Afghanistan

President Obama’s Cairo speech: prelude to real policy change?

President Obama’s highly anticipated speech in Cairo today aimed to help ameliorate the United States’ image in the Muslim world and begin to heal relationships with Muslim countries that were seriously damaged under the Bush administration. Obama spent some time conveying his respect for Islam and the contributions of Muslims both currently in the United States and throughout history. He then directly addressed concerns about US policy in the Middle East.  Regarding the war in Iraq, he said:

Today, America has a dual responsibility: to help Iraq forge a better future – and to leave Iraq to Iraqis. I have made it clear to the Iraqi people that we pursue no bases, and no claim on their territory or resources. Iraq’s sovereignty is its own. That is why I ordered the removal of our combat brigades by next August. That is why we will honor our agreement with Iraq’s democratically-elected government to remove combat troops from Iraqi cities by July, and to remove all our troops from Iraq by 2012. We will help Iraq train its Security Forces and develop its economy. But we will support a secure and united Iraq as a partner, and never as a patron.

This statement is encouraging, though we would prefer to see all of the troops out of Iraq on a shorter timeline, without Obama’s plan to leave a counterproductive residual force of 50,000 troops between August 2010 and the end of 2011. However, military officials have been making some statements recently that contradict Obama’s pledge and raise questions about whether the US will manufacture justifications for bending the rules of an already less-than-ideal agreement. The AP is reporting that the US and Iraq are working on a deal to maintain a base in Sadr City, and there are indications that some of the changes may be merely semantic, with people designated as “non-combat” troops with no real difference in their duties. As Cara wrote last week, Army Chief of Staff George Casey recently said the Army is preparing to have troops in Iraq and Afghanistan for another ten years.  The Iraq war has fallen below the radar in recent months, and we need to remain vigilant to make sure we truly see the end of the Iraq war.

President Obama also reiterated his commitment to negotiate with Iran:

For many years, Iran has defined itself in part by its opposition to my country, and there is indeed a tumultuous history between us. In the middle of the Cold War, the United States played a role in the overthrow of a democratically-elected Iranian government. Since the Islamic Revolution, Iran has played a role in acts of hostage-taking and violence against U.S. troops and civilians. This history is well known. Rather than remain trapped in the past, I have made it clear to Iran’s leaders and people that my country is prepared to move forward. The question, now, is not what Iran is against, but rather what future it wants to build.

It will be hard to overcome decades of mistrust, but we will proceed with courage, rectitude and resolve. There will be many issues to discuss between our two countries, and we are willing to move forward without preconditions on the basis of mutual respect. But it is clear to all concerned that when it comes to nuclear weapons, we have reached a decisive point. This is not simply about America’s interests. It is about preventing a nuclear arms race in the Middle East that could lead this region and the world down a hugely dangerous path.

I was rather surprised to hear President Obama discuss the 1953 coup, a shameful episode in US history that politicians are reluctant to highlight and of which many Americans are probably not even aware. Based on conversations I had with Iranians during my recent trip, I imagine this tone and recognition of American culpability would be well received by average Iranians, though Supreme Leader Khameini preempted the speech by declaring that Muslims still “hate America.” My impression from visiting Iran is that Iranians certainly don’t hate America at all, though they are obviously not very happy with our government. Mohammad Marandi, head of the North American Studies Department, who I met in Tehran, gave this response to the Washington Post:

“I didn’t hear many new things from Obama. We need to see fundamental change in American policies. People in this region are expecting change as much as the people in the United States

“When Obama says that he recognizes Iran’s rights to having peaceful nuclear energy, does that mean he will honor that right in negotiations with Iran? Or is this rhetoric? This is what we want to know.”

This definitely sums up a sentiment I heard over and over in Iran; people are pleased with the change in tone, but are skeptical until they see real policy change. Congress is currently making this difficult by undermining President Obama’s respectful tone with threats of sanctions. Fifty-three senators and more than 140 representatives have already cosponsored new sanctions legislation, and we are working to mobilize people to pressure them and let them know these actions are counterproductive and threaten to cause President Obama’s policy to fail.

An understandably sore spot with Iranians (and others) is the double standard around nuclear weapons policy, especially coming from the owner of one of the world’s largest arsenals. I found it encouraging that Obama directly linked this concern to his plans to pursue eventual nuclear disarmament:

I understand those who protest that some countries have weapons that others do not. No single nation should pick and choose which nations hold nuclear weapons. That is why I strongly reaffirmed America’s commitment to seek a world in which no nations hold nuclear weapons. And any nation – including Iran – should have the right to access peaceful nuclear power if it complies with its responsibilities under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. That commitment is at the core of the Treaty, and it must be kept for all who fully abide by it. And I am hopeful that all countries in the region can share in this goal.

The most disappointing part of the speech, though it was to be expected, was the defense of the Obama administration’s intensification of the military strategy in Afghanistan.

Make no mistake: we do not want to keep our troops in Afghanistan. We seek no military bases there. It is agonizing for America to lose our young men and women. It is costly and politically difficult to continue this conflict. We would gladly bring every single one of our troops home if we could be confident that there were not violent extremists in Afghanistan and Pakistan determined to kill as many Americans as they possibly can. But that is not yet the case.

That’s why we’re partnering with a coalition of forty-six countries. And despite the costs involved, America’s commitment will not weaken. Indeed, none of us should tolerate these extremists. They have killed in many countries. They have killed people of different faiths – more than any other, they have killed Muslims. Their actions are irreconcilable with the rights of human beings, the progress of nations, and with Islam. The Holy Koran teaches that whoever kills an innocent, it is as if he has killed all mankind; and whoever saves a person, it is as if he has saved all mankind. The enduring faith of over a billion people is so much bigger than the narrow hatred of a few. Islam is not part of the problem in combating violent extremism – it is an important part of promoting peace.

We also know that military power alone is not going to solve the problems in Afghanistan and Pakistan. That is why we plan to invest $1.5 billion each year over the next five years to partner with Pakistanis to build schools and hospitals, roads and businesses, and hundreds of millions to help those who have been displaced. And that is why we are providing more than $2.8 billion to help Afghans develop their economy and deliver services that people depend upon.

I have already written extensively about why the troop escalation in Afghanistan is likely to create more extremists, not defeat them. If President Obama’s benchmark for bringing all the troops home is the absence of any extremists, that sounds like an open-ended commitment. As I’ve noted, military force has historically been highly ineffective in combating terrorism; the US should invest in nonmilitary strategies such as policing and intelligence, development and aid. While President Obama has said admirable things about increasing civilian capacity, his funding request being considered by Congress allots 90% of funding to military and less than 10% to civilian capacity. We need to see a serious commitment to Afghan-led development and a cessation of air strikes and drone attacks that are causing tragic civilian casualties and displacing thousands.

I feel that it’s important to put this speech in perspective and remember back to the dark days of the Bush administration when this kind of respectful, eloquent overture to the Muslim world was inconceivable. President Obama’s outreach should be commended and plays an important role in rebuilding our relationships with the international community. Rhetoric will only sustain us for so long, however; the US must drastically change its policies in the Middle East, and Congress must support President Obama’s diplomatic overtures and challenge his misguided Afghanistan policy. It’s up to us to make sure that happens.

3 replies »

  1. President Obama Speech in Cairo, Egypt and one Iranian Response

    President Obama said:

    “The third source of tension is our shared interest in the rights and responsibilities of nations on nuclear weapons. This issue has been a source of tension between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran. For many years, Iran has defined itself in part by its opposition to my country, and there is indeed a tumultuous history between us. In the middle of the Cold War, the United States played a role in the overthrow of a democratically-elected Iranian government. Since the Islamic Revolution, Iran has played a role in acts of hostage-taking and violence against U.S. troops and civilians. This history is well known. Rather than remain trapped in the past, I have made it clear to Iran’s leaders and people that my country is prepared to move forward. The question, now, is not what Iran is against, but rather what future it wants to build.
    It will be hard to overcome decades of mistrust, but we will proceed with courage, rectitude and resolve. There will be many issues to discuss between our two countries, and we are willing to move forward without preconditions on the basis of mutual respect. But it is clear to all concerned that when it comes to nuclear weapons, we have reached a decisive point. This is not simply about America’s interests. It is about preventing a nuclear arms race in the Middle East that could lead this region and the world down a hugely dangerous path.”

    Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Spiritual Leader of Iran, response to the President Obama’s speech:

    It insisted that development of nuclear bomb is forbidden under Iran’s brand of Islam. He reiterated that Iran seeks only to generate electricity. He referred to a religious edict, or fatwa that he had issued at least four years ago in which he declared that the production, stockpiling or use of nuclear weapons was prohibited under Islam.
    Khamenei said: “Our nation says we want to have a nuclear industry”. “We want to use nuclear energy in a peaceful way. However, the West and America say that the Iranian nation is seeking to make a nuclear bomb. Why are they telling lies?”
    “The Iranian government and nation have repeatedly said that we do not want nuclear weapons. We have announced that according to Islamic principles, the use of nuclear weapons is forbidden. It is dangerous to keep nuclear weapons. We are not seeking to have them. We do not want them.”

    Mr. President Obama, may I respectfully submit the following proposal for confronting the issue of potential nuclear weapons proliferation in the Middle East.There is no dispute that Iran is already a nuclear state. The states with this capacity are many; among them are Japan and Germany. But, there is a great difference between being a nuclear state, i.e., nuclear fuel cycle capacity, and a state with nuclear bomb, such as India, USA, Russia, England, France, China, Israel and Pakistan.

    The steps required to allay our fear that Iran in the future may develop Nuclear Bomb are:

    1. Nuclear Fuel Cycle Iranian Consortium:
    USA should join the consortium among others Japan, Germany, France and England to actively monitor the Iranian fuel cycle activity too. IAEA has consistently asserted that the agency could not find any indications that Iran is diverting the fuel cycle for nuclear bomb development. Iran has asserted that their activities are limited to development of fuel for nuclear reactor.

    2. Nuclear Shield
    An international nuclear shield for all nations in the Middle East, including Iran and Israel, from nuclear bomb states;

    3. A nuclear- bomb-free Middle East
    This action will remove any pressure from Iran to develop nuclear bomb in the future for deterrence against nuclear bomb Israeli state.

    Unfortunately the attentions of the past two US Presidents (Clinton and Bush) were on nuclear fuel cycle of Iran. They both ignored that Israel had nuclear bombs. The Middle East should be the starting point toward your dream, Mr. President Obama, of a world free of all nuclear bombs.

  2. As an Iranian, my impression is that Khamenei means “the government of the US” when he names “America” in a derogatory manner. The leaders of the Islamic Republic have made it clear several times that they distinguish the American people from the American government which has pursued aggressive policies against other countries, with which American people are not necessarily content. I don’t have a link to a source right now but I’m sure I’ve heard that several times from him. The same has also been said about rhetorics such as “Down with America” (or in a more harsher translation, “Death to America”).

    So he actually meant that Muslim nations hate the American government, which is consistent with the average Iranian opinion and not at odds with liking Americans in general.

    • Yes, that’s exactly the point I want to get across to people in the US–that people in Iran separate us from our government, often times far better than people here do with regard to Iran. As I point out above, and wrote on the blog earlier when discussing the “Down with the USA” mural in Tehran, Iranians clearly like Americans and many aspects of our culture, and the negativity people in the US hear must be understood as directed at our government (and is often in response to poor US policy).