President-elect Obama promised Americans change and he has to fulfill his promise or he will depart from the gate of history as quickly as he entered it. Aware of a cumbersome legacy, he chose his first words carefully, telling the American people that even though he will persevere to bring about the promised change, he does not have a magic wand for it.
What President-elect Obama has to know is that he won overwhelming support not only in the United States but also in the Arab world, where people embraced him with equal enthusiasm. Many Arabs admired him as vehemently as they rejected President George W. Bush’s public persona and policies. American voters have their great expectations, but so does the Arab world, which hopes that Obama will rebuild trust between Arabs and the United States.
Before I started writing this article, I asked people around me the same question the Carnegie Endowment asked me: What does President Obama need to do in order not to disappoint Arabs? The answers focused on three issues: Palestine, Iraq, and political reform.
Unsurprisingly, the Palestinian issue is at the heart of Arab concerns. Like Americans, Arabs have a tendency to be idealistic. While U.S. politicians and policy makers have succeeded to a great degree in suppressing, betraying, and marginalizing Americans’ ideals in favor of strictly national interests and security, Arabs are still moved by abstract values and lofty demands, despite attempts by their regimes to instill some realism or “political pragmatism” in them.
The new U.S. administration can rebuild trust with the peoples of the region only if it adopts a tangible shift in policy over the Palestinian issue. It is unrealistic to expect the United States to abandon its alliance with Israel because the two countries have significant joint interests. However, Arabs demand that the U.S. administration lives up to its promises in supporting peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis. There is a history of disappointment that this region had to endure whenever U.S. administrations fell short of translating their rhetoric into action and achievable plans, or even backed off from previous positions. The United States should not only verbally support Palestinians it terms “moderate” but it also should provide them with real and concrete support.
This support should go beyond limited financial aid and training of Palestinian security forces to fight those referred to by Israel as “terrorists.” The world often interprets such a policy as inciting infighting among Palestinians and provoking a civil war. Vetoing every attempt to reconcile Palestinian factions is also not the kind of support Arabs expect. These policies have achieved little except weakening those “moderates” and U.S. “friends” that constantly try to persuade successive U.S. administrations to exert minimum pressure on Israel in hopes that it will respect signed agreements. A real peace sponsor should strive to win the trust of both sides rather than maintain silence over Israeli settlement expansion, justify Israeli aggression as “self-defense,” deny Palestinian basic rights, support the siege on the people of the Gaza strip, and build the discriminatory wall of separation. These policies do not serve “friends” or create a climate of trust. For while there is a drive for holding talks with the Taliban which is now regarded as a national resistance group, any form of contact with Hamas is vigorously resisted. Is Hamas more radical than the Taliban?
What the region expects, then, with regard to the Palestinian issue are three things. First, the U.S. administration has to engage in an honest and serious dialogue with Israel in which Washington clearly places a limit to Israel’s demands. The United States should also modify the so-called roadmap drafted by the outgoing administration, or a put forth a new plan that takes into consideration basic Palestinian rights. Second, the new administration should give Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas the green light to move toward achieving real national reconciliation, without which he lacks the mandate to forge a deal with Israel. The incoming administration has to engage in a direct talk with Hamas and include it in any initiative towards a permanent settlement in the Middle East. Third, Washington has to call for an international peace conference to create a regional and global impetus that helps end the current impasse.
The second regional concern is the situation in Iraq. Any serious step towards ending occupation there will have a tremendously positive effect on Arab public opinion. For the first time in history, Arabs view the United States as an occupying force in their part of the world, for they saw the invasion of Iraq as a war on the whole region. Therefore, Arabs will welcome any initiative that restores sovereignty and control over their resources to the Iraqi people as a step towards rectifying Arab–U.S. relations. Details are not as important as a clear and unequivocal declaration of the U.S. intention to return things to normal in Iraq. This was one of Obama’s strongest and most effective talking points, as his criticism of the war on Iraq and the way in which the Bush administration mishandled it have built his immense popularity in the Arab world.
The third issue of particular concern to Arab elites are demands for political reform in the region. Their position has been greatly undermined by the double-standard of President Bush’s rhetoric and policies. What is needed is not the showering on Arab democrats of additional public diplomacy funds, as the previous administration did. The problem is more complex. What is needed is for the new president to be truly convinced that U.S. national security interests require a quick, peaceful democratization in the region. While President Bush has backtracked on his 2004 demand that Arab regimes move towards tangible political and democratic reforms, President-elect Obama should retain that position, making democratization of the region a cornerstone of his foreign policy, but without seeking to blackmail Arab regimes or control the region. The United States has abandoned the view that African-Americans are inferior when they voted overwhelmingly for Obama. Isn’t it also time then for U.S. decision makers to give up the view that Arabs are inferior?
The democracy the region needs is not prepackaged merchandise with preconditions that cannot be examined or altered. Democracy is the same everywhere. It might come in different forms, but is built on the same base of freedom of the press and freedom of expression, and of respect for the will of the people expressed through transparent and fair elections. Favoring one party over another in the Arab world is not a right of the United States, but only of those who are part of the political systems of the region. If Islamist groups should benefit from any partial political opening, the development should be read in its historical and local context and not used as an excuse to repress Islamists. It is time for President-elect Obama to explore building a different relationship with Islamist groups, since they are part of the current political reality and cannot be excluded. Because of the weakness of regimes in the region, attempting to integrate Islamists in the internal reform effort might be a gamble with possible undesirable consequences. Nevertheless, it remains a better option than falling in the trap of treating all Islamist political organizations as enemies, which will play into the interests of growing radical powers.
Quite briefly, there is an expectation in the Arab world that President-elect Obama will turn a new page in U.S.–Arab relations by abandoning a rhetoric that threatens the region with more wars and adopting instead a more reassuring language based on dialogue on thorny issues such as the stand-off with Iran. The region cannot tolerate another military conflict that only serves the interests of warmongers.
Salah ad-Din al-Jourchi, writer and human rights activist, Tunisia