When in June 2009, Barack Hussein Obama, who had just become the president of the world’s foremost superpower and leader of the “free world”, started his landmark speech to the Muslim world with, “al-salamu alaykum” or “peace be upon you”, Arabs and Muslims must have felt like Dorothy in the film Jerry Maguire when she tells Jerry, “You had me at hello.”
Obama had us at al-salamu alaykum.
It was great to see the US president speaking at Cairo University, humanising and engaging the Muslim world, but it also felt like he was hedging on almost every issue, probably realising, correctly, that his detractors back home were listening to every word. Indeed, they called his trip an “apology tour”.
At that time, my critique of certain aspects of the president’s speech on Al Jazeera did not go down well with some of my prickly colleagues, who were (rightly) taken by the magic of the moment. But in his own recollection of that day in his memoir, A Promised Land, Obama is a sweet-talking pragmatist, a realist at heart.
Obama can talk the talk. He just loves to flirt with ideas and with the public, loves to orate, preach, and sermonise. But he should have known better than to flirt with the Muslim world without having the intention to commit.
Alas, he did not walk the walk. He did not come through on many of his promises, or perhaps more accurately, the promise of his presidency, for which he feels only partly responsible. In his book, he repeatedly laments people pinning too much hope on him and stretching or misinterpreting his words.
When he acted proactively, as when he reached a landmark nuclear disarmament treaty with Russia or when he crashed a China-led climate change meeting to force a compromise between China and Europe in Copenhagen, progress was in fact possible.
But it got harder and more complicated when it came to fulfilling his promise to end America’s endless war in the Middle East and do away with the mindset behind it.
He says he was misunderstood. He says that he opposed the Iraq war, as other American realists did, but not the Afghan war. He says that he is no pacifist who believes everything can be resolved with diplomacy. His extensive use of drones, which he mentions only in passing in the book, showed him capable and willing to champion new means of warfare.
On the other hand – and there is always “on another hand” with this guy – he seems to think, as he did in his earlier years, that politicians are “actors in a rigged game”. It is one thing to want to end a war, but it is another thing to actually get it done, when the military and foreign policy establishments are stacked against it, set in their ways, defending indefensible mantras about credibility and prestige.
If he wanted to decrease troop deployment in Afghanistan and the Pentagon wanted it increased, he felt obliged to accept a compromise with the formidable generals in the form of a surge.
His vice president, Joe Biden, urged him not to get rolled over by the Pentagon but rolled over he got, at least until he “grew more comfortable and efficient” in his role as commander-in-chief.
And he rolled over when Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected his demand that Israel freezes the illegal settlement-building as long as the negotiations with the Palestinians were under way. Obama compliments Netanyahu, he calls him “smart, canny, tough and a gifted communicator” in his book, even though he clearly dislikes him, and accuses him of orchestrating a campaign against his administration.
Obama shows sympathy for the Palestinian suffering, but instead of condemning its perpetrator, Israel, he defends the “unbreakable” US commitment to its security. He also blames the Palestinians for refusing to endorse the rigged diplomatic charade and for demanding Israel choose between “Jewish settlements” and a “peace settlement”. He even found it in himself to blame Al Jazeera for Arab anger at Netanyahu’s intransigence.
Much of this is already known, but what is less known is just how much Obama is annoyed or intimidated by the influence of the Israel lobby, which may partially explain his sheepishness towards Israel.
He contends in his book that, unlike relations with other allies, disagreement with Israel comes with a “domestic political cost”. Those who criticised Israel’s policy “risked being tagged as ‘anti-Israel’ (and possibly anti-Semitic) and confronted with a well-funded opponent in the next election”.
Predictably, some have already labelled Obama’s claim as “anti-Semitic”.
Obama writes how he was moved by Arab protesters during the early days of the Arab Spring, by their “Yes, we can” spirit, and decided to pressure Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to step down, despite opposition from his senior cabinet members and from Saudi and Emirati leaders, who warned him that America would no longer be trusted.
He was also moved by reports of potential bloody civil war in Libya and decided to act against the advice of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. Alas, his failure, as he puts it, was not to follow through.
His earlier drive soon came to a halt, as counter-revolutionary forces stepped in and chaos spread throughout the region. He stopped following through on his previous plans or pronouncements, choosing instead to disengage or temper expectation.
After five years of disappointments, Obama arrived at his “don’t do stupid sh**” foreign policy moment in 2014. He became as disillusioned with our region as many were disappointed in him.
Obama is wrong on many issues, but he is not wrong in asking the Muslim world to “closely examine the roots of [its] unhappiness”.
If his detractors only looked in the mirror, they would see that Obama’s shortcomings pale in comparison to our own; just think of how divided, hateful, and malicious we are towards each another in the Arab and Muslim worlds.
It is also paradoxical, not to say hypocritical, of us to condemn the US as an imperial hegemon and plead with it to intervene on our side, be it against an enemy or a neighbour.
It is a cop-out to blame Obama for many of our own failures. Why should an American president give a hoot if we do not give a damn?
He is a flirt, not a fool.