Wednesday, June 10, 2009


America's Sorry Policy

On Obama's Speech in Cairo and US Policy in the Middle East
by John Feffer, the always-astute co-director of Foreign Policy in Focus

In 1697, five years after the judges of Salem, Massachusetts sent 20 suspected witches to the gallows, one man stood up in front of his congregation and apologized. Samuel Sewall was one of the nine judges that gave official sanction to the hysteria of the witch trials. In a remarkable act of contrition, Sewall took upon his head the "blame and shame" of the tragedy and wore a hair shirt until the day of his death to remind him of his sin. More intriguingly, he went on to become a champion of civil rights and an early abolitionist.

It would be truly breathtaking if George W. Bush - or any of the architects of the U.S. foreign policy fiascos of the 21st century - donned a hair shirt, repented of his actions, and performed an ideological about-face. The parallels with Salem are not trivial: the hysteria, the torture, the legal travesties. But don't hold your breath waiting for a mea culpa from the 43rd president. Instead, it's left to Barack Obama to come to terms with the Bush legacy.

Last week in Cairo, President Obama gave a much-anticipated speech to the Muslim world. In many ways the speech was extraordinary. The president reaffirmed his own personal ties to the Islamic world, quoted from the Koran, lauded religious tolerance, upheld the rule of law, recognized that "the situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable," called on Israel to stop settlements, reaffirmed his commitment to nuclear abolition, and tactically refocused U.S. military campaigns against "violent extremism in all forms."

The speech "reflected a significant shift away from the ideological framework of militarism and unilateralism that shaped the Bush administration's war-based policy toward the Arab and Muslim worlds," observes Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF) contributor Phyllis Bennis in Changing the Discourse. It will be remembered, as Akiva Eldar writes in Haaretz, "as the last day of the 9/11 era." And the speech could also help shift the U.S. public's attitudes about Islam, which have been largely negative. "If it reduces American prejudice against Arabs and Muslims, then his address would truly mark a new beginning for U.S.-Muslim relations," writes FPIF contributor R.S. Zaharna in Improving U.S.-Muslim Relations.

For all its strong points, however, the speech didn't contain any apologies. The president might have taken the opportunity to apologize for the way the Bush administration demonized Islam, killed countless Muslim civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan and Pakistan, supported repressive states in the region, and abrogated the civil liberties of Muslim and Arab-Americans in the United States. But the United States rarely does apologies. And Obama prefers to focus on the future rather than the past.

The closest the president came to an apology was when he mentioned U.S. complicity in the overthrow of Iran's democratically elected government in 1953. He didn't apologize for the act (nor did Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in 2000 when she too acknowledged U.S. involvement in the coup). "Rather than remain trapped in the past," Obama said in Cairo, "I have made it clear to Iran's leaders and people that my country is prepared to move forward."

The president no doubt fears a slippery slope - apologize for one U.S. policy and the demands will escalate to apologize for them all. For the conservative attack dogs, meanwhile, the word "sorry" is like the scent of fear and weakness. At the merest mention of an apology, they will leap at Obama's throat.

And then there's the problem of current U.S. actions. We continue to support autocratic leaders in the Arab world. "Many Arabs and Muslims have expressed frustration that Obama failed to use this opportunity to call on the autocratic Saudi and Egyptian leaders with whom he had visited on his Middle Eastern trip to end their repression and open up their corrupt and tightly controlled political systems," writes FPIF senior analyst Stephen Zunes in How Not to Support Democracy in the Middle East. The Egyptian government's crackdown on dissent prior to Obama's visit was a painful reminder of U.S. double standards on democracy in the region.

Obama pledged to adhere to the timeline for withdrawing troops from Iraq, noted that the United States desires no military bases in Afghanistan, and referred to the $1.5 billion in infrastructure assistance for Pakistan. But we're still at war in these countries, and apologies, if they come at all, are issued long after the last shot is fired.

For all of the president's attempts to focus the debate on "violent extremists," U.S. aerial assaults and counterinsurgency operations are still claiming civilian lives in the Muslim world. This is particularly problematic in Afghanistan, as FPIF contributor Farrah Hassen points out. In his Cairo speech, the president "failed to acknowledge the growing civilian casualties due to increased U.S. drone attacks ostensibly aimed at dismantling the Taliban - a reality that only increases the risk of blowback against the United States, as opposed to winning the hearts and minds of Afghans, and of Muslims, alike," she writes in Lifting the Veil. "Indeed, a military investigation concluded the United States made mistakes after the May 4 airstrikes in the western province of Farah that killed dozens of civilians."

On the ground in Afghanistan, where support for NATO military operations has declined precipitously over the years, U.S. forces are experimenting with a new policy of prompt apologies for civilian casualties. The apologies are welcome in the region, but words can only go so far. "Apologies are good things," Maolawi Hezatullah, provincial council head in Kunar where U.S. troops killed six civilians in April, told Reuters. "But the foreign troops should convince the people that there will be no more such incidents."

Samuel Sewall didn't simply apologize for his role in the Salem witch trials. He tried to remedy his errors by working to ensure that such atrocities would never reoccur. We may not see apologies for U.S. conduct in the Muslim world coming from top U.S. officials. But if Obama manages to end the "collateral damage" to civilians in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, then U.S. policy will change indeed.


Eve LaPlante, "The Opposite of Thanksgiving," The Boston Globe, November 18, 2007;

"A New Beginning: Obama's Egypt Speech," The Huffington Post, June 4, 2009;

Phyllis Bennis, "Changing the Discourse: First Step Toward Changing the Policy," Foreign Policy In Focus (; Obama's approach toward the Muslim world may be diplomatic, but it remains the work of mobilized people across the United States to end Obama's war in Afghanistan and Pakistan, halt the occupation of Iraq immediately rather than years from now, stop U.S. military aid to Israel, and launch new negotiations with Iran not based on military threats.

Akiva Eldar, "Obama's Cairo Speech Signals End of 9/11 Era," Haaretz, June 8, 2009;

R. S. Zaharna, "Improving U.S.-Muslim Relations," Foreign Policy In Focus (; For the United States to focus only on improving its image in the Arab and Muslim world is to see only half of the picture.

Madeleine Albright, "American-Iranian Relations," March 17, 2000;

Stephen Zunes, "How Not to Support Democracy in the Middle East," Foreign Policy In Focus,; Obama failed to address Egyptian and Saudi repression in his address to the Muslim world.

Hossam el-Hamalawy, "Cairo Under Siege Ahead of Obama's Speech," The Huffington Post, June 3, 2009;

Farrah Hassen, "Lifting the Veil," Foreign Policy In Focus (; A Muslim-American reflects on Obama's Cairo speech.

Peter Graff, "New Tactic for U.S., NATO in Afghanistan," Reuters, April 17, 2009;

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