For his May 18 speech on the Muslim East, US President Barack Obama gave his latest performance in the production titled (Steadily Weakening) Empire Strikes Back. His flowery words have long since lost their perfume and his grammatically complex sentences, such a heady delight after the linguistically-challenged Bush, now seem to fall as flat as an out-of-tune piano. In one rhetorical touch, Obama mentioned the disappointment following the June 2009 Cairo speech (such as his wholesale continuing of the megalomaniacal War on Terror), and admits there have been contradictions between “America’s interests and values.” His penny oration is a study in contradiction, pretending to reach out to the Arab street but merely exposing the threadbare workings of empire oblivious to everything but ingesting the bite that has proven too big to chew.
Apparently, the rule is that if one has to retrench, one should never admit it — or manufacture it into some kind of victory. Obama somehow paints the retreat from Afghanistan and Iraq — defeats handed by determined insurgencies bleeding the US economy — as triumphal retreats of the US back to Mount Olympus after setting things right with the wayward Muslims. “After years of war in Iraq, we have removed 100,000 American troops and ended our combat mission there,” he declared, like Superman dusting his hands after a job well done. He conveniently evaded the fact that US troops had to be redirected to Afghanistan to shore up the flagging war effort there, and ignored the super-max prison campus and military bases still spotting the country.
“For decades, the United States has pursued a set of core interests in the region… with the firm belief that America’s interests are not hostile to peoples’ hopes; they are essential to them,” Obama declared. Meanwhile, the independent media buzzes with reports of growing popular momentum in Iraq for booting out US mercenaries and green fatigues. Sit-ins, demonstrations, and incendiary poetry are bubbling, while oil workers such as the Basra employees of the South Iraq Oil Company are going on strike.
“In Afghanistan, we have broken the Taliban’s momentum, and this July we will begin to bring our troops home and continue transition to Afghan lead,” he said, alluding to phase-out of military operations on behalf of the Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India (TAPI) pipeline after being soundly drubbed by the Taliban. Back in October 2010, the New York Times reported on US efforts to reach a deal with the Taliban a la the Anbar Awakening, and with the Taliban opening a diplomatic office in Turkey, perhaps the US can seal the deal to withdraw its military and subcontract the task of protecting its energy umbilical cord to insurgents they were fighting tooth and nail. Now the clock is ticking, and a May 16, 2011 article by Karen DeYoung in the Washington Post notes that “the administration has accelerated direct talks with the Taliban.” Hopefully, this time General David Petraeus et al can get to meet Mullah Omar’s real cadres, rather than any intrepid shopkeepers or goat-herders impersonating the Taliban to collect dollars being waved around by the desperate Pentagon.
After congratulating himself on “getting” Osama bin Laden, Obama made a few grand gestures to the iconic moments of Arab Nahda, trying to swallow them within narratives of US Manifest Destiny. He praised Mohammad Bouazizi, the Tunisian street vendor whose self-immolation lit the fires of North African and Middle Eastern revolution, as examples of American “self determination”. “In America, think of the defiance of those patriots in Boston who refused to pay taxes to a King, or the dignity of Rosa Parks as she sat courageously in her seat,” he declared, “so it was in Tunisia, as that vendor’s act of desperation tapped into the frustration felt throughout the country.” Somehow Obama manages to colonize Bouazizi’s protest against conditions created by the policies of US proxies like Ben Ali, as an example of American grit and virtue. In short, an event rupturing Muslim East geopolitics is transformed into a cipher of US history, like the revolutionary war or the civil rights movement. The US is famously fuzzy on geography, because the world never seems to extend beyond its borders.
If Obama’s speech is a performance, it is a performance of writing history. It has become a habit with US politicians to imagine all action originates on its vaudeville stage, that the US owns historical agency. In the giddy days following the Soviet fall, it actually seemed so. Francis Fukayama even titled his epic 1992 book on that feeling of masterful euphoria — The End of History and the Last Man, where the US successfully maneuvered its extras in Afghanistan and elsewhere to become the undisputed master of ceremonies on the world stage. Unfortunately, that train of thinking has transformed into a sense of entitlement. It’s like the New York Times attributing Egyptian organizers’ strategizing against Mubarak-and-US counter-revolutionary tactics to armchair philosopher Gene Sharp, claiming that copies of his book were passed around in Tahrir Square. For, obviously those Arabs could not organize on their own! Several op-eds on the al-Jazeera website mocked this, the authors noting they were present in the square and did not see a single copy of Mr. Sharp’s estimable tome.
If praise is cheap, perhaps lucre can put the sparkle back in the eyes of the Arab street. Obama made several references to billion dollar aid packages to Egypt and Tunisia, in order to encourage them “to set a strong example through free and fair elections; a vibrant civil society; accountable and effective democratic institutions; and responsible regional leadership,” pointing to the United States as the shining example they must emulate in their tottering steps to freedom. “We support a set of universal rights,” declares Obama, “[t]hose rights include free speech; the freedom of peaceful assembly; freedom of religion; equality for men and women under the rule of law; and the right to choose your own leaders — whether you live in Baghdad or Damascus; Sanaa or Tehran.”
Self-reflection is a useful skill and practicing it leads to the query — what about universal rights in the United States? The President pontificates, even as Bradley Manning is entombed in a military brig in Quantico, Virginia, and Julian Assange fights the US Justice Department’s tentacles to drag him to the United States, all for exercising their rights for free-speech and freedom of information. Also, Obama ignores the grim record left by the War on Terror, a list ranging from Abu Ghraib to domestic persecution of American Muslims, which is rather like trying to step over a 5-ton elephant whose existence one insistently denies.
Obama promises funds from the IMF, whose head is currently being charged with violent sexual assault, as a way of seducing remaining proxies in Egypt and Tunisia to continue US control over the prime pieces of North African real estate. “We will relieve a democratic Egypt of up to $1 billion in debt, and work with our Egyptian partners to invest these resources to foster growth and entrepreneurship,” Obama declares, “[w]e will help Egypt regain access to markets by guaranteeing $1 billion in borrowing that is needed to finance infrastructure and job creation.” In Harry Houdini’s book, this is called a sleight of hand — reeling back cash via interest on new loans that you’ve just supposedly canceled in debt forgiveness. The White House speechwriters must suppose that Egyptians can’t do any math.
So, what does Obama’s speech really mean for US-Muslim relations? As it turns out, the only thing remarkable about Obama’s Mideast Speech 2.0 is that it is completely unremarkable. Following the broadcast, mainstream media like the Washington Post and New York Times examined the response of the Arab street, which ranged from boredom to apathy. Even the US-based Muslim Public Affairs Council, usually an energetic cheerleader for any rhetorical crumb thrown from the US President’s podium, was uncharacteristically sour — “[b]old actions must follow the President’s call for end of status quo toward the Middle East and North Africa,” its press release snarked.
Not only was the reception in the Muslim East downright tepid, it turns out the speech mostly went unwatched. An article in the Washington Post noted that the speech would have probably been more effective in the Muslim East if the US hadn’t decided to broadcast it on Thursday, a day marking the beginning of the Arab weekend. There wasn’t even an attempt to schedule it on a night when Arabs would be home to switch on the television at dinner time.
Obama’s speech has also been derided in the US independent media. “Using the rhetoric of democracy and freedom to mask the responsibility of US imperialism in the enduring oppression and suffering of the peoples of the Middle East, President Obama’s speech was a demonstration of profound hypocrisy,” write Brian Becker and Mara Verheyden-Hilliard for the ANSWER coalition. Other publications didn’t even bother to comment on it.
What is strange about Obama’s performance is how self-aware the White House and State Department are that this is nothing more than a show. For words, even untrue words, to have an impact, they must be believed. Here, we seemed to be invited to a show that does not even make a pretense for realism, the actor-in-chief orating before an audience that knows that his sculpted words are but hot air balloons impelled upwards in the atmosphere by their gaseous pressure. Certainly, the State Department, from where the speech was broadcast — Obama begins the speech by thanking Hilary for the frequent-flier miles she has racked up putting out the Muslim East fires — seems aware that the trust deficit is too great. The discourse of peace and democratic good will is like a movie set that has been used too many times and is beginning to look rather dilapidated, the peeling paint and sagging planks interfering in the director’s ability to sell the story.
The only demographic that paid close attention to Obama’s speech was the Israeli media, which eagerly picked apart his words on establishing a Palestinian state. In fact, the timing of Obama’s speech suggests that the production wasn’t for an Arab audience, as much as it was for the Zionist one. The speech was broadcast a day before Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s trip to the United States, where he was invited to address the US Congress by the Republican majority leader.
The crux of Obama’s speech, its true political purpose, emerges in its attempts to put a spoke in the Palestinians’ drive toward statehood. He played up the “two state” solution that last met its demise with Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination by right-wing Israelis (November 4, 1995), sonorously outlining the need for “a viable Palestine, and a secure Israel… enjoying self-determination, mutual recognition, and peace.” The “borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps,” he said, stroking fury in Zionist circles. For Israel to adhere to the 1967 borders means reversing the land-grabbing by which Israeli politicians, settlers, and the IDF were reducing “Judea and Samaria,” as they dub the West Bank and Gaza, into bantustans. Even as Netanyahu left for the airport, he rejected Obama’s proposals. “Some things cannot be swept under the rug,” he stated melodramatically, characterizing the 1967 borders as “indefensible.”
Wordplay opens up further problematics in the US portrait of a Palestinian state. Obama also describes the future Palestine as “non-militarized;” somehow imagine a state without a standing military. While Israeli security demands the latest weapons technology developed by Northrop Grumman or Boeing, and a stockpile of over 230 nuclear warheads, Palestinians will be devoid of a single rifle for self-defense. The US president went on to support Israel’s position on the recent unity agreement between Fatah and Hamas forged in Egypt — absolutely no negotiations with a political group that includes Hamas. “[T]he recent announcement of an agreement between Fatah and Hamas raises profound and legitimate questions for Israel,” Obama said, “how can one negotiate with a party that has shown itself unwilling to recognize your right to exist[?]”
Unfortunately, the suspense from this dramatic action was completely anticlimactic. Netanyahu went into histrionics, mainly over the 1967 reference. White House photographs of the meeting following the speech captured the irate Israeli PM exuding icy anger, as Obama sits on a chair facing him in a conciliating pose. After all, Netanyahu has greater political support in the US government than Obama. Republicans swiftly struck back at Obama’s audacity in suggesting that Israel give up Palestinian land. House Republican leader Eric Cantor complained that, “[Obama’s] approach undermines our special relationship with Israel and weakens our ally’s ability to defend itself."
By and large, the Israeli press recognized that the Israeli prime minister was blowing a tempest in a teapot. Even the right-wing Jerusalem Post chided Netanyahu, noting in an op-ed that Obama is actually providing a loop hole through phrases like “mutually agreed swaps,” which still authorizes Israel to take a carving knife to Palestinian territory.
The showmanship continued, with Obama publicly declaring that Netanyahu would not be willing to make the necessary concessions for an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal while privately agreeing that the Israeli prime minister “is not a partner for a significant realistic peace process”. Setting aside the seeming “tension,” Obama hasn’t stood behind a single principle voiced during his campaign trail except Israel’s protection, and he certainly does not intend to pick a fight with Netanyahu now, right before the next round of US elections. In short, the machinery creaking behind the performance is the pragmatic necessity for throwing a wrench in the Palestinian movement toward statehood by projecting the US as a fair mediator and re-directing the Palestinians to go through Israel and the US for their political goal. “Obama is saying to the Palestinians: You won’t get a state unilaterally; come and talk [to us],” notes former head of the Shin Bet, Ami Ayalon. “Obama handed Netanyahu a major diplomatic victory,” announced the title of a Ha’artez op-ed by Aluf Benn.
Palestinians have recently mobilized thousands of demonstrators to cross militarized checkpoints like Qalandiya, and the border with Syria in the north. Political observers agree that they are poised to get the UN to recognize a Palestinian state by September with a resounding two-thirds vote, while Latin American countries have already opened up embassies for independent Palestine. As Palestinians take matters into their own hands, mobilizing in the spring of resistance, Israel’s worst nightmare appears to be coming true — having a Palestinian state thrust upon them, in the face of dwindling US power. Obama’s theatrics are a stop-gap measure, a way to gain time and properly strategize how to delay an event that appears inevitable. The speech has already triggered some cracks in the Fatah-Hamas coalition, causing Mahmoud Abbas to declare an emergency meeting to discuss the speech while Hamas criticized it as pro-Israel.
However, Israel and the US seem to have dueled themselves into a stalemate. Panic escalates behind the song-and-dance. “Netanyahu’s Israel is on course to become a pariah state,” warns a Ha’artez op-ed by Zeev Sternhell. Meanwhile, “a lot of ordinary people aren’t really interested in what America has to say right now,” reports Liz Sly, the Washington Post’s Iraq bureau chief from Beirut, where she has been monitoring Arab reactions. Obama’s scented words blamed conditions on the immaturity of Arab thought, claiming that the Muslim East was never able to achieve self-determination because “the West was blamed as the source of all ills” and “[a]ntagonism toward Israel became the only acceptable outlet for political expression.”
Obama generously gives credit to the Arab Spring as an indigenous movement but insisted on the continuing authority of the US Pantopticon over the Muslim world. “We know that our own future is bound to this region by the forces of economics and security; history and faith,” he declared. Obama’s oration is a study in contradiction — it offers collaboration but also evokes the archive of US relations with the Muslim world, where all four words of the last sentence have only meant domination. The twin pressures of memory and reality are pressing against the US president’s podium, its wood splintering as he rapidly unfurls words revealed to be nothing but sound and fury.
Zainab Cheema also writes a blog called Kings and Cabbages, http://kingsandcabbages.wordpress.com