POTUS Among the Pharaohs

by Joshua H. Liberatore

As we prepared for POTUS’s reception in the Middle East this week, I for one found it salutary to take a good square look at where we’ve come from. When our former POTUS spoke about language training initiatives in Arabic, Farsi, and Urdu at the State Department in 2006, he relied on his own rich linguistic heritage to drive home his message:

You see, freedom is the ideology that wins. We got to have confidence in that as we go out. But you can’t win in the long run for democracy unless you’ve got the capacity to help spread democracy. You see, we got to convince people of the benefits of a free society. I believe everybody desires to be free. . . . And you can’t convince people unless you can talk to them. And I’m not talking to them right now directly; I’m talking through an interpreter on some of these Arabic TV stations. . . . And the best way to do that is to have those of us who understand freedom be able to communicate in the language of the people we’re trying to help.

Regrettably, learning Arabic or Farsi wasn’t enough to ensure the success of those 20 military linguists who were discharged between 1998 and 2004 for violating the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in force for gay soldiers, apparently not among those “who understand freedom.” But the former POTUS continued:

In order to convince people we care about them, we’ve got to understand their culture and show them we care about their culture. When somebody comes to me and speaks Texan, I know they appreciate the Texas culture. (Laughter.) I mean, somebody takes time to figure out how to speak Arabic, it means they’re interested in somebody else’s culture. . . . It’s a gesture of interest. It really is a fundamental way to reach out to somebody and say, “I care about you. I want you to know that I’m interested in not only how you talk but how you live.” (January 5, 2006)

Two and a half years later, we still don’t have an Arabic-speaking President, or even a properly multilingual one. Although some speculated that POTUS might have picked up some Bahasa Indonesia when he lived overseas as a young boy, he admitted from the campaign trail that he doesn’t speak another language, and that he’s embarrassed about it. (And his feeble, if well-intentioned, attempts during his first trip to Europe in April provided ample proof of this confession. At least he speaks English passably well.) So, as POTUS toured the Arab world this week, making key stops in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, both putative U.S. allies, he relied on gestures other than language as he renewed his offer to extend an “open hand” to the Muslim community. And even without Arabic, he found a way, it seems, to speak as directly as he could, as candidly any American president could be expected to. In his Monday morning NPR interview, POTUS offered some frank hints at the themes of his upcoming speech:

Now, in every country I deal with, whether it’s China, Russia, ultimately Iran, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, allies as well as non-allies, there are going to be some differences. And what I want to do is just maintain consistency in affirming what those values that I believe in are, understanding that we’re not going to get countries to embrace various of our values simply by lecturing or through military means. We can’t force these approaches. What we can do is stand up for human rights. We can stand up for democracy. But I think it’s a mistake for us to somehow suggest that we’re not going to deal with countries around the world in the absence of their meeting all our criteria for democracy. (June 1, 2009)

On what criteria will said Muslim community be grading POTUS? As a recent Brookings Institution poll revealed, next to Iraq, the primary issue of concern in the Middle East is nothing new: the plight of the Palestinians. Many Muslims look to POTUS to set a new course in solving a conflict that all too commonly is shelved by American presidents or put off until late second-term (both Clinton and Bush the Younger are guilty of the latter). POTUS claims to understand that both sides need to make concessions, but after his meeting last week with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas he reminded us of the inherent complexities of the process and also issued a subtle signal toward a meaningful reversal of the prevailing Bush doctrine:

We are a stalwart ally of Israel, and it is in our interests to assure that Israel is safe and secure. It is our belief that the best way to achieve that is to create the conditions on the ground and set the stage for a Palestinian state as well. And so what I told Prime Minister Netanyahu was, is that each party has obligations under the roadmap. On the Israeli side, those obligations include stopping settlements; they include making sure that there is a viable potential Palestinian state. On the Palestinian side, it’s going to be important and necessary to continue to take the security steps on the West Bank that President Abbas has already begun to take, working with General Dayton. We’ve seen great progress in terms of security in the West Bank. Those security steps need to continue because Israel has to have some confidence that security in the West Bank is in place in order for us to advance this process. (May 28, 2009)

The Second Coming of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has caused many to fear not just a perpetuation of the status quo of the past 16 years (since the Oslo talks broke down) but indeed a dramatic roll-back of the modest gains made under his right-wing predecessors Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert, namely, concerning the graduated withdrawal of Jewish settlements in land recognized by the international community and multiple U.N. documents as Palestinian, settlements that continue to be subsidized, protected, and in some cases, armed by the Israeli government, settlements that all but negate the physical plausibility of the so-called “two-state solution.” Will POTUS be able to persuade the warlike Bibi to rein in these defeatist policies?

Well, I think it’s important not to assume the worst, but to assume the best. And in my conversations with Prime Minister Netanyahu, I was very clear about the need to stop settlements; to make sure that we are stopping the building of outposts; to work with the Palestinian Authority in order to alleviate some of the pressures that the Palestinian people are under in terms of travel and commerce, so that we can initiate some of the economic development plans that Prime Minister Netanyahu himself has said are so important on the ground. (May 28, 2009)

POTUS told NPR that being a “stalwart” friend to Israel means being more honest with it about what’s good and bad for its long-term viability. Israel, as a self-proclaimed Jewish state, faces a huge demographic dilemma in the shape of its 20 percent-and-growing Arab-Muslim and Arab-Christian population. Thus, for a two-state solution – easy to say, difficult to do – to materialize, what we’d be looking at is a Jewish state with a sizable Palestinian minority and a Palestinian state with a smaller, but not insignificant, Jewish minority of 280,000 settlers, many of them from the United States and the former Soviet Union. The first is not only plausible; it’s simply the existential reality of modern Israel. The second requires Jewish settlers on land conquered in the 1967 war to recognize themselves as Palestinian Jews, a duality that Israeli Arabs have had to accommodate since 1948 even though it means a sort of second-class citizenship. As for the settlements beyond Israel’s official borders, POTUS has had to choose his words carefully, using variously, “freeze, including natural growth,” “stop settlements”, “progress on settlements” – while the Palestinians and the rest of the world tend to favor the verb “withdraw.” In his meeting with Netanyahu, POTUS was markedly gentler but did not eschew the topic entirely:

Now, Israel is going to have to take some difficult steps as well. And I shared with the Prime Minister the fact that under the roadmap and under Annapolis that there’s a clear understanding that we have to make progress on settlements, that settlements have to be stopped in order for us to move forward. That’s a difficult issue. I recognize that, but it’s an important one, and it has to be addressed. I think the humanitarian situation in Gaza has to be addressed. Now, I was along the border in Sderot and saw the evidence of weapons that had been raining down on the heads of innocents in those Israeli cities, and that’s unacceptable. And so we’ve got to work with the Egyptians to deal with the smuggling of weapons, and it has to be meaningful, because no prime minister of any country is going to tolerate missiles raining down on their citizens’ heads. (May 18, 2009)

What does all this have to do with Egypt? Besides being the most populous Arab country, Egypt also has the longest-standing peace agreement with its neighbor Israel. As such, POTUS used his Cairo speech to renew his commitment to the region and attempted a most difficult balancing act in the country where he and his country are probably least popular according to Brookings (in media-maligned Iran, by the way, both POTUS and the U.S. are viewed rather favorably on the street). By virtue of its location, Egypt is also a key partner in resolving the perennial flare-ups of violence in Gaza that have left its poor residents living half-starved in a veritable cage. In short, POTUS needed to hit a home run in Cairo. Given the heavy attention his speech has received elsewhere, I’ll restrain myself from extended analysis and simply end with this key passage:

I know there’s been a lot of publicity about this speech, but no single speech can eradicate years of mistrust, nor can I answer in the time that I have this afternoon all the complex questions that brought us to this point. But I am convinced that in order to move forward, we must say openly to each other the things we hold in our hearts and that too often are said only behind closed doors. There must be a sustained effort to listen to each other, to learn from each other, to respect one another, and to seek common ground. As the Holy Koran tells us, “Be conscious of God and speak always the truth.” (Applause.) That is what I will try to do today: to speak the truth as best I can, humbled by the task before us, and firm in my belief that the interests we share as human beings are far more powerful than the forces that drive us apart. (June 4, 2009)

POTUS went on to quote other salient passages from the Koran, the Gospels, and the Talmud that demonstrated his well-founded belief in common ground: the shared desired for peace, prosperity, and fellowship. Small gestures such as tagging his mention of Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed, with the Muslim phrase “peace be upon them” received enthusiastic applause. His bold use of the P-word, Palestine, though it may not strike American ears as semantically different from “Palestinian state,” resounded in Arab audiences, and the entire umma Muslima, as an unprecedented illustration of support. POTUS also reminded us that while Europeans were busy bashing one other about with maces and halberds in the middle ages, Muslim scholars in Baghdad and Damascus were preserving the literary and philosophical traditions of ancient Greece, making substantial advances in mathematics, astronomy, and medicine, and in general, presiding over a bright courtly civilization even as the lights were out for centuries in the West.

Now, surely many of the Rudy Giuliani school of nuanced rhetoric will vilify these overtures as pandering, but POTUS seemed sincere, galvanizing sharp and welcome deviations from eight years of Bushwhacking in the wilderness and labeling it freedom. If these promising words are matched with concrete actions, we might well find ourselves four years from now in a better position relative to the 1.5 billion people around the world who identify themselves as Muslims, a full 20 percent of humanity. Not a waste of time or effort, by any standard.

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