Advising Obama on the Middle East

This past week the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding (CMCU) held a panel discussion moderated by Georgetown University professor John Voll on Obama in the Middle East. The panelists were Aaron David Miller of the Woodrow Wilson Center, Hisham Melhem of Al-Arabiyya (who scored the first official interview with President Obama), Prof. Paula Newberg, expert on Afghanistan and Pakistan, newly arrived to the Georgetown campus, and Prof. John Esposito, the founder of CMCU.

Mr. Miller, who had served as an official adviser to both Presidents William Clinton and George W. Bush, focused on  the Arab-Israeli issue. He argued that the U.S. administrations over the past several decades have succeeded neither in making war or peace. Quoting Larry Summers, he noted that “In the history of the world, no one has ever washed a rented car.”  You care only for what you own. He advised Obama that you can’t fix this region and you can’t run away from it; you need an investment strategy.

Miller said that the American view of the world is skewed towards optimism because we are fortunate to have nonpredatory neighbors to our north and south and only fish to our east and west. We talk, he said, but we don’t listen.  His view was that history shows Jerusalem is not meant to shared; it is meant to be possessed whether in the name of the tribe, the religion, or the nation. Our optimism also goes back to the fact that no Americans died in hostile action at the hands of the Japanese in seven-year occupation of Japan.

It is Miller’s view that unless Palestinians have a monopoly on the use of force in their community, no Palestinian can ever negotiate, which raised the question in my mind as to whether the same applies to armed settlers. He also feels that Israeli leaders are prisoners of their constituencies, not masters of politics. On the other hand, he feels that gaps between the Syrians and the Israelis are not only clear, but also bridgeable.

Miller believes that we have a special relationship with Israel for many reasons and that will not change, but it has been too exclusive. For example, the make or break summit with Israel under Clinton should never have happened; it was a concession to the Israelis. He also advised Obama that “Iran sits at the nexus of every major issue.”

Hisham Melhem spoke on “Redefining the War on Terrorism and the Freedom Agenda.” He argued that the Middle East is more fragmented than it was eight years ago, weaker, and, except for a few islands of prosperity, more economically depressed. It is mainly without political leadership, weakened by two wars that have reduced America’s influence. Hope for change lies in the fact that the new president has deep roots in Africa, has lived in Indonesia, and has Muslim family members.

Melham explained that terrorism is a tactic, not an ideology nor a well-defined enemy. He asked why  borrow terminology with deep European roots to foist a phrase like Islamo-fascism on Muslims? He argued that throughout the history of terrorism are two strains: nihilistic terrorism as with the thugs, zealots, assassins, European anarchists, and the 9-11 attackers. There is no way to meet these people outside the battlefield. Where Bush went wrong was to lump Hamas, Hezbollah, and al-Qaida in one tent. The other terrorism is practiced by legitimate resistance or cultural movements that resort to illegitimate means for legitimate grievances. Such groups cannot be addressed by force alone.

Melham wants to give George W. Bush credit for being the first to say that we Americans looked the other way when our friends in the Middle East violated the rights of their own people. However, he says you can’t compare Iraq with Japan and Germany. Germany and Japan were industrial societies with clear national identities, and they acknowledged that they had been defeated.

I asked Melham how he reconciled the implications of his analysis that Obama must talk to Hamas with the flat declaration of the State Department that George Mitchell will NOT talk to Hamas. (This is as if Mitchell in his most famous negotiation had been given marching orders to “do what it takes to bring peace to Ireland, but do not under any circumstances talk to the IRA!”) Melham conceded the difficulty but suggested there ways of getting around it like indirect negotiations. Unfortunately, it was indirect negotiations through Egypt that lead to the disaster in Gaza.

Prof. Newberg asked what is it about this region that makes everyone who pays attention to it vilify it? She suggested that all the proposals for solving the problems are based on false dichotomies. Despite the fact that they are tied together Afghanistan and Pakistan are not the same place. In many ways Afghanistan is a failed state with a state structure at odds with the country’s needs. Pakistan is not a failed state; it’s failures are due to mistaking strengths for weaknesses and weaknesses for strengths, and trying to achieve its regional aims through proxies. The Taliban and al-Qaida are not the same and their interactions are constantly changing. Nationalism and Islamism are not intimately tied together in Pakistan.

What it will take to revive these states and make peace possible is still an open question. Attention has focused on the federally administered tribal areas which are “lightly governed” and in which live 3 million of the 160 million Pakistanis. The porousness of the border makes it a resource for NATO and criminals alike. That which is efficacious militarily may not be so politically. Having limited its objectives for itself, the Obama administration cannot limit those of the Afghanis and Pakistanis.

Prof. Esposito summarized the relevancy of the major Gallup poll of the Muslim world to Obama’s objectives. To whom is Obama talking? The elites? The terrorists? How about the people? The Gallup poll indicates that 93% of Muslims are mainstream and the 7% who are potential radicals  (based on the question “Was 911 justified?”) are more cynical than the rest, fearful of Western hegemony and about whether the West will ever allow democratization — which they desire even more strongly than the mainstream.

Esposito concluded that our problem is competing paradigms: War on Terror or War on Islam? To the majority if Muslims this is about particular grievances. When Americans are asked what they admire about Muslims they say nothing or they don’t know but when Muslims are asked what they admire about Americans, even those with grievances say technology, education, rule of law, freedom, etc. Canada (viewed as America without its foreign policy) is overwhelmingly liked.

Esposito argues that we have to have dialog with reform groups and the political opposition. The people of Palestine made their choice. We need a president who can be even handed and denounce the inordinate use of force and violence by the Palestinians and by the Israelis.

Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, Ph.D.
Minaret of Freedom Institute

3 Responses to “Advising Obama on the Middle East”

  1. […] Ahmad, Ph.D., reported on this panel discussion in an article posted to his minaret blog entitled “Advising Obama on the Middle […]

  2. […] Ahmad, Ph.D., reported on this panel discussion in an article posted to his minaret blog entitled “Advising Obama on the Middle […]

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