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.