that had seemed all-powerful less than a decade ago.

Furthermore, there are some remarkable concessions in the speech. Acknowledging Hamas' base of support among Palestinians; acknowledging the justified plight of the Palestinians and referring to Gaza and West Bank as "occupied," not disputed, territories; acknowledging a history of U.S. colonial intervention in the region; acknowledging that sexism is not something invented in Tehran or Kabul. I am sorry. These sorts of statements are usually made by ex-presidents no longer in power, and I don't remember admissions of the sort under Clinton, Bush Sr. or even Carter.

These statements, taken together with a call on Israel to end settlements, is certainly a step from previous U.S. policy over the last 30 years. Does the U.S. mean to deliver? Arabs around the world are rightly skeptical, but the ideological retreat is real and potentially meaningful for a U.S. antiwar movement that still has not figured out (as Obama's speech shows) that the plight of the Palestinians is linked to U.S. imperial policy in the Middle East.

FINALLY, I think the most significant thing about the speech was what a different tone it took toward the Muslim religion.

From recognizing the contributions that Muslim society has made to civilization (and even the formation of the U.S.), to the rich history of religious tolerance, and yes, for Barack Obama to speak openly of his own positive experience and associations with the Muslim religion, I felt was nothing short of remarkable--given how a sitting president, cabinet members, and virtually all Republicans and Democrats in Washington have made a living over the last six years of demonizing the Muslim religion and associating it exclusively with fanaticism, backwardness and fundamentalism.

Frankly, the antiwar movements around the globe have been reluctant to take this on, and retreated in the face of this racist Islamophobia. Achcar was not impressed, but I was surprised when a U.S. president could rightly see that restrictions on wearing a hijab were not a step forward for women, but a racist attempt to demonize an entire religion. This was a question that many on the left could not get clear on (and still aren't). I think they should read Obama's speech more closely.

And that's the real significance of the speech. Yes, it was delivered to an audience in Cairo; and yes, Obama is attempting to retrench U.S. imperial policy; and, yes, Obama is a capitalist politician and the leading representative of the an empire who has no interest in ceding ground to any country. But the fact is that, while delivered in Cairo, this speech was read by millions across that world and within the U.S. They will understand it (and rightly so) as almost entirely new way at looking at our brothers and sisters in the Muslim world.

Obama's reasons for doing so are cynical and about forging alliances with moderates. But his speech can also be used as a sledgehammer (or at least a chisel) against the vitriol, lies and demagoguery that have characterized U.S. discourse (on both the left and right) against Muslims and the religion of Islam.

The shame is not how limited Obama's speech is (to me it was remarkably expansive given his position), the shame is that we do not have an antiwar movement in this country that either recognizes or is capable of acting on the opportunities presented by it.
Andy Libson, San Francisco

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