President Obama began his remarks by emphasizing the common connections America has with Islam and the Muslim world. He was right to emphasize that Islam has always been a part of America and that there are mosques in every state of the union. He praised Islamic cultures' contributions to the world as well as American Muslim’s contributions to the United States. He quoted liberally from the Qur’an and made it clear that America was not at war with Islam. All of this served to excite and inspire, but then he turned to America foreign policy in the Muslim world.
He discussed a wide range of topics, and his focus was on seven points:
1. Confronting violent extremism in all of its forms.When looking at these points, it is important to note that the more detailed his discussions were the more flaws that were apparent in his positions. Conversely, the more general his discussion, the better his ideas seemed.
2. The situation between Israelis, Palestinians and the Arab world.
3. The rights and responsibilities of nations on nuclear weapons.
4. The issue of democracy.
5. The issue of religious freedom.
6. The rights of women.
7. Economic development and opportunity.
Turning to the issue of confronting extremism, he discussed Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Guantanamo. He began by stating that the US was going to be more liberal in giving developmental aid to Pakistan and Afghanistan which, of course, is something to be praised. However, Obama then goes on to say that all American troops will be out of Iraq by 2012. This is a lie. In Obama’s February 27, 2009 speech on ending the Iraq war, he states:
“As I have long said, we will retain a transitional force to carry out three distinct functions: training, equipping, and advising Iraqi Security Forces as long as they remain non-sectarian; conducting targeted counter-terrorism missions; and protecting our ongoing civilian and military efforts within Iraq. Initially, this force will likely be made up of 35-50,000 U.S. troops.”Obama clearly stated that he plans on leaving behind a “transitional force” that will be “made up of 35-50,000 U.S. troops.” Furthermore, it is true that he has long held this position, as he emphasized this same point when he ran for President. What is clear from his position is that he does not plan a full withdrawal of troops from Iraq and his rhetoric hides reality. America has done this countless times in the past, hence why we still have troops stationed in Japan, Germany, and South Korea, even though conflicts in those regions have been over for many decades. America has strategic interests in Iraq—with the most obvious one being oil—that it will protect through its permanent mega-bases and an imperial embassy. American extremism in regards to excessive militarism should be confronted; instead, U.S. troops will not be out of Iraq by 2012 and it is doubtful that they well ever willingly leave.
Obama also stated that, “I have unequivocally prohibited the use of torture by the United States, and I have ordered the prison at Guantanamo Bay closed by early next year.” This statement is misleading in that it only tells half of the story. The disconnect between rhetoric and reality is eminently clear for both the issue of torture and Guantanamo Bay.
Obama rightly deserved praise for prohibiting torture shortly after he was sworn in as President. While he is to be commended for attempting to bring the US back into compliance with the Convention Against Torture that was ratified by the US in 1988 and is binding US law, he has yet to fully comply with the treaty obligations to prosecute those who have conducted or permitted torture to occur. As Glenn Greenwald points out:
Ronald Reagan, May 20, 1988, transmitting the Convention Against Torture to the Senate for ratification:It is clear that Obama is required under the law to prosecute those who have committed torture; however, he has repeatedly stated he will not seek prosecutions against those individuals in the Bush Administration who are alleged to have committed torture.
The United States participated actively and effectively in the negotiation of the Convention. It marks a significant step in the development during this century of international measures against torture and other inhuman treatment or punishment. Ratification of the Convention by the United States will clearly express United States opposition to torture, an abhorrent practice unfortunately still prevalent in the world today.
The core provisions of the Convention establish a regime for international cooperation in the criminal prosecution of torturers relying on so-called "universal jurisdiction." Each State Party is required either to prosecute torturers who are found in its territory or to extradite them to other countries for prosecution.
Convention Against Torture, signed and championed by Ronald Reagan, Article II/IV:
No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat or war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture. . . Each State Party shall ensure that all acts of torture are offences under its criminal law.
In terms of Guantanamo, the issue is more complex. Symbolically, Guantanamo has been a very visible stain on the image of justice in America. Obama was able to score a public relations victory by saying he would close the prison, but he still doesn’t abide by the principle that made Guantanamo so terrible, namely the denial of habeas corpus and the creation of kangaroo court-style military commissions. Glenn Greenwald notes that:
Many Democrats -- including Barack Obama -- claimed they were vehemently opposed to this denial of due process for detainees, and on June 12, 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court, in the case of Boumediene v. Bush, ruled that the denial of habeas corpus rights to Guantanamo detainees was unconstitutional and that all Guantanamo detainees have the right to a full hearing in which they can contest their accusations against them.While the Supreme Court has affirmed the right for prisoners in Guantanamo to challenge their detentions in Court, Obama has done a bait-and-switch and has declared that prisoners in Bagram prison in Afghanistan do not have the right to challenge their detention. By allowing this, Obama is essentially giving blanket approval to the denial of habeas corpus to prisoners detained abroad. So while Obama can no longer indefinitely detain individuals in Guantanamo, he can do so in Bagram or any of the other many US prisons around the world. While it is nice that Obama has decided to end the prison in Guantanamo, he will continue the illegal denial of habeas corpus to prisoners held by the US all over the world.
Although Obama is not using the Bush version of military commissions anymore to try detainees in Guantanamo, he is using a modified system of military commissions rather than using the federal court system to try detainees. Because of this, these trials will lack legitimacy and the detainees will never receive justice. Furthermore, it has been alleged that conditions in Guantanamo have become worse since Obama became President. All of this is unacceptable and puts Obama in line with illegal Bush Administration policies.
On Obama’s discussion on the Arab-Israeli conflict, he clearly reaffirms America’s unshakeable bond with Israel while also recognizing that steps need to be taken to assure a two-state solution. He calls for both sides to abide by treaty obligations and that Israel should stop its settlement activity. He says he is committed to the peace process and will see it through to its fruition; however, many other Presidents have said this same thing and still the Palestinians remain stateless. Obama’s generalized rhetoric is encouraging, but his words need to be backed up with actions.
On nuclear weapons and democracy, Obama struck a positive note. He renewed his call for a nuclear-free world and that is something to be lauded. However, he has yet to take any steps to make this a reality. He called for people world-wide to determine their own way forward and what style of democracy they want to live in. Yet, he decided to deliver his speech in Egypt, a country that is ruled by a repressive dictator. So while Obama’s rhetoric was strong, again the reality of the situation remains starkly different.
On religious freedom and the rights of women, Obama made encouraging statements. He encouraged interfaith dialogue and tolerance between different religions and within religions. He recognized that women play a critical role in all societies and thpse societies with well-educated women tend to be prosperous. He also noted how Muslim countries such as Indonesia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Turkey all had elected women leaders and that the rights of women need to be respected. In both of these areas there is very little to disagree with and the hope is that religious toleration increases and the rights of women are respected in both Muslim and non-Muslim countries around the world.
In terms of globalization and development, Obama recognized the challenges in these areas and strongly encouraged development. He recognized that the internet and television can bring both new ideas and loose morality. He said that Muslim countries can retain their heritage and still reach development, but it was up to these societies to do so. I strongly agree with this point as the Muslim world is trying to forge a new path for itself in the future.
Overall, Obama’s speech was meant to rehabilitate America’s image in the Muslim world and try to begin a new chapter. This is grand idea but talk is cheap. Obama will continue to occupy Iraq through at least 2012, he has escalated the war in Afghanistan, and he has expanded the global war on terror into Pakistan. He said, “Palestinians must abandon violence. Resistance through violence and killing is wrong and it does not succeed.” Why can’t Obama turn this statement around and realize that the US must abandon its violence, its extremism, and that killing is wrong and does not succeed?
Obama appears to be the ultimate salesman—he first marketed himself as the everyman and became President and now encourages the Muslim world to look beyond Americas current and historical clashes with them in favor of a nebulous new beginning. He desperately wants to show to the rest of the world that America wants to begin anew and should be trusted. Alas, he is hawking a cheap, superficial product that is breaking apart at its seams. While it is easy to be swept away by grandiose rhetoric, there is significant disconnect between his words and reality. The rosy image painted by Obama is not reality; it is an aspiration riddled with contradictions that necessarily precludes significant advancement in the areas Obama discussed. It would be great for America to turn a new page, but to do so rhetoric must finally begin to match reality.
-Nausherwan Hafeez, 9-15-09