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John L. Esposito

John L. Esposito

Posted March 29, 2009 | 05:27 PM (EST)

Need for a New Paradigm: Obama and the Muslim World


After the decades-long failure of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, compounded by eight years of George W. Bush policies that alienated Muslims globally, President Barack Obama moved quickly to distance himself from the Bush legacy, declaring: "To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect." Obama emphasized a readiness "to listen" rather than to dictate and his desire to restore "the same respect and partnership that America had with the Muslim world as recently as 20 or 30 years ago." But will there be a new paradigm, a significant shift in American foreign policy?

Thus far, Obama's track record is mixed. He announced the phased closing of Guantanamo and sent former Senator George Mitchell as special envoy to the Middle East. However, these decisions were quickly counter-balanced by the administration's response to the firestorm and smear campaign of unsubstantiated accusations in response to the appointment of Chas Freeman, former ambassador to Saudi Arabia and Assistant Secretary of Defense, to be Chairman of the National Intelligence Council. The Israel lobby, including AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, and its supporters in Congress viciously attacked the reputation of Freeman, a distinguished former diplomat and sometime strong critic of Israel's policies in Palestine. Leading the attack was Steven Rosen, a former official of AIPAC, recently hired to run the Washington office of Daniel Pipes' Middle East Forum. Ironically, Rosen himself is currently under indictment for passing secrets to Israel. Publications such as the National Review, the Wall Street Journal, the Weekly Standard, and the editorial page of the Washington Post and members of Congress followed suit.

In the end, Chas Freeman withdrew his nomination. President Obama accepted his resignation, choosing not to fight the media attack; he remained silent as he had done during the Israeli invasion and war in Gaza. These incidents have much broader implications for Obama's credibility in forging his new way forward in relations with the Muslim world. As a presidential candidate, he had distanced himself from the Arab and Muslim community and courted the Israeli lobby in his concern to get the American Jewish vote. While many understood the political necessity of his position in a closely contested election campaign, the critical question today is whether President Obama will now make key decisions without bowing to domestic pressures from the powerful forces of Congressional members, lobbies and interest groups. Will he take the political risk and reverse the historic lack of even-handedness in American foreign policy in the Middle East, reflected most recently in the Bush administration's policies and the undue influence of the Israeli lobby, hard-line Christian Zionists on the White House and Congress and the administration's responses to the Israeli invasions of Lebanon and most recently Gaza?

The potential blowback from the war in Gaza cannot be underestimated. While Obama's closing Guantanamo is important, its significance in the Arab and Muslim world is nothing compared to America's policies in Gaza. Gallup Polling (Oct 2008), prior to the Gaza war, found that while closing the Guantanamo detention facility would improve attitudes in the Arab world toward the United States, it did not match the level of support for U.S. pressure on Israel. Respondents rated the Israeli/Palestinian issue more important to perceptions of the U.S. than closing down Guantanamo. Significant numbers of citizens in many Arab countries (such as Tunisia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Lebanon - all American allies) said their view of the United States would improve "very significantly" by increased U.S. pressure on Israel." President Bush's subsequent uncritical support of Israel in the Gaza war and then presidential candidate Barack Obama silence failed the test.

We are quickly approaching a time when President Obama can no longer say that he "inherited" this or that "mess" -- he must lead, given the cards he has, and lead now. The brutality of the war in Gaza, with its disproportionate death toll (1300 Palestinians to 13 Israelis), massive destruction of Gaza's neighborhoods, universities, schools etc. and tragic toll on the lives of innocent women and children, has become a symbol in the Arab and broader Muslim world for America's perceived double standard in the promotion of democracy and human rights. If the Obama administration is to effectively distance itself from the Bush administration, then it will need to "walk the way it talks." Obama's commitment to a "new" policy and "to listen" will require that the US meet, listen and work with all the major players in Palestine, not just Fatah and Israel but also HAMAS, a leadership chosen by the Palestinian in free and fair democratic elections in 2006.

Equally important, the Obama administration cannot effectively pursue a new paradigm unless the primary players and regional powers are committed to the need for a new paradigm. The Palestinian leadership, including HAMAS, must make clear and demonstrate that it, too, is ready not only to negotiate for a free and secure Palestinian state but also recognize the existence and security of Israel. Palestinians and the Israelis must be ready to acknowledge that both have legitimate claims, that a military option is no solution and that diplomacy and negotiation are the way forward. Given the current realities, recent Israeli election results and a Netanyahu-Lieberman government, the leadership divisions in Israel and Palestine, and the realities of American politics, the road to peace will be steep and extraordinarily difficult.

Senator Mitchell's credibility and effectiveness as a mediator will heavily depend on whether President Barack Obama (and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton) can transcend the fears of most American politicians and the pressure groups that support hard-line Israeli policies. America's policy of "Israeli Exceptionalism," privileging Israeli interests and thus failing to pursue an even-handed policy, would have to be supplanted by a more balanced policy that held Israel to the same standards as other states in the international community, including compliance with United Nations Security Council resolutions regarding the return of Palestinian territory taken in the 1967 war and subsequent annexation of land and building of "illegal" settlements.

Will Obama rise to the occasion, embarking on a bold new paradigm and policy?

Only time will tell. The future direction of the Obama administration remains unclear as does that of the Israeli government and the Palestinian leadership. That President Obama has the desire, vision and intelligence to reach out to the broader Muslim world is without doubt. But will he do what no recent American president has done and take the political risk to resist pressures, in the words of Chas Freeman, of "a group so clearly intent on enforcing adherence to the policies of a foreign government," and its supporters in Congress? Only time will tell.