Archive for category The Washington Spring

How can one not be worried?

inside-the-obama-white-house-ngepress.comThe Washington Spring — 7 —

Everything I’ve read in recent weeks, and everything I’ve heard from my friends who work in banking, points the same way: we have returned to the same practices, the same follies and abuses that led to the current crisis. Companies are distributing the same extravagant bonuses and making the same absurd deals, and they’re doing it with the same greed, the same contempt for the public good and the same indecent attitude to money as before.

One can’t help but wonder, with Paul Krugman, whether the new American administration — who is supposed to set the tone – hasn’t failed to deliver the right message. Dealers were wary for a while, watching to see if they could resume their business practices as before. It seems they are now confident that nothing is going to change, and that they can carry on with impunity. They are confident because all the same faces are playing the game — on Wall Street, in the Senate and in the administration — and no one seems to want, or to be able, to put a stop to it.

In a sense, it’s understandable. America’s corporate giants wield enormous influence, and it’s quite understandable why no administration can ignore them. And I understand, too, how tremendously difficult it is for one politician, even if he is President of the United States, to antagonise Wall Street and risk breaking the cogs of the world’s leading economic power.

But understanding all this doesn’t put my mind at rest; rather, it makes me even more apprehensive. I understand Obama’s dilemma; but I am only more worried about his chance of success for it1.

I’ve said it before and I say it again — he must succeed. He must succeed on domestic issues such as reform of the banking sector and health insurance. And he must succeed in foreign affairs, especially in the Middle East, where it is critical that he bring peace to the Palestinians and Israelis and, more broadly, to the relationship between the West and the Muslim world, which is in danger of being swept away in the deadly reaches of Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere. And then, of course, he must succeed in halting – or, at least, in significantly slowing – global warming.

I know it is very early days, still much too early to start talking about being disappointed. But it isn’t too early to articulate a few misgivings — about a certain lack of vision on some issues; and, on some other issues, a certain lack of determination.

(First published in French on August 7th).

  1. For those who want to deepen their understanding of the matter, I recommend the long article by the economist James K. Galbraith entitled ‘No Return to Normal’; his argument, well researched and brilliantly expounded as it is, is particularly worrying. []

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Is Obama’s initiative still alive?

The Washington Spring — 6 —

The United States has been on a diplomatic merry-go-round in the Middle East over the past few weeks. In an effort to understand what’s really happening, I’ve been following it closely, listening to the many statements and reading the op-ed pieces.

Are the Americans pursuing the solution that President Obama sketched out in his speech at the University of Cairo on June 4? Are they trying to establish a ‘comprehensive’ regional peace, one that reckons in all countries and peoples and takes into account all their claims and concerns, and of which the keystone would be the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel?

Or else are they falling back on the usual way of dealing with the conflict? Are they returning to a long process of negotiation, inviting the various players to come together and patiently build mutual trust, while Washington merely plays the role of intermediary or facilitator?

As I see it, only the first path can lead to peace, and I am convinced that if it were to be followed through, it would benefit all the peoples in the region. If the first path were to be taken, everybody — including many of the hardliners in Israel, Palestine and the entire Arab world— will one day have reason to be pleased. The second path, on the other hand, has never led to anything but disillusionment, a hardening on every side, and renewed violence.

Having unambiguously stated my position, I hasten to add that as I write these lines, I cannot yet say which way American diplomacy is heading. Both hypotheses are plausible, and I don’t yet know which will be borne out. Sometimes I tell myself that Obama’s initiative is at a standstill; at other times, I think it might be taking shape.

The logic of a blog

If I weren’t keeping this online journal, I would wait to be sure before expressing an opinion. But the point of keeping a blog is precisely to allow myself, as a concerned observer, to articulate my feelings at every step, to reveal my way of thinking, of inquiring into things, of analysing and reflecting upon them. The point is to articulate all this to others, of course, but also to myself, because when I make myself write and put thoughts into sentences, I become aware of certain things that otherwise would remain muddled.

Now that I’ve opened this parenthetical statement, I will take it a little further to say that, whenever I inquire into something and try to understand it, I keep two golden rules in mind. The first is that we live in the communication age, which means that statements made by political leaders should be taken not at face value but as formulations of what they’ve chosen to convey. The second is that we live also, paradoxically – and happily! — in the age of transparency, which means that anything we want to know, and anything that some would keep hidden, is accessible somewhere on the Web. You simply have to know how to look, and above all how to assess what you find — how to sort between those statements that bring the truth to light, and those that blur it, whether deliberately or not.

But I close the parenthesis now to return to my opening question — does the American diplomatic activity in the Middle East signify that Obama’s initiative is being carefully put into place, or else is it already being reconsidered, not to say abandoned?

What seems to support the first hypothesis is that the American officials going to the region are the very men and women whose contribution to a peace treaty would be essential. Such a treaty should include the creation of a Palestinian state on territory from which Israel would retreat; security measures to ensure the Israelis don’t perceive such a retreat as a threat to their safety; a normalisation of relations between Israel and its neighbours; and, most certainly, the establishment of a substantial development and compensation fund — financed by the Americans, the Europeans, the Japanese, the Chinese and also by the oil-producing nations — to encourage the Palestinians as well as the Israelis to be steadfastly committed to the path of peace.

Importantly, the American officials who visited the region in the last few weeks have the authority to give assurances on the military and security aspects of any eventual peace accord. The visitors included Secretary of Defence Robert Gates; General James L. Jones, National Security Advisor to President Obama; Ambassador Dennis Ross, who has ultimate control of the Middle East in the National Security Council; and former senator George Mitchell, the president’s Special Envoy to the region, who is charged with managing the dialogue with the various players.

This is encouraging, up to a point. To my eyes, however, it isn’t yet enough to dismiss the second hypothesis — that the process is at a virtual standstill and might still be derailed. I am convinced that things cannot move forward unless Israel is reassured. And it is critical that any measures taken to reassure Israel do not make the peace treaty unacceptable to Palestinian leaders or indeed, the rest of the Arab world.

Let me be more precise: everything to do with the balance of military power doesn’t worry me. That the future Palestine will have no army will no doubt shock Arab opinion. But when you think about it, only international safeguards can provide the future Palestine any real protection; and rather than embark on a ruinous arms race, it would be well advised to follow the example of post-war Japan and pursue economic success behind the shelter of its internationally guaranteed borders.

On the other hand, if the Al-Aqsa mosque, for instance, remains under Israeli control, no peace treaty will be worth signing, since extremist movements will continue to muster support all over the Muslim world, from North Africa to Indonesia, over the issue, for hundred of years.

In other words, everything genuinely to do with security has a place in any treaty; anything to do with territory and symbols must be handled with great care.

I don’t yet know what the proposed peace treaty will look like once the current negotiations have finished. Frankly, I won’t allow myself to put words into anyone’s mouth. I will simply keep my eyes, ears and mind open. I continue to hope, but I remain cautious.

(First published in French on July 29th).

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I’ll admit I’m slightly impatient

The Washington Spring — 5 —

When I listened to President Obama’s speech in Cairo on the 4th of June, it struck me as a seminal statement, one intended to found a lasting solution in the Middle East and an historic reconciliation between the West and the Muslim world. The two outcomes go hand in hand. That is what I wrote at the time, and I stand by it. However, I admit to a degree of impatience on the matter. I don’t see a new approach to peace taking shape; rather, it seems to me as though we’re returning to the usual diplomatic practices, which thus far have helped only to perpetuate the conflict.

Of course, some will retort that a conflict that has been going on for decades cannot be settled in a few weeks. This is true, on the surface — but only on the surface. Equally, some argue that by taking small steps, the belligerents can only draw closer to peace. Both arguments seem obvious and logical; but, in my opinion, they are misleading.

In a conflict of this nature, where the populations live in deep, mutual distrust, any proposed solution must be comprehensive, so that each party knows exactly where it will be standing at the end of the process; otherwise, one paves the way for escalation and brinkmanship, which plays into the hands of hardliners. This is exactly what has happened in the Middle East over the past few decades. We have seen a proliferation of initiatives, meetings, plans and roadmaps; as a result, the most intransigent factions on both sides gained the upper hand.

In his speech at the University of Cairo, Obama showed that he was aware of this reality, and that he wasn’t going to be drawn into the quagmire. He made it clear that he wouldn’t be satisfied with the role of an intermediary or facilitator. “We cannot impose peace,” he said, “But privately, many Muslims recognise that Israel will not go away. Likewise, many Israelis recognize the need for a Palestinian state. It is time for us to act on what everyone knows to be true.”

This last sentence describes the voluntarist line that the president had in mind. He wasn’t inviting the various parties to meet and share their points of view. What good could it do to hear them for the hundredth time? Everyone knows what each side is obliged to assert in public and what they quietly admit to on the side. It is now up to “us” — meaning the United States — to act.

His envoy George Mitchell flew to the Middle East bearing the same message: an all-encompassing plan is imminent, and Washington expects everyone to embrace it. The rumour in Washington was that the plan’s broad outlines would be made public as early as the 15th of June. But in the ensuing weeks, we started hearing proposals that sounded hopelessly familiar, such as the idea that Israel should temporarily suspend settlements and, in return, the Arab nations should give El-Al overflight rights. In Washington jargon, these are known as ‘confidence-building measures’, but I think they should be called ‘momentum-breaking measures’ instead. And I do get the feeling that the momentum has slowed down significantly.

I hope it’s my impatience talking. I hope that, il the near future, I will have reasons to publish on this blog a humble and fervent mea culpa. I hope I will get the chance to say that this slowdown was due to events in Iran, or to the need to draw up an appropriate peace plan, or to other factors, but that the new administration remains clearly committed to ending a conflict which, though it looks local, has in fact become a global one, and one of the most toxic.

(First published in French on July 26th).

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In Sherlock Holmes’ Day

first_edition_1887The Washington Spring — 4 —

I will begin today’s article with a brief literary reminiscence. It concerns Sherlock Holmes’ very first adventure, A Study in Scarlet, in which the narrator, Doctor Watson, first meets the famous detective. Holmes is looking for a fellow lodger, and a mutual acquaintance brings them together.

“Dr Watson, Mr Sherlock Holmes,” said Stamford, introducing us.

“How are you?” he said cordially, gripping my hand with a strength for which I should hardly have given him credit. “You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive.”

“How on earth did you know that?”

Holmes merely chuckles, and not until the following day does he explain how he worked it out. After going through a long list of deductions, he reaches this ironclad conclusion:

“Where in the tropics could an English army doctor have seen much hardship and got his arm wounded? Clearly in Afghanistan.”

In the novel’s first paragraph, Watson tells us that he went to the Indies in 1878 as an army surgeon, but just as he was about to join his regiment, “the second Afghan war had broken out.” He found himself safe and sound in Kandahar, But says that he would have “fallen into the hands of the murderous Ghazis had it not been for the devotion and courage shown by Murray, my orderly…”

The book was published in 1887. I suppose that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s readers knew what he meant by the “second Afghan war.” Personally, I must confess that I’ve lost track. Even if I consider only those Afghan wars in my own lifetime, I’m no longer sure which one we’re up to. The fourth? The fifth?

All this to say that, when President Obama announced that he would withdraw his troops from Iraq but reinforce his contingent in Afghanistan, I wasn’t convinced his decision was a wise one. The US Army had to withdraw from Iraq, of course. They never should have gone there in the first place, and once they had occupied it, they certainly shouldn’t have acted the way they did. I am not sure that the situation will be properly fixed after the Americans leave definitively; but I am sure that their military’s prolonged presence there did nothing to help.

Having made that clear, I must make a remark that no historian of the Middle East can readily contest: the least one can say is that Iraq is not a guerrilla warfare country. It took the Americans’ accumulated mistakes, blunders and gaffes for them to end up with such a war on their hands, in such bleak physical and humanitarian circumstances.

Afghanistan is another kettle of fish. It is the quintessential land of endless guerrilla warfare, as the British, Soviets and various other foolhardy powers discovered to their cost. And even if the American president wants to lead his campaign differently, even if he asks his troops to listen to the local population and he promises to reform the prisons, it remains an extremely risky bet.

The historic reconciliation that Obama is pressing for must materialise and produce tangible results before the Afghans – and Muslim nations in general – will accept an American military operation on their land. That certainly isn’t the case today. We are only at the beginning of a long road full of pitfalls, and it is foolhardy to behave as though we have already reached safe haven.

(First published in French on July 21st).

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Paul Krugman’s doubts

obama-au-printemps-2009-photo-pete-souzaThe Washington Spring — 3 —

Those keen to follow closely America under Obama would do well to keep an eye on a number of warning lights. On the international front, there is the war in Afghanistan, the crisis in Iran, the peace efforts in the Near East and the policy towards Africa; on the domestic front, there is the economic recovery, health-care-system reform and so on. The list of indicators is long and I won’t cover all of it. On those matters I know a few things about, I will give my assessment every now and then,  and amend it when either the situation or my view of events changes. On the many matters about which I know little, I will avoid expressing personal opinions, though I may recommend something worth reading from time to time.

The economy is a case of the latter. I don’t feel qualified to disentangle its many threads. Yet, since it is such an important issue that affects all our lives; and since it is the focus of ongoing, worldwide trouble; and because it is a matter on which Barack Obama’s administration cannot allow itself to fail, it is only natural that the conscientious observer pay it close attention.

Paul Krugman, winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics and a leading authority on the subject, has expressed his qualms about the economy. Krugman is a ‘liberal’ in the American sense — which, as everyone knows, means the opposite of the French definition. He is in favour of allowing the public authorities to play a significant role in the economy in order to offset the market’s influence. His benchmark work is entitled The Conscience of a Liberal1. The book is essential reading and should inspire all those looking for a middle road between the failed policy of interventionism and that idolatrous faith in market rule, which has unquestionably shown its limitations.

In his book, Krugman brilliantly develops a number of appealing ideas. He writes, for instance, that the American reaction to the Great Depression of 1929 was the “Great Compression” — of income — a process that turned the nation into a vast middle class. It is this America, he says, which was able to burst into patriotic and ethical action during the Second World War, to defeat Nazism.

Krugman writes that under Reagan, the United States returned to a time of inequality. Little by little, he says, the country unravelled its social fabric, became demoralised, and distorted the meaning of patriotism. The United States under ultra-conservative rule has led dubious wars such as the one in Iraq, where the majority of troops were young immigrants whose only motive was to obtain citizenship a little more quickly, and where countless activities were sub-contracted to private businessmen whose only motive was to grow rich on the army’s back.

The author concludes that as much as the conservative Republicans try to outdo their rivals in patriotism and accuse their adversaries of being ‘un-American’, their posturing is belied by the facts, namely that the American right cannot win a war, while the America born of the bold New Deal set up by Franklin D. Roosevelt was able to do so, brilliantly.

Krugman turns all the arguments that American conservatives have developed over the last thirty years against them. He advocates a steadfastly social capitalism, not just out of ethical concern, but also because it allows both the economy and international relations to be managed more efficiently, and because it allows democratic institutions to run smoothly.

It is no surprise, then, that Krugman expressed his disapproval very soon after Barack Obama presented his economic recovery plan. He found the plan timid, fearful and insufficient. He felt that the new president hadn’t dared take on the establishment, or Wall Street.

That Obama revealed himself to be prudent – extremely prudent — and that he didn’t choose to follow the bolder road that Krugman advocates, is indisputable. But was he wrong to do so? Will he regret it one day, as Krugman implies in his articles? It is hard to say. On the one hand, one can understand that the newly elected president, immediately confronted by a major crisis, didn’t want to risk turning the system upside down. On the other, I think it makes sense to ask, as Krugman does, if we can really face a major crisis without making a real break with the practices that led to the disaster in the first place.

The debate is of capital importance and far from over. I will continue to follow it closely, and to comment on it in these posts.

(First published in French on July 18th).

  1. His blog, hosted on The New York Times website, bears the same name. []

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He must succeed

The Washington Spring – 8

If, with the passing weeks, I have expressed concerns and inchoate disappointment, it is only because Barack Obama’s election filled me with hope, because I wish above all that he succeed, and because it would be a disaster should he fail. I am still fairly confident, even if there are more and more sceptics around me – which, in the internet age, means the entire planet.

I regularly hear one objection that seems to me to some extent warranted (but also, therefore, in some measure unwarranted), and which can be expressed thus: the United States behaved the way it did on the international stage during recent years (decades, even) not because of calculated choices made by any one president, but because national interests dictated their deeds.

The proof of this, we’re told, is that successive American leaders adopted more-or-less similar positions on a range of issues. There is, therefore, a sort of determinism preventing any president – no matter how well intentioned – from breaking away from the line imposed by his country’s strategic interests. In the Arab world, you hear this opinion on every street corner. And you hear it in Latin America and in other regions of the world, too.

In my opinion, there is certainly some truth to it. If the American giant has found itself mired in so many conflicts throughout the world in recent years, it is not only because presidents Bush Snr., Clinton and then Bush Jr. deemed them worthwhile. It is also because the United States no longer felt it could play a leading role in the planet’s affairs or protect its own interests without constantly resorting to its military might.

Might Americans now change their attitude? In all sincerity, the most one can say – if one takes into account the objective facts without getting stuck in determinism – is that that remains to be seen. An American president’s margin for manoeuvre is neither negligible nor limitless. For example, should a president want to significantly reduce the US military presence throughout the world, he would meet with obstacles difficult to overcome; conversely, had a president decided it was wrong to invade Iraq, he could very well have avoided that war.

This applies to most of the troublesome matters that Barack Obama found on his desk when he moved into the White House last January – the economy, health care, global warming, and various international questions such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Burma, Africa, the Middle East and so on. In his speeches, first as candidate and then president, and in his earlier writings, Obama has shown an in-depth understanding of these matters. One gets the feeling that he’s thought them through, that he’s sought solutions.

Being a symbol isn’t enough

I freely admit that I hoped Obama would win. At first, my hope was founded on the symbolic value that the election of a person of mixed origins, who comes from five continents at once, to the leadership of the world’s leading superpower represented; but as I heard him speak, as I read what he had written and heard what those who knew him well said of him, I was quickly seduced by his intelligence and moral integrity.

Quite frankly, America hasn’t exactly spoiled us with the presidents she has chosen over the past 40 years; the intelligent and cultivated ones turned out to be cynics or of dubious morals, and the entire world suffered the consequences. Obama’s election filled me with enthusiasm, then, and I still think that, on the symbolic level, it constitutes an historic event of global reach. But I shall be disappointed should History remember this presidency for its symbolism alone.

Disappointment is too faint, too personal a word. The troubled world we live in needs urgent and audacious answers if we are to avoid sinking even deeper into violence, hatred and widespread cynicism. And it would be a disaster if the man who raised ‘the audacity of hope’ into doctrine, who made it a rallying cry, lacked audacity and dashed our hope.

It is too soon to say if this will be the case. For the time being, then, I listen, pay attention, weigh up and consider events. Sometimes I rejoice, sometimes I grow impatient, and sometimes I worry. Without going into the details of any matter in particular, I would like to note here two or three general causes for concern, linked to the character of this administration and to that of the president himself.

Obama is a consensus man, which is both a quality and a liability. It’s a quality if one understands ‘consensus’ to mean that all political views should be taken into account, and that all people of good will should be brought into the fold. But if one gives the right of veto over one’s actions to too many people, including to one’s own opponents, one condemns oneself to paralysis and conformism. Big ideas are watered down until they are vapid and inconsequential.

I have just read a highly illuminating book, one to which Obama consented, and which – despite its ambiguous title, Renegade[i] - is very favourable to him, by the British journalist Richard Wolffe. In it, Wolffe recounts a conversation he had last year with the future president on the manner in which the latter intended to govern. Obama told him, in essence, that if “the ship” were entrusted to him, then his first concern would be to prevent it being wrecked.

It’s an understandable and worthy attitude, but paradoxically also a little risky – ‘risky’ in the sense of excessively prudent. Because from the moment certain people, both within the United States and outside it, realise that Obama is reluctant to use force for fear of upsetting the ship, they will no longer want to let him continue. Not on health, not on the economy, not on the Middle East, not on Afghanistan, not on any portfolio whatsoever.

There are so many people who have not accepted his election, whether for political, racial or other reasons, and who above all want to see him fail. He must prove them wrong. For the United States as much as for the rest of the world, it is vital that Obama succeed.

(First published in French on August 19th).


[i] AUTHOR’S NOTE: ‘Renegade’ was the code word given to candidate Obama by the secret service agents assigned to protect him during the election campaign.

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Not a saviour, but a reason to hope

The Washington Spring — 2

The great Portuguese writer Miguel Urbano Rodrigues has criticised me for speaking of Barack Obama as though he were a saviour or messiah. Rodrigues’ criticism seems to me excessive, though I admit that I expect much from the American president and that I saw his election as somewhat providential — a modifier I use simply as a synonym for ‘unhoped-for’. I am a staunch advocate of reason, if not in behaviour than at the least in analysis. I strive to make sense of the world with unblinkered clear-sightedness.

What I liked about candidate Obama in the first place, and President Obama in the second, is precisely that he appeals to reason, not instinct. This reveals in his attitude a respect for his listeners that, in my opinion, is the only worthy attitude in a democracy. When politicians try to manipulate rather than convince their audience, democracy loses its sense.

It is Obama’s attitude, and this alone, that leads me to expect great things of him. The world is in a bad way, in large part because of the United States. As the world’s leading power, it plays a decisive role in everything that happens on the planet, and its behaviour in recent years has more often aggravated crises than helped resolve them.

I have just devoted a book to all the troubles —strategic, economic, intellectual, ethical, environmental — from which the world suffers, and I am convinced that we face grave perils. It is crucial that we pull ourselves together to try to weather the storm. However, I don’t want to discuss my book here. This is a forum for thought where I express myself not as an author but as a worried citizen — a deeply worried one, unquestionably, yet one still fervently searching for reasons to keep hoping.

Until proven otherwise, Obama’s election is one of the strongest reasons we have for keeping hope. Just two years ago, I barely knew his name. There are very good reasons for his meteoric rise to power since then. He rightly identified the world’s most pressing problems, and he explained to the people of the United States that they must restore their nation’s moral standing in the world, particularly the Islamic world. And despite his father’s African origins — yet perhaps also paradoxically due to them — he won the election and became the most powerful man on the planet. Is it unreasonable to hope that he will change the course of events, in the United States as much as in the rest of the world?

Do the countless people, young or otherwise, who applaud Obama wherever he goes see him as a messiah or rock star? I don’t think so. They are simply aware that they live in a difficult and dangerous time, and they see in this man a reason to hope. To dismiss the enthusiasm of the young as ‘Obamamania’ is reductive and insulting. The majority of them are demonstrating political hope, one that is well considered, noble and legitimate.

I share their hope passionately but with a clear head. I plan to keep up a personal column under the heading ‘Washington Spring’, where I can think out loud and write about my joys, disappointments and questions. My hope is that the spring will prove long, fruitful and groundbreaking, but I will monitor it without complacency. Indeed, I have begun preparing my next post, in which I feel obliged to address a number of causes for concern.

(First published in French on July 17th).

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The Washington Spring – 1 -

15 July 2009.

The course of events in the United States and the rest of the world since Barack Obama’s election amounts, for me, to a fortuitous spring — one that follows a long-drawn-out winter.

The word ‘spring’ preys on my mind, arousing both hope and concern. Hope, because for the first time in a long time, we have a world leader who understands the necessity for an historic reconciliation between the West and the Arab world, and who understands the need for the United States to restore its moral standing.

But also concern, because the word — which, in recent decades, has been applied to events such as the Prague Spring at the end of the sixties — contains within it a sense of fragility, and even the connotation of a fleeting sunny spell that runs counter to the relentless course of history, and which is sure to be swept away.

Indeed, we may wonder whether, a few years down the track, Obama’s election will look like the beginning of a new era or else a brief excursion, a final attempt to prevent the world from sliding into the abyss. I write these words in a state of uncertainty. My hope is that he succeeds. It is more than a hope — it is a fervent prayer. I dare not imagine what will become of the world should Obama fail. If that were to happen, then the only people who will thrive and cheer will be those who adhere to suicidal ideologies, who exploit hatred and never-ending conflict and who cannot conceive of a reconciled world.

Though I put my trust in Obama, in his vision and political skill, the task that he is expected to pull off is so Herculean that his success is far from assured. It is too early to reach any conclusion, of course. The president’s mandate began barely six months ago, and at this stage it is enough to take stock of what has been promised without demanding results. For my part, I see many encouraging signs, but also some causes for concern.

For the time being, then, I will limit myself to this preamble; but I have resolved to come back, over the coming days and weeks, to the Washington Spring and the many expectations it creates. A few of these have already been met, while others have already been thwarted. Most, however, are still up in the air.

(First published in French on July 15th).

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On Obama’s Cairo speech

obama-in-cairo-june-4th-09

Will Barack Obama’s speech in Cairo on June 4 one day be seen as the cornerstone of an historic reconciliation between the West and the Islamic world and between Israel and the Arab world, or will it look like he was spitting in the wind? Any prediction here would be rash, but we can reasonably suppose that the answer will appear sooner than later.

Sooner, because the logic underpinning the American president’s initiative is not that of the long negotiation process. He never mentioned the word ‘negotiation’ in his speech. There will be talks and meetings, of course, because Obama cannot force the opposing parties to sign agreements they do not want. But he is well aware that in the Middle East, negotiations are a quagmire and that ‘step-by-step’ diplomacy leads to deadlock. This paradoxical truth arises from the nature of the conflict and the tragic histories of its peoples. How to persuade the Israelis to make territorial concessions if we cannot guarantee the perpetuity of their State? And how to persuade the Palestinians to recognise Israel when it refuses to finalise its borders, thus giving itself the option of pushing them further, at the expense of a hypothetical Palestinian state? So long as both sides have no clear idea of what the future might look like, those opposed to compromise will have little trouble convincing their peoples that any concessions they are asked to make will only weaken them. Given this, it is no surprise that hardliners regularly win majorities in both the Knesset and the Palestinian Parliament.

Obama didn’t criticize Israel’s hawks, and he spoke about Hamas in moderate terms. He asked only that the settlements end. And he demanded an end to all violence. Beyond these, he made no pre-requisites. The conflict’s various players will be judged only when the final agreement is in their hands. Those that accept it will be on the side of peace; those that reject it will be the warmongers. And, as has happened at the resolutions of so many other conflicts, whatever they will have done through decades of conflict will be written off.

Obama’s speech at the University of Cairo revealed that he won’t be satisfied with the role of the intermediary or facilitator: “We cannot impose peace,” he said, “But privately, many Muslims recognise that Israel will not go away. Likewise, many Israelis recognize the need for a Palestinian state. It is time for us to act on what everyone knows to be true.”

This last sentence limns the voluntarist line that the president has in mind. He isn’t inviting the various parties to meet and share their points of view. What good could it do to hear them for the hundredth time? We know what each side is obliged to assert in public and what they quietly admit to in private. It is now up to “us” — meaning the United States — to act.

The June 4 speech laid out unambiguously the political and moral foundation of Obama’s approach: “The aspiration for a Jewish homeland is rooted in a tragic history that cannot be denied.”

The wording here is a priori unacceptable to the great majority of Arabs, and probably to most Israelis, too. Yet it is now the only conceivable point of agreement.

In these terms, Obama defined his view of the legitimacy of Israel. For the Arabs, however, there is no such legitimacy; they see a people who came from Europe, settled in Palestine, took over its land and houses and expelled the Arab population from the country; and because the West justifies the founding of Israel and supports it with money and weapons, it is seen as Israel’s accomplice. Some Arabs have adapted to this state of affairs because they cannot do otherwise; others limit their criticism to Israel’s actions in the territories it occupied in 1967; but privately, very few Arabs accept the legitimacy of Israel. Obama knows this and is taking the bull by the horns. If we want to establish lasting peace, then we have to give the Arabs, and even the Palestinians, a reasonable explanation for the creation of a Jewish state, and for the United States’ backing of it — a bond that is “unbreakable”, as Obama made clear from the outset of his speech, leaving his audience under no illusion. “Around the world, the Jewish people were persecuted for centuries, and anti-Semitism in Europe culminated in an unprecedented Holocaust. Tomorrow, I will visit Buchenwald…”

Historical legitimacy or biblical legitimacy

In Israel, there are two ways of justifying the creation of the state. One is historical, the other biblical. The first claims that to end persecution and humiliation, Jews needed their own state and that the choice fell on Palestine because, long ago, it was the kingdom of Judah and the kingdom of Israel. The second claims that Palestine is the land promised to the Jews by the Lord, that it is and always has been theirs by right, and that the Arabs who have lived there through the centuries were merely occupying it illegally. When George W. Bush became president, he brought with him an electoral base of fundamentalist Christians fascinated by the biblical universe, which led to the United States in effect subscribing to the latter theory.

The argument’s political implications are obvious. If Israel is a refuge for persecuted Jews, then it must have safe and recognised borders, which its political leaders must be empowered to define according to strategic reality. If, on the other hand, Israel exists because of a divine promise, then every place mentioned in the Bible may be legitimately settled.

Over and above theological subtleties, and beyond even the territorial implications, what’s at stake here is the future of the relationship between today’s “civilisations”, as well as the future of the relationship between religion and politics across the planet. If we tell the Muslim world that Israel exists because the Bible promises it to the Jews, that for centuries the Arabs of Palestine have been squatters, and that now they simply have to accept their lot, then we will see interminable religious wars and embark on centuries of intellectual and moral regress. If, on the other hand, we tell the Muslim world that Israel was created as a safe haven for persecuted Jews — and Obama was careful to evoke the death camps, the gas chambers, the six million victims (“more than the entire population of Israel today”) to the University of Cairo’s students — and if we add, as the president did, that the Palestinians have also been victims, and that the time has come to give them, too, a country where they might live in peace, dignity and prosperity, then we will have laid the foundations of a peace accord that will let both sides hold their heads high.

Will the Arabs buy it? Not light-heartedly. But they are helpless, battered and exhausted, and may do so out of necessity; they may do so because they know that all negotiations become bogged down and that violence leads nowhere. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia is reported to have told the American president, in essence, “Write an agreement and we’ll sign it. Force us to do it, if necessary!” But the president knows that this doesn’t amount to unconditional licence. No leader will sign an unjust or humiliating treaty, one that looks like a diktat handed down by an unfriendly power. For the Arabs to accept an historic compromise that recognises Israel, then the United States, as the agreement’s sponsor, must be seen as a friend to both sides. A friend to Israel, of course, but equally a friend to the Arabs. Obama has given himself the considerable task of restoring the lost trust between America and the Islamic world, a task that he began to tackle in his Cairo speech with dignity but without arrogance; respectfully but without complacency. He talked about Islamic civilization, of its contributions to humanity, of the muezzin he heard calling to prayer during his childhood in Indonesia. But he did so only after having made clear: “I am a Christian.” He mentioned the tradition of tolerance in Islam, but didn’t hesitate to mention the lot of the minorities, the Palestinian Christians, the Maronites and the Copts. And he talked about the rights of women, too. He took a line that didn’t dodge controversies, notably on the wearing of the veil. But he chose his words carefully – “Our daughters can contribute just as much to society as our sons”. His audience applauded him at various stages of the speech, notably when he accused of duplicity those political leaders who talk about democracy when they’re in opposition, then forget it when they come to power. He didn’t quite manage to pronounce the Arab words correctly, but he found the right tone and came across as a friend.

It is hard to gauge what the reaction in Israel will be to the compromise put forward by the new America. A priori, we might expect virulent opposition. On the other hand, we might be in for all sorts of surprises, and that’s what Obama is counting on. He’s trying to convince the Jewish state that he is also their friend, and a far more genuine one than was his predecessor.

During the Bush era, Israeli leaders felt that they could do whatever they wanted. Even when Washington tried to hold them in check every now and then, the Israelis knew that they had nothing to lose by carrying on regardless. Impunity is a poor teacher, however. By allowing the settlements in the West Bank to expand and indefinitely delaying the establishment of a Palestinian state, the Israeli government reduced its own room for manoeuvre and discredited any potential Arab partner. Israel found itself in the unenviable position where peace is impossible and successive wars resolve nothing.

Without attacking his predecessor by name, Obama implied that those who encouraged the Israelis down this dead-end track did not behave as a friend would. A true friend would take the opposite course and lead Israel out of the impasse. If the conflict in the Middle East East brings into focus all the hatred between the West and the Islamic world, then an equitable solution would become the starting point for an historic reconciliation between the two spheres. Israel’s future would no longer depend on the continued escalation of the “clash of civilizations”. Instead, its rebirth would be anchored to an historic reconciliation.

Many Israelis refuse to entrust the defence of their country to international guarantees. In Cairo, Obama told these people with as much clarity as is possible on a subject as taboo as this one: they will not be asked to disarm or even give up their nuclear arsenal. He said this in coded but not indecipherable language. The United States will adhere strictly to the clauses of the non-proliferation treaty. Signatory countries — including Iran — have the right to develop civilian nuclear facilities, but not weapons. Israel, who is not a signatory, is under no such obligation. And the president never mentioned the nuclear-weapons-free Middle East that the Arabs are demanding. Instead, he talked about “a world in which no nations hold nuclear weapons”, which is, of course, mere wishful thinking.

Can Obama’s initiative succeed where so many others have failed? It could go either way. Hardliners on both sides now see the American leader as an enemy and a threat. From those who carry out what he carefully called “violent extremism” — thus distancing himself from the word “terrorism” that was forever on his predecessor’s lips — we can expect the worst. We can expect provocative actions that will put the president on the horns of a dilemma: to not retaliate would make him weak in the eyes of his people; to retaliate would jeopardize his open-door policy. And in Israel, it goes without saying that a section of the political class, supported notably by the settlers, will seek to destabilize the democratic administration by any means possible.

The Cairo speech leads the West and the Islamic World, the Arabs and the Israelis, into a turbulent zone. But if the undertaking Obama proposed in his speech succeeds; if a significant number of Arabs and Israelis consent to it; if, indispensably, the Jewish-American community supports it; if it takes into account the concerns of every party, including those of the Palestinian refugees and the Jewish settlers in the West Bank; if it is backed by a generous ‘Marshall Plan’ that brings prosperity to families and nations; and if it draws the moral and material support of Europe, China, Japan and the oil-producing nations; then it has a good chance of succeeding. Still, the road to peace remains slippery and perilous from start to finish.

(First published in the French news magazine l’Express on june 11th 2009).

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