Obama: Sending the Right Signals
by Muqtedar Khan
Barrack Hussein Obama’s first week as President of the United States has come like a pitcher of cold water to one who has been parched by the relentless heat of the Texas desert. His first few foreign policy moves underscored what all was missing from Washington DC for years – sanity, prudence, foresight and compassion.
The change that has come to Washington is truly remarkable. Contrast Obama’s first few foreign policy measures with Bush’s last hurrah.
As soon as he became President, Obama ordered the closing of Guantanamo prison, which had become a symbol for the violations of international law and disregard for human rights so endemic to US foreign policy under George W. Bush. He also signaled the end to secret detention facilities overseas suspected of involvement in kidnapping and torture. The end to use of torture has been received worldwide as a signal that the U.S. under Obama will respect global norms and will once again assume its role as the promoter and defender of human rights principles.
Obama’s first steps constitute a “U-turn” and I hope that they translate into a march towards consistent observance of the highest norms of international conduct. America’s example is the fuel that sustains international moral order and once again the burden of civilization can become America’s badge of honor.
George W. Bush’s last act was to allow a massacre in Gaza that included the killing of over 400 children, some with chemical weapons. Israel, who depends on the US, for its security, for its economic and political well-being cannot take such a big step that systematically undermines US vital interests in the Middle East, without a go-ahead from Washington. Perhaps in George Bush’s moral abacus, Israel’s right to defend its citizens trumps Palestinian children’s right to life itself. I am sure he knows that one word from him and those children would have been alive today.
Obama on the contrary spoke not only of Israel’s right to defend itself, but demonstrated unprecedented courage (or stupidity) as he let slip in this sentiment: “Our hearts go out to Palestinian civilians who are in need of immediate food, clean water, and basic medical care, and who’ve faced suffocating poverty for far too long.” This one sentence went a long way in assuring the world that he was different from Bush and that indeed American had undergone a real change.
In the US even a minor departure from a posture that does not support Israel 100% is punished severely and entails serious risks, especially for politicians. President Obama’s willingness to jeopardize his political future and utter a rare sentence of empathy for Palestinians, underscores his commitment to advance US interests and justice in the Middle East.
Importantly, President Obama proved that he believes in actions and not just pretty words. His singular act, the appointment of Senator George Mitchell as special envoy to the Middle East was worth more than a million speeches.
Senator Mitchell is one of those rare Americans who has a track record for making peace, as demonstrated by his role in the resolution of the conflict in Northern Ireland, and also maintaining a just balance while dealing with the Arab-Israeli conflict. If he is in charge, we can rest assured that no unfair sacrifice will be demanded of Israel and the Palestinians will not be mugged once again.
The latest bout of violence in the Middle East has further undermined US interests and stature in the region. One remarkable outcome has been an unusually strong and unprecedented rebuke from Saudi Arabia our closest and most reliable ally in the area. A prominent Saudi prince, Faisal Turki, not only expressed in very strong terms growing impatience with one-sided US policy in the region but also hinted that Arab hope for a peaceful resolution was fading rapidly. He hinted that unless there was change in US policy, the entire Arab nation would abandon all efforts for peace with Israel.
Obama has clearly inherited a basket of crises. The economy continues to hurt and US credibility overseas has never been so low. A major confrontation in the Middle East, that could further sap blood and treasure, looms dangerously in the near future. It is in this critical environment that his first few steps signal his commitment to doing what is best not just for the US, but for global peace.
It is possible that in the future, expediency may subvert Obama’s idealism, but for now, let us all relish the fact that America’s has in seven days taken several long strides towards restoring balance and international credibility.
Dr. Muqtedar Khan is Director of Islamic Studies at the University of Delaware and a Fellow of the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding.