When Barack Obama was running for president in 2008, he wanted, first and foremost, to be different from George W. Bush who was despised by a large majority of people everywhere on this planet. Obama had opposed the illegal invasion of Iraq, and during his campaign he continued to criticize the invasion and its aftermath. He also criticized the Bush administration for what he considered as its neglect of the "right war" (if there is such a war), namely, the war in Afghanistan. And, while the Bush administration had a relentless program of propaganda and threats against Iran for eight years, Obama offered to negotiate with Iran without any pre-conditions.
Candidate Obama also made some remarks about the plight of the Palestinian people that made right-wing Israelis uneasy. His relentless talk of change had the Jewish leaders in the United States worried that the change he was talking about would also permeate to the policy of the United States toward Israel. In short, candidate Obama promised that the relation between the United States and the Islamic world would change for the better, if he was elected the president, presumably because Bush had brought so much destruction and bloodshed to the Muslims.
Then, on June 4, 2009, President Obama spoke directly to the Islamic world to outline his new policy toward the Muslims. Calling it a new beginning, and speaking to the Egyptian parliament in Cairo, the President made many promises to the Muslims. This was hailed by many as a turning point in the relations between the United States and the Islamic world.
But, was it, really? A little over a year has passed since the Cairo speech and, therefore, it is time to examine whether the relations between the United States and the Islamic world have improved, or are about the same as during the George W. Bush administration, or they have actually deteriorated further.
But, before getting into the specifics, I ask, why was the speech delivered in Cairo? Was it because Egypt is the bastion of democracy and respect for human rights and human dignity in the Middle East or in the Islamic world? It is not. Egypt has been ruled by President Hosni Mubarak with an iron fist since 1981 under emergency rule, imposed after Anwar El Sadat was assassinated. Mubarak has been "re-elected" numerous times in sham elections. Dissidents and human rights advocates have been harassed, jailed, and tortured, and many political parties have been banned. Egypt has also been a destination for some of the people captured by the CIA through its extraordinary rendition program.
Could the president not deliver his speech to, for example, the Turkish parliament? After all, Turkey is a large Muslim country with a functioning democracy and run by a political party that has its roots in Islam. In June 2009 Turkey was still considered a reliable ally of the United States and Israel even by the neoconservatives. It had not yet been the target of the wrath of the neocons, at it has become now due to the Freedom Flotilla episode.
Could the president not deliver his speech in Bangladesh, a Muslim country that, despite being dirt poor, does have a functioning democracy and elected the first female prime minister, Khaleda Zia, in the Islamic world? How about Indonesia, a Muslim country where the President had spent years and has a more or less democratic system, certainly much better than anything that Egypt has? It is hard to imagine that an intelligent man like the president did not understand the implications of his choice of Cairo for delivering his speech. But, aside from the symbolic meaning of that choice, we need to look at what the President and his administration have done to Muslims and the Islamic world ever since he took over in January 2009. I look at this at the levels of both Muslim individuals and Islamic countries. Let us consider first the developments at the country-to-country level.
Iraq: The U.S. still has a sizeable force there. And, do not forget: The troops that have left Iraq have been dispatched to Afghanistan; they have not come home! All "non-combat" troops are supposed to leave by this summer, but what will be left behind will still be very significant, at a level of 50,000 troops. The humongous U.S. embassy - a mini state within the state of Iraq - was not scaled back by the Obama administration. Permanent military bases have been secured, and the control of Iraq's oil by the U.S. is assured. So, expect conflicts for many years to come, once Iraq's political system is a bit more stable.
Afghanistan: Obama has delivered on his promise regarding Afghanistan, which is, however, contradictory to the spirit of the Cairo speech. During his campaign in 2008 he repeatedly promised that he would escalate the war in Afghanistan, and he has. He has sent a large number of additional troops to Afghanistan, with no end in sight. Many doubt that the strategy of General Stanley McChrystal for defeating the Taliban will succeed [ed. note: Mr. Sahimi's post was written before McChrystal's resignation]. And, despite the presence of 100,000 NATO troops, including the U.S. forces, Taliban have proven resilient.
The much touted Helmand offensive in February and March that was supposed to have cleared a significant part of Afghanistan from Taliban's control was not the success that it was made to be, and those parts of Afghanistan are in fact still under Taliban control. And, the Kandahar offensive for this spring was also postponed, or perhaps cancelled altogether, because there was much pessimism about its effectiveness. Even Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said "we are all angst" about the course of the war. And, now, there are new allegations that portions of a $2.1 billion Pentagon contract may be going to pay "protection" money to Taliban and warlord groups in Afghanistan.
The NATO alliance is also tired. The Netherlands will withdraw its 1,600 troops by August. Canada, which has 2,800 troops in Afghanistan, will end its combat role next year. David Cameron, Britain's new prime minister, has expressed his support for the war, but has ruled out sending more troops. Other NATO members want the alliance to draw a plan for exiting Afghanistan.
All the talks about training the Afghan soldiers and transferring the control to the Afghan government are just that: talks. Soon, the president must decide whether his self-imposed summer 2011 for beginning to withdraw U.S. troops is, in fact, tenable. In fact, I believe that, now that a huge deposit of minerals worth at least $1 trillion has been discovered in Afghanistan, you can bet your house that the U.S. will stay in Afghanistan for years to come. That will mean only more bloodshed and destruction. The total cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has surpassed $1 trillion, while the economy here at home is languishing.
Aside from the military aspects, the U.S. did nothing when the corrupt and incompetent Hamid Karzai stole the elections last year from his highly competent rival Dr. Abdullah Abdullah. His government is weak and utterly corrupt. Washington tolerates the close relations between Karzai's brother, Ahmed Vali, with the drug lords. There is hardly a week in which we do not hear about a significant number of innocent civilians getting killed, wounded, and maimed by the U.S. and NATO forces. Wikileaks has promised to release new videos on attacks in Afghanistan. Thus, the way the war in Afghanistan is going, do not be surprised if the majority of Afghans are nostalgic about the security that the Taliban had brought them. The war has no military solution, but our enlightened president is pursuing one.
Pakistan: Another "gift" from the president to us, as well as to the Muslim people, has been the extension of the war in Afghanistan to Pakistan. In fact, this is no longer the "Afghan" war, but the "AfPak" war. "Targeted killings," as they are fashionably called, have continued in Afghanistan and Pakistan under the Obama administration using missiles and Predator drones. They are used to supposedly eliminate extremists, Taliban leadership, and the Al-Qaeda, but kill many civilians in the process. The hellish Blackwater mercenary army - recently renamed Xe - is also in Pakistan doing only God knows what. And, this is a company whose founder, Eric Prince, considers himself a crusader for eliminating all Muslims.
But, the bottom line is, what has been achieved by spreading the war to Pakistan? The only "achievement" has been spreading misery and making the people of Pakistan angrier than ever at the United States, giving more excuses to the radicals to plan terrorist attacks against this country. Pakistan is also armed with up to 60 nuclear warheads. Its military runs the country from behind the scenes. Its Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) created the Taliban in the 1990s as a viable fighting force and helped it take over Afghanistan in 1996. And, despite all the promises and denials by Pakistani leaders (who are as corrupt as Afghanistan's), there are fresh reports that the ISI is still collaborating with the Taliban. So, what is the logic for spreading the war to Pakistan?
Iran: Candidate Obama offered to negotiate with Iran without any pre-conditions. But, offering to negotiate with a country with no pre-conditions, but without any fundamental change in the way the U.S. views Iran, is meaningless. Yes, the Obama administration did not demand that Iran suspend its uranium enrichment program before entering the negotiations for swapping of Iran's low-enriched uranium (LEU) with fuel for the Tehran research reactor that provides medical isotopes for 850,000 ill Iranians. Yes, as usual, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said one thing last October -- agreeing to the swap -- but did something else -- backtracking. But, eventually, the realities forced him and the hardliners to accept the original October 2009 deal, and in the process make many concessions that amounted to capitulation. So, why reject the deal brokered by Turkey and Brazil, and act as if we are telling the Brazilian and Turks: "How date you make a deal with Tehran?"
At the same time, Obama's goal has always been the same as that of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, namely, to dismantle Iran's uranium enrichment facilities and program. So, what is the difference between demanding suspension of the uranium enrichment program before entering the negotiations room, and demanding the same as soon as entering the room? Just passing through the door!
The president's promise to pursue diplomacy with Iran has turned out to be similar to many other promises that he made during his campaign: bogus. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has made it repeatedly clear that the "diplomacy" with Iran is about convincing the Europeans that diplomacy will not work with Iran, not about reaching a diplomatic solution.
So, it is now crystal clear that the administration's plan all along has been to go through the diplomatic motions, as Israel's man in the White House, Dennis Ross, wanted, in order to set the stage for crippling sanctions and possibly war against Iran.
The last thing that Iran's democratic Green movement needs at this point is sanctions that will hurt only ordinary people, empower the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) even more, and provide it with an excuse -- threat to national security and economy -- to crack down even harder on the movement. The invasion of Iraq did wonders for the IRGC precisely for the same reason, helping it to consolidate its grip on power in Tehran.
If some sanctions can be identified that only target the hardliners clerics and their cronies, as well as sanctions that can help break their hold on means of mass communications, they can be supported. But, to gain such support, each time new sanctions are imposed, other sanctions that the U.S. has already imposed on Iran for decades that hurt only the common people, such as sanctions on selling civilian aircrafts, must be lifted. But, that has not happened because the U.S. has single-mindedly made Iran's nuclear program the only issue. In fact, the nuclear program is not even among the top priorities of Iranians. Establishing a democratic political system and the rule of law is. If that happens, it will automatically solve the nuclear problem as well.
Moreover, the U.S. and its allies have no right to demand Iran to suspend its nuclear program, so long as Iran has abided by its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and its Safeguards Agreement. Every report by the International Atomic Energy Agency has confirmed that there is no evidence of a nuclear weapon program in Iran.
Turkey: Up until a month ago, Turkey was a darling of the neoconservatives. It was always presented by them as a model for the Islamic world, since it a large Muslim country with functioning democracy, run by a political party that has its roots in Islam, it has an uncorrupted government that has been able to push aside the military, is a NATO member and a close ally of Israel. But, apparently, the Freedom Flotilla changed all of that. It is not just the neocons that are angry about Turkey's support for the humanitarian aids to the deprived people of Gaza and Turkey's relentless of criticism of Israel for its commando raid that murdered 9 Turkish citizens. The Obama administration is also angry with Turkey for pursuing its own national interests and brokering with Brazil's help the deal with Iran to ship out more than half of its LEU.
As Stephen Kinzer of the Guardian put it, "Suddenly, it [Turkey] is being denounced as a turncoat, a "frenemy", a defector from the coalition of the virtuous and budding convert to to the Islamist cause." Turkey is being threatened in the Congress with support for a congressional resolution that declares the slaughter of the Armenians in Turkey in 1915 a genocide. So, all that talks about US-Turkey alliance and friendship are just that: talks. In effect, Turkey is being told, "Either fall in line and concentrate your efforts on protecting our interests, or else." So, the "new" relations between the U.S. and an important Islamic state as envisioned by the President, is the same old relations that the George W. Bush had with the Islamic world. Granted, Obama tries to dictate the same policies with a nice smile!
Palestine and Palestinians: This one may not even need any explanation whatsoever. At the beginning of the Obama administration, the president and Hillary Clinton made some noise about addressing the Israel-Palestinians conflict, but Obama retreated quickly, declaring the problem "too hard." He did not even mention the problem in his State of the Union address last January. If anything, the lives of the Palestinians in the occupied territories and Gaza have deteriorated even more. Colonial-type constructions in the West Bank have continued unabated. While visiting Israel, the Vice President of the U.S., Joe Biden, was humiliated by the announcement of the construction of more apartments in East Jerusalem by Israel. By the way, that episode was also a gift for Tehran's hardliners. And, the mild reaction - read non-reaction - of the administration to the Freedom Flotilla episode and Israel's raid on the ships, which was condemned by practically the entire world, was absurdly ridiculous. Then, again, when there is a cover-up of Israel's attack on the USS Liberty in 1967, what else should we expect? But, just try to imagine how the President would have reacted, if Cuba or Venezuela had done exactly the same thing as Israel did.
Yemen: The Obama administration has escalated the U.S. military involvement in Yemen. Amnesty International has claimed it has evidence for the U.S. involvement in air strikes on suspected Al-Qaeda hideouts in Yemen in December 2009. It has criticized Washington for allegedly using cluster munitions and not taking precautions to avoid civilian casualties. The December 17, 2009, attack took place in the al-Majalah area of the southern Yemeni province of Abyan. Yemeni security officials said 34 Al-Qaeda terrorists were killed. But, a Yemeni parliamentary committee also said 41 civilians were killed in the attack as well. There are also videos that show the depth of U.S. military involvement in Yemen. Dana Priest of the Washington Post has also reported on the deep involvement of the U.S. forces and intelligence in the Yemeni conflict. The result can be only one thing: more killing of the innocent civilians.
Somalia: U.S. involvement in Somalia has a long history, of course, going back to 1992. As a result of its so-called "war on terror," the second Bush administration ratcheted up the U.S. involvement in Somalia. It supported Ethiopia's invasion of Somalia in 2006. The U.S. also has troops in Djibouti, and concerns have been increasing that the U.S. involvement in Somalia will be even deeper under the Obama administration. To understand better the under-the-radar U.S. involvement in countries such as Somalia, what we need to learn is that the U.S. Special Operations forces have grown both in number and budget over the past year, and are deployed around the world in more countries than during the last administration, from the Philippines and Colombia, to Yemen, Pakistan, Africa, and Central Asia. There are also plans for increasing the use of Special Operations forces in Somalia. Last year, a Special Operations raid in Somalia killed the alleged head of Al-Qaeda in East Africa.
The president has also not altered the U.S. relations with the Arab countries of the Middle East - Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, Kuwait, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, and Oman - the Muslim nations of Central Asia, and the Republic of Azerbaijan. Practically all of them are run by dictatorships or authoritarian regimes that are largely despised by their populations. And, because Libya said "uncle" and gave up its nuclear program, it is now counted among the "good guys." We do not hear anything about the gross violations of human rights there anymore.
So, in effect, the president has continued Bush's policy towards the Islamic world, with a little less Iraq, but a lot more of AfPak, Yemen, and elsewhere and, yes, a lot more nice smiles delivered personally by him. I will not even get into the policy of the administration toward Latin America. The Obama administration was practically the only major nation that recognized the illegal coup government in Honduras.
What about specific policies of the administration regarding human targets, practically all of whom Muslims?
Habeas Corpus Rights: The Obama administration claimed that those that are detained in the Bagram Air Force base in Afghanistan have no habeas corpus rights, and on Friday May 21, 2010, a Circuit Court in Washington, D.C., agreed . So, what is the difference between Obama and George W. Bush, other than the former's hypocrisy? This is the same man who had argued against the same claim by his predecessor. All Obama has done is transferring Bush's policy from Guantanamo to Bagram. As Tina Foster, a lawyer for the detainees, said, "The thing that is most disappointing for those of us who have been in the fight for this long is all of the people [Obama and his team] who used to be opposed to the idea of unlimited executive power during the Bush administration but now seem to have embraced it during this [Obama] administration."
Extraordinary Renditions: Candidate Obama had suggested strongly that as the President he would end the practice of extraordinary renditions, whereby terrorist suspects are captured and sent to jails overseas for interrogation. The practice had begun under the Clinton administration, but it was the George W. administration that made an "art" out of the renditions. But, on August 23, 2009, the administration announced that the practice will continue, but pledged that it would closely monitor the treatment of the suspects to ensure that they are not tortured. So, what is the difference between Obama and Bush? Better monitoring of the detainees?
Assassinating U.S. Citizens: On January 27, 2010, Dana Priest of the Washington Post reported that Obama had continued George W. Bush's policy of having the Joint Chiefs of Staff compile "hit lists" of American citizens. Priest suggested that the American-born Islamic cleric Anwar al-Awlaki was on that list. Glenn Greenwald of Salon had reported the same about the same time. A week later, Dennis Blair, then Director of National Intelligence, acknowledged in a testimony before the Congress that the administration reserved the "right" to carry out such assassinations. Then, on April 7 the New York Times reported that the Obama administration had authorized the CIA to kill al-Alwaki no matter where he is found or how far he is from a battlefield.
Do not get me wrong. I am all for capturing al-Awlaki, bringing him to the U.S., putting him on trial according to the due process of law and, if convicted, punishing him. But, assassinating an American citizen in a foreign land, even if he is far from a battlefield, is beyond the pale. This makes Obama another decider in the mold of George W. Bush: he decides by himself that an American citizen is guilty, that his punishment is the death penalty, and that he must be punished anywhere in this world, no matter what.
The man that I voted for - candidate Barack Hussein Obama - seems to have disappeared. In his place there is a President that, at least when it comes to dealing with the complexities of the Islamic world and Muslims, has no major difference with George W. Bush - aside from his nice smiles. My hopes for better relations between the U.S. and the Muslim world and true peace and stability in the Middle East have been dashed. I am left only with my wonderment about my hopes that have been turned into a hoax.