On June 4, 2009, just over 100 days after being inaugurated, President Barack Obama made a promise before a crowd of eager listeners in the Main Reception Hall of Cairo University in Egypt. The speech he delivered, as its title suggested, promised “A New Beginning,” for relations between the United States and the Muslim World. Speaking in the cultural capital of the Arab world, and the most populous city in the region, it was clear the President of the United States was speaking not only to the Muslim World but also to the Middle East specifically. It was a galvanizing speech that sent a set of unprecedented messages. He promised a new relationship “based upon mutual interest and mutual respect; and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive, and need not be in competition. Instead, they overlap, and share common principles — principles of justice and progress, tolerance, and the dignity of all human beings.” President Obama also acknowledged the debt that civilization as a whole owed to Islam, and stated that “Islam is part of America.” He expressed his dedication to a relationship between America and Islam, Thus far, President Barack Obama has only partially lived up to his promise of a “new beginning.”
The Arab Spring allowed the Obama administration to uphold part of the doctrine laid out in Cairo. In the cases of Zine Abdine Ben Ali of Tunisia, Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, Muammar al-Gaddafi of Libya, and Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen, the President chose the relationships with the people of those respective countries over relationships with those regimes. When mass protests arose, the President called for reform, and subsequently called for those leaders to step down. This was a bold foreign policy move, especially in the case of Egypt, whose close relations with the United States had frequently been cited as a critical element in maintaining peace in the region. However, the actual impact of the President’s “endorsements” of the protests remains entirely subjective to different interpretations, and on its own does not represent the fulfillment of the “Cairo Doctrine.” For while the President did show his commitment to democracy in the Middle East, the President has failed in various other aspects to show his commitment to the principles laid out by his speech in 2009.
On numerous occasions the United States had the opportunity to prove that they were willing to make shifts in foreign policy in order to build better relationships in the Middle East. However, the Obama Administration’s decisions, particularly in regards to Palestine, are not consistent with the spirit of “A New Beginning.” President Obama stated that he supported a “two state solution” and that it is in “America’s interest” for a Palestinian state to exist alongside Israel. However in September of 2011, the United States stood strongly against voting for a Palestinian statehood in the United Nations (U.N.), saying that it favored a dialogue between the two nations as the solution. According to U.S. State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland: “The U.S. opposes a move in New York by the Palestinians to try to establish a state that can only be achieved by negotiations.” This statement is a criticism of Palestine’s initiative in seeking its independence through the U.N. after years of failed peace negotiations by labeling it as “unilateral action.” In doing so, the United States is straying from the path laid out by the President in “A New Beginning” after having said that “if we see this conflict only from one side or the other, then we will be blind to the truth: The only resolution is for the aspirations of both sides to be met through two states, where Israelis and Palestinians each live in peace and security.” However, this two state solution will only become more difficult to achieve as more Israeli settlements are constructed in the occupied Palestinian territory.
One of the main issues in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has been the construction of Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. In Cairo, the President commented on these settlements stating that “The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements…” Why then did the United States veto a draft U.N Resolution which, according to the United Nations News Centre, would have condemned all Israeli settlements in occupied Palestine since 1967 as illegal? The United States’ reasoning for this contradiction between policy and action was that “while it agreed that the settlements are illegitimate the resolution harmed chances for peace talks.” However, peace talks are a remedial measure that has seen little success. In fact, peace talks had taken place only five months before the United States shot down the U.N. resolution. In September of 2010, direct talks between Barack Obama, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas took place. These talks broke down due to the fact that the Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, refused to extend a freeze on settlement building in the West Bank. In light of this result, it is inexcusable for the Obama Administration to remain silent about such human rights violations for the mere purpose of trying to protect the sanctity of peace talks.
In order for President Obama’s administration to have a lasting contribution that creates positive relations between the Middle East and the United States, new policies that are truer to the promises laid out in June of 2009 must be adopted. The fact remains that Israel is illegally occupying territory. This was officially confirmed by a ruling on July 9, 2004 by the International Court of Justice. The President himself remarked that Palestinians: “endure the daily humiliations large and small that come with occupation. So let there be no doubt: the situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable.” Unfortunately for the Palestinians, the Obama administration has tolerated the situation.
Obviously it is not politically feasible for Obama to completely overhaul the American relationship with Israel. Nevertheless, due the political changes that came as a result of the Arab Spring, the United States must reassess how it will approach the region as a whole. For the United States to have a future in a “new” Middle East less tolerant of the militaristic whims of Israel, it must be more firm in regards to ensuring that Israel respects international agreements as well as the protection of human rights.
The President has also failed to find a new way forward in regards to Iran, an issue that seems to become more pressing by the day. The striking parallels between America’s current rhetoric on Iran and America’s rhetoric on Iraq in 2002 and 2003 are also a cause for concern. “A New Beginning” suggests that in the years that proceeding Obama’s presidency, America was taking a path that Obama no longer wants to follow. Yet in March of 2012 President Obama stated that “a military effort to be prepared for any contingency” would be an option for responding to a nuclear Iran. If there is to be “A New Beginning” why has the Obama Administration suggested taking the same approach to Iran as the Bush Administration took with Iraq? The amount of verifiable evidence that exists today that suggest that Iran is capable or could become capable of producing a nuclear weapon in the near future is comparable to the amount of verifiable evidence that existed to suggest that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction in 2003. In Cairo, the President stated that “my country is prepared to move forward” in regards to Iran. Yet from an Iranian perspective, as with the Palestinian issue, the action contradicts the doctrine. Why should Iran feel ready to “move forward” and be forthcoming about their nuclear program if both Israel and the United States continue to propagate a rhetoric of war on such a consistent basis? How can any government, be it democratic or non-democratic, validate cooperation with a foreign government that has openly expressed the possibility of war? The way in which American foreign policy corners other nations poses significant danger and impedes progress.
From a pragmatic perspective, failing to embrace the ‘Cairo Doctrine’ can have dramatic negative consequences for the United States. On one hand, the new Libyan government has been more than happy to acquiesce to the desires of the United States, especially in light of the September 11th attacks on the American consulate in Benghazi. But will the same be true for the new government that will inevitably replace Bashar al-Asaad’s regime in Syria? Regardless of what kind of government it is, it is unlikely that it will be pleased with how America acts in the Middle East today, which could destroy the chances of a potential alliance with the new Syrian government, and thereby miss an opportunity to displace the influence of Iran in the Middle East. After all, Egypt’s President Mohamed Morsi has already made it clear that he is not planning on being as cooperative as his predecessor, Hosni Mubarak, when it comes to American influence. President Morsi displayed this new attitude on February 5th, when he “gave Ahmadinejad a red-carpet welcome on the tarmac at Cairo airport on Tuesday, shaking the Iranian’s hand and exchanging a kiss on each cheek as a military honour guard stood at attention,” according to an Al-Jazeera report. This occurred after a visit by President Morsi to Tehran in August of 2012. It is this sort of event that demonstrates how it is strategically unsound for the United States to continue its current path in the changing Middle East. While the United States does maintain considerable influence over Egypt through foreign aid, this too can change. In January, Qatar announced that they were raising their foreign aid to Egypt to $5 billion dollars , which means that Qatar’s monetary aid to the most populous Arab country will outweigh American aid in 2013. As a President now in his second term, President Obama has a duty to dedicate himself to pursuing the ‘Cairo Doctrine.’ Failure to do so could result in irreparable damage to American influence in the region. In the words of President Obama “The question is whether we [focus] on what pushes us apart, or whether we commit ourselves to an effort, a sustained effort, to find common ground, to focus on the future we seek for our children, and to respect the dignity of all human beings.”
Jeremie Langlois is a FCRH 2016 Political Science major who may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org