Saturday, May 21, 2011

Obama’s Power Was In The Idealism

 By Rami G. Khouri
This commentary was published in The Daily Star on 21/05/2011
President Barack Obama’s speech on Thursday laying out the American government’s position on the Arab Spring and the Arab-Israeli conflict is a historic text that has the potential to do much good – if it proves to be a blueprint for policy-making rather than just a showcase for speechmaking.
The context and the content of the speech are both significant, and related.
The context is that Obama was speaking after decades of consistent and cumulative failure in U.S.-mediated peacemaking between Arabs and Israelis, and the massive deterioration of credibility, support and respect among public opinion and governments across the entire region, not only in the Arab world. Arabs, Israelis, Turks and Iranians have all resisted and defied American pressures, requests and cajoling in recent years, leaving the United States marginalized and disrespected across the region. It has immense power in all fields – but little impact when it uses that power.
Obama was also in a peculiar position of responding to the initiative that millions of ordinary Arabs had taken in launching citizen revolts against half a dozen Arab governments. No longer was the U.S. pointing the way, but rather it was following, and trying to catch up with, the lead taken by Arab men and women across the region who have defined the new ground rules of citizenship, statehood, power and governance. Free Arabs in recent months were setting the stage for a confused America.
In this context, the content and substance of Obama’s speech were important, for three main reasons. First, his use of the phrase “self-determination” to describe what ordinary Arabs were doing in their revolts against autocracy and police states is a profound advance on previous vacillating American responses to the current Arab Spring. There is no ambiguity in “self-determination,” a phrase that has political as well as legal connotations.
Second, Obama also made it clear that the right to live in freedom and democracy – to be a self-determinant citizenry – is a universal right that should be enjoyed by Bahrainis who are strategically close to the U.S. as well as by Libyans and Syrians who are not. He affirmed, as he should have, that freedom is indivisible, as it indeed is.
The American president is not the purveyor of self-determination to nations and peoples; but this universal quest is significantly boosted if the U.S. president positions his country as standing squarely behind the struggle of all freedom-loving men and women, regardless of which country they live in. In truth, we should not expect more from Obama than what he gave us: to state explicitly, without hesitation or exception, that the U.S. supports a set of core rights of freedom, democracy, security, economic prosperity and the rule of law; and that it supports them for all people, not only some people as was the case in the past.
Obama’s noting that the legitimacy of governments derives from the freedom and self-expression of its citizens was a very welcomed position – but it will have practical meaning only if the U.S. government now puts its policies where its mouth is.
The third important if slightly nuanced point in his speech was the position he staked out for the U.S. government on Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking. He did not lay down radical new policies, but he provided important new space in some pivotal areas, and emphasized vital principles in a manner that took on new meaning because it came from the president one day before meeting the Israeli prime minister.
The new space relates to how the U.S. and others will deal with the Hamas-Fatah unity government in Palestine. He left open the possibility that this government could be a partner for negotiations, if it provided answers to legitimate questions the Israelis raise about how they can be expected to negotiate with a party (Hamas) that rejects them and tries to destroy them. He also said the Quartet (the U.S., European Union, United Nations and Russia) must exert new efforts to get beyond the impasse of the stalled negotiations – and thus he explicitly refused to repeat the Quartet demands of Hamas which are not matched by parallel demands from Israel.
In both cases, Obama rejected the Israeli demands that a blanket veto be placed on contacts with Hamas, and left open the possibility – indeed, the suggestion, I would say – that fresh thinking, flexibility and rational clarity from Israel, the Palestinians and the Quartet alike could break the stalemate and move toward the goal of two states living in peace.
The president’s comments on the 1967 borders as the basis for negotiations, and the need for sovereign, secure states in Israel and Palestine as the ultimate goal of negotiations, were bolstered by his proposal to make agreement in principle on the issues of security and territory the foundation for more complex negotiations on resolving the refugees and Jerusalem issues.
Obama’s retreating from the Washington pro-Israel lobby’s zealotry on boycotting Hamas and the unity government in favor of a more balanced and rational approach to negotiating with any party advocating peaceful conflict-resolution effectively breaks away from the traditional Israeli right wing’s dominance over Washington’s Middle East policies. In this respect, it is a form American self-determination We will see if this newfound American Spring lasts, and moves ahead in tandem with the Arab Spring.
Barack Obama has made a powerful and constructive speech, showing that he is prepared to line up with the Arab and universal struggle for freedom, and to break free from a chronically failed approach to Arab-Israeli peacemaking while opening spaces in which new approaches might be explored.

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