The Current State of U.S.-Middle East Relations

Obama reached out to the Middle East. Is he reaching too far?

Despite frosty United States-France relations during the Bush’s administration, France received Obama in June with open arms and effusive praise from the French public and experts alike. The media gushed over his charismatic “cool,” his youth and the “nonchalant” attitude he brings to his interpersonal contact with world leaders.

An editorial in Le Monde on June 6 insisted that “Mr. Sarkozy must adapt himself to Mr. Obama’s policies.” It recommended that the French administration take a leaf from Obama’s book, citing one high-ranking French official who said: “Obama defends the interests of his country very well. It is our duty to do the same as he does.” With anti-Americanism still on the rise in many parts of the world, this new French love affair is a surprising twist.

Perhaps not. There is no doubt that the praise was due in large part to the groundbreaking speech Obama had given days before in Cairo, which commentators called “historical” and capable of reshaping American foreign policy and “re-imagining the world.”

Obama extended his hand to Muslim nations in his June 4 address, continuing his efforts to engage the Arab world in a conversation with the United States. While campaigning in 2007, he promised that, as president, he would call for the Western and Arab worlds to maintain “a sustained effort to listen to each other, to learn from each other, to respect one another, and to seek common ground.”

This speech was it. It sent ripples around the world. Observers pondered the meaning and possible consequences of Obama’s bold oratorical move, seen by some as noble, by others as questionable. Many sneered at the choice of Cairo, where Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak stifles political opposition with his dictatorial ways. Obama has made it clear that he favors engagement over ostracism, but America and Egypt’s mutual economic and strategic interests might have also influenced the choice. Prior to Cairo, Obama had visited United States-friendly Riyadh.

It is easy to see how Obama’s Islam-friendly words were music to the ears of Muslims on all the continents, including Europe. He quoted the Koran and mentioned Muslim contributions such as algebra and “timeless poetry and cherished music.” Obama pointed out that there are Muslims in his own family, that his own name is Barack Hussein Obama. By casting himself as a kindred spirit, Obama conjured up hopes of an America more sympathetic toward Muslim causes, such as the thorny issue of Palestinian statehood.

In response to Obama’s eloquent advances, many leaders from these regions have demanded concrete deeds. It will certainly be interesting to keep a close eye on Obama to see if indeed his words translate into action. Middle East experts say that radical change is unlikely. Obama has set the bar very high with his goal of decreasing tension in the Middle East and rejuvenating its relationship with the West. He runs the risk of sparking more tension if he doesn’t deliver.

Despite experts’ skepticism, Europe’s Muslims were listening and for the most part enjoying what they were hearing. France, like many Western European countries, has for generations played host to a flourishing Muslim community. Germany has a strong Turkish population and the Benelux is home to many people from the Maghreb.

France and Belgium, as well as the rest of Europe, have been very supportive of the Palestinian cause. The European Union’s aid to Palestinian refugees and the Palestinian Authority’s Reform and Development Plan totaled 300 million euros ($467 million). This is unquestionably a noble gesture, but it would even be more so if there were some follow-up to ensure that those funds actually reach their intended recipients.

In any case, this long-term regular aid alone is good evidence that Europe seems more inclined to support the Palestinian side of the protracted conflict with Israel.

Now, a younger and better-educated generation of European Muslim citizens is increasingly involved in the political and decision-making structures of the EU. France’s Minister of Justice is Rachida Dati, who was born to a Moroccan father and an Algerian mother. Fadila Laannan, Minister for Cultural and Audiovisual Affairs of the French-speaking community of Belgium, born in Belgium to Moroccan parents, is another example. Dati and Laannan remind us that Muslims are not only present in the West, but also an intrinsic part of it and of its culture, society, and institutions.

That is why Obama’s words in Cairo have so much significance not only for the Arab world, but also for Western countries.

So perhaps Obama should pay more heed to Europe’s issues and needs, including those of its Muslim citizens. Prior to his June visit, U.S. relations with France had been marred by disagreements over Iran and Turkey; relations with Germany were strained over the economic crisis. The same June 6 Le Monde editorial wrote, “Mr. Sarkozy knows that for Mr. Obama, who grew up in Indonesia and who focuses his foreign policy on the major crises zones, Europe is not a center of natural or personal interest.”

With four addresses to the Islamic world since the beginning of his presidency (in his inaugural address, a video message to the people of Iran, a message to the Turkish parliament in April, and now the speech in Cairo), Obama has made clear where his affinities and priorities lie. What he said and did not say in his Cairo speech about the Jewish cause in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict reinforces that notion.

In his speech, Obama seemed to take it easy on the Palestinians, calling on them to stop violence, accept a two-state solution, and live in peace with Israel. He did not attach any conditions, nor did he demand an end to the terrorism and threats directed at Israel. In contrast, he called for a freeze on additional Jewish settlements and seemed to think that Israel’s legitimacy comes from the Holocaust, not from a right conferred by Jewish history.

Behind that right to exist is a 2,000-year history, in the course of which the Jewish people sought to rebuild a national homeland. It might be that people born in a Western culture and family background may have a better appreciation of this fact, even if on a subconscious level. Though not Jewish myself, I first heard of the Holocaust when I was six, when I caught sight of a book entitled Breendonk, on our family bookshelf, the name of which refers to one of the worst concentration camps in Europe, and later on through documentaries watched on the family TV. With his different background and young years spent in a Muslim country, one may wonder if Obama’s knowledge and understanding of Jewish history might be wanting. This would explain what seems to be a superficially informed and callous stance towards Israel in his Cairo speech, as he gave equal weight to both the Israeli and Palestinian causes.

Such a stance has justifiably sent alarm bells among the Jewish populations both within and outside of Israel, with some observers wondering if Obama was not on a path of ostracizing the country and jeopardizing its deep relationship with the U.S. One commentator in Israel Matzav wrote that such alliance might be “on hold until at least January 2013 and that we Israelis are going to have to muddle through on our own.”

Here again, it’s not just Jewish people in Israel and in the U.S. who may feel concerned about the Islam-friendly speech, but those of Europe too.

Western, Central and Eastern Europe, as well as Russia, have seen a palpable rise in extreme-right ideology and in attacks by neo-Nazi youth groups on Jewish persons, places, and symbols — from beatings to desecration of graves and synagogues to swastikas drawn here and there in public spaces. More alarmingly, such occurrences in Russia seem to receive the Kremlin’s tacit approval. The results of the European Parliament Election last month, which saw strong gains for extreme-right parties, send a clear message as to where action and policies are needed.

In an article titled “Cultures in Conflict — On Muslim Immigrants in Europe” for Harvard Magazine’s July-August issue, Paul M. Barrett very accurately describes the differences between Muslim immigration to Europe and to the United States, with Europe’s Muslims being generally “poorer, less educated and less integrated into their host societies” than their counterparts in the United States, who, in addition to being less numerous, tend to be “more ambitious and on the whole more successful.” “Terrorism in the name of Islam has been more common in Europe than in the United States,” he notes, reminding us that 9/11 was planned in apartments in Hamburg, Germany.

If one were to combine the extreme-right tendencies of European politics to some of those second-generation Muslims in Europe’s Muslim communities who, as Barrett notes, are “lashing out at the countries they were born and raised [in],” then it is easy to see how such an explosive combination and Obama’s failure to address it could make European Jews feel more than nervous.

Thus, it is imperative that Obama keep his finger on the pulse of what goes on in Europe — within and beyond the EU — and is careful not to alienate Israel, its needs, and its allies. If he fails to do so, his message of peace in Cairo will have the reverse effect of creating more tension in the relationship between Islam and the West.

Having said this, there is no need for alarmism. It is highly unlikely that the June 4 Cairo speech alone will reshape Islamic affairs and the U.S.’s Middle East policy, as I would think it takes more than words to shift that centuries-old landscape. Just like whoever would have won the Iranian election would not have changed the fact that the U.S. will still have to deal with a regime that has been actively seeking nuclear weapons. Even hopeful events such as the U.S.-friendly coalition’s victory in the June 7 Lebanese parliamentary elections does not call for a radical change and softened stance on the U.S.’s Mideast policy.

All in all, there is a strong sense that Obama seems to be pulled in various directions — those of the United States’s interests, the Middle East-friendly EU and the Islamic world itself — and that he seeks to accommodate all sides in equal measure. Playing the nice guy and trying to ingratiate himself with all sides may create a risky hybrid for U.S. foreign policy.

Making overtures to regimes that have a record of aggression and dictatorship may also suggest that there is fear or weakness behind the messages of good will. Obama will have to walk a very thin strategic line so as not to antagonize crucial allies, but perhaps now more than ever, he would gain by inspecting his core ethical values, let them guide him, and in the process show that he has teeth and a mind of his own.

It would be nice, also, to hear some response from the Islamic world. So far, I fail to remember a major Muslim leader addressing the global Muslim or non-Muslim communities following significant events such as 9/11. Surely, there must be a leading Muslim figure out there who could address people worldwide and give Islam’s point of view in moments of major crises, as well as joyful landmarks. Instead, such moments are met with silence from the Muslim word’s great political and cultural figures.

For now, I am still straining my ear for some Islamic echoes from Cairo…

Florence Gallez is a graduate student in Comparative Media Studies.