Reaching Out to the Muslim World
After eight years of George W. Bush policies that alienated Muslims globally, what can we expect from the new US administration? President Barack Obama moved quickly to distance himself from Bush's legacy and to follow up on his inaugural statement: "To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect". Obama has declared a readiness "to listen" rather than to dictate and that he hoped for a restoration of "the same respect and partnership that America had with the Muslim world as recently as 20 or 30 years ago".
But, where are we today and what can we realistically expect from a new Obama administration? To what extent can he really counter the failed policies of his predecessor, the undue influence of the Israel lobby on the Congress and hardline Christian Zionists? All have been major factors in the lack of even-handedness in American foreign policy in the Middle East, witnessed most recently in American (non) responses to Israeli invasions of Lebanon and Gaza.
Thus far, Obama's track record is mixed. He has announced the phased closing of Guantanamo and sent his special envoy to the Middle East – former Senator George Mitchell (who played a critical role as negotiator in settling the Northern Ireland conflict) – on an eight-day trip.
However, these decisions have been offset by the firestorm and smear campaign of unsubstantiated accusations in response to the appointment of Chas W. Freeman to be Chairman of the National Intelligence Council.
Freeman, a former distinguished diplomat who served as ambassador to Saudi Arabia and an Assistant Secretary of Defence, has been a strong critic of Israel's policies in Palestine. The Israel lobby, including Aipac (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee) and its supporters, viciously attacked his reputation.
In the end, Freeman withdrew. Obama accepted his resignation, choosing not to fight it. This incident may have much broader implications for the Arab world and with Obama's relationship with the Muslim world.
The critical question today is whether Obama will make key decisions without bowing to pressures from the Israel lobby.
While closing Guantanamo is important, its significance in the Muslim world is nothing compared to America's lack of a balanced policy in the Palestine-Israel issue, seen most graphically in Lebanon and most recently Gaza.
Gallup Polling (October 2008), before the Gaza war, found that while closing the Guantanamo detention facility would significantly improve attitudes in the Arab world towards the US, it did not match the level of support for US pressure on Israel.
Significant numbers of citizens in many Arab countries (Tunisia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Lebanon) said that increasing pressure on Israel would improve their view of the US "very significantly".
We are quickly approaching a time when Obama can no longer say that he "inherited" this or that "mess" – he must lead given the cards he has, and lead now. Obama stated that when Senator Mitchell left on his first trip as special envoy, he told him: "So let's listen".
Obama's 'new' policy will require that the US 'listen' and work with all the major players in Palestine, not just Fatah and Israel but Hamas, a leadership chosen by the people of Palestine in free and fair democratic elections in 2006.
At the same time, the Obama administration cannot pursue a new paradigm unless the primary players and regional powers are committed to its need.
The Palestinian leadership including Hamas must demonstrate that it too is ready to negotiate for a free and secure Palestinian state and recognise Israel's right to exist. Both the Palestinians and the Israelis must be ready to recognise that both have legitimate claims, that a military solution is no solution and that diplomacy and negotiation are the way forward.
Given the current realities, divisions and leadership in Israel and Palestine, and the realities of American politics, the road to peace will be difficult.
Senator Mitchell's credibility and effectiveness as a mediator will heavily depend on whether Obama (and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton) can transcend the fears of most American politicians and the pressures of groups supporting hard-line Israeli policies.
America's policy of 'Israeli exceptionalism' would have to be supplanted by a more even-handed policy that held Israel to the same standards as other states in the international community.
This would include compliance with United Nations Security Council resolutions regarding the return of Palestinian territory taken in the 1967 war and subsequent annexation of land and the building of 'illegal' colonies.
The future direction of the Obama administration remains unclear as does that of the newly elected Israeli government and the Palestinian leadership.
That Obama has the desire, vision and intelligence to reach out to the broader Muslim world is without doubt. But will he be willing to take the political risk at home and resist pressures from the Israel lobby, described by Freeman as "a group so clearly intent on enforcing adherence to the policies of a foreign government", and its supporters in Congress and the media? Only time will tell.
John Esposito is Director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University and co-author of Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think. He is also on the Board of Advisors for ISPU.
This article was published in the Gulf News on March 29, 2009: