Friday, June 05, 2009
Domestically, the speech was euphorically received, except among Christian conservatives who can't abide any engagement with Arabs and Muslims that doesn't involve seizing them, detaining them, killing them and decimating the infrastructure of their societies.
“I have unequivocally prohibited the use of torture by the United States, “ Obama declared in Cairo, “and I have ordered the prison at Guantanamo Bay closed by early next year.” Vivid in the minds of many Muslims listening to this passage would have been the fate at the start of this week of Muhammad Ahmad Abdallah Salih -- a 31-year old Yemeni who had been in a wire cage since February, 2002 (more than seven years) without charges and declared by his U.S. military jailers “an apparent suicide”. Salih, on hunger strike, was down to 85 pounds.
Torture is certainly the label any morally balanced person would attach to his travails and it’s quite reasonable to speculate that his end came amid yet another attempt to forcibly feed him. Air Force One headed for Cairo with one Muslim barely in the ground after having been tortured to death in a US prison. Many in Obama’s audience would have been well aware too that even if – a big “if” – Guantanamo does get shut down, its inmates will endure similar horrors in Bagram, and that Obama favors imprisonment, permanent if necessary, of enemy combatants, without charges or trial.
Obama’s talk of the evils of Al Qaida’s “violent extremism ” will have fallen ironically on the ears of Palestinians who endured Israel’s monstrous and criminal onslaught in Gaza earlier this year, or of Afghans still seething at the loss of civilians in US bombing raids. The noble pledges about economic assistance to the Muslim world sound hollow against the realities of how US aid really gets administered, starting with the huge sums filched by the “non-profit” aid agencies.
Meanwhile, the contours of Obama policy in the region remain the same: covert operations and military engagement in Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. In Lebanon and Palestine, Israel, with American supplied weapons, carries out the attacks, while in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, the US does so directly. Recent terror attacks in Iran have been carried out by a group that receives covert US assistance.
Yet, Obama would have us believe that the real problem in the Middle East is Holocaust denial, as he said nothing to condemn the horrific conditions imposed upon the Palestinians by Israel. As As'ad Abukhalil has frequently observed, it is impermissible for anyone in a position of political responsibility in the US to attribute the suffering of the Palestinians to the acts of Israelis. Instead, one is left with the impression that the Palestinians are the victims of some sort of intergalactic conspiracy requiring the intervention of Captain Kirk and Mister Spock.
But, of course, when it comes to the Palestinians, it is very different. Unlike Israelis, Palestinians must abandon violence. His subsequent remarks to the effect that the Palestinians must seek to attain their nationalistic aspirations through non-violence were straight out offensive. Historically, whenever Palestinians have sought to do so, they have been imprisoned, deported and stripped of their land, their property and their citizenship, if not killed. And, as we all know, the US has done nothing to stop it, to do anything that would create a space for viable non-violent civil disobedience within Palestine.
Let's be blunt: If Martin Luther King had been Palestinian, and launched an action like the Montgomery bus boycott in the occupied territories in 1956, he would have been lucky if Israel had only expelled him from the country and stipped him of his citizenship. More likely, he would have been imprisoned, tortured and probably killed, as Stephen Biko was in South Africa. For the president of a country that has done nothing to protect Palestinians to lecture them on the virtues of non-violence is an embarrassment.
Meanwhile, Obama, in relation to Iraq and Afghanistan, stated that the US has no intention to retain permanent military bases in these countries. Has he not read his own plan for withdrawing from Iraq, which contemplates leaving nearly 50,000 troops behind? Perhaps, he is more sincere when he speaks of Afghanistan, but it is hard to reconcile such a statement with his decision to send more troops to the country and launch drone attacks within both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Or, is there something Machiavellian to it, a careful parsing of language designed to conceal that that the future face of the occupation will increasingly be one of death delivered by drones launched and controlled from US soil?
Time will tell, but there was nothing in this speech to suggest anything other than the continuation of US policies designed to preserve hegemonic domination. With the passage of time, and a growing awareness of the consequences of these policies, the glow surrounding this speech will fade, and it will be recognized for what it is, yet another example of an American president seeking to dress up policies of imperial expansion in the garb of idealism. The most striking aspect of it was Obama's polished invocation, through a respectful characterization of the virtues of Islam, of the allure of diversity and multiculturalism to support the enterprise.