It was extremely depressing to hear President Obama don the bravado tone of his predecessor last week and announce to the world that “justice will be done” in response to the attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi. And yet the President had no other option but to go on the assault and play a firm hand by promising to root out the extremists responsible, in the knowledge that his every move would be seized upon by prying Romney spin doctors.
While (I will add crassly) the numerous protests that have erupted throughout the Islamic world add further intrigue to an already fascinating US election campaign, Obama has missed a golden opportunity to make a stand against the bigotry and extremism that has emanated from the USA in recent days, and begin a process of realignment with the nascent democracies of a post Arab Spring environment.
However the requirements of marginal vote winning have led the President to assume a temporary neo-con persona, causing him to focus his condemnation on the Islamic extremism that has emerged from the current crisis. Essentially, prioritising electoral policy has ensured that any throwback to Obama’s A New Beginning speech, delivered in Cairo in 2009 that sought to transcend the acrimony of the Bush era and establish a new relationship between the USA and the Islamic world are out the window – any hope of reconciliation gone. Instead, in come detachments of marines, warships, tightened security and greater distrust. That is not to suggest that the attacks on embassies did not demand an assured response from US authorities. However, this is a pivotal moment in US-Arab relations.
…American paranoia now trained on heightened alert…
After promising “a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect” when he came into power, Obama had the opportunity to break the tit-for-tat cycle of provocation and response that has plagued US-Arab relations for years. However after the attacks in Libya, he defaulted on any hope of progress, reverting to a tone of delivery that has forced a contraction in progress, with American paranoia now trained on heightened alert as attacks and protests reign down on embassies around the world.
The spark to the current protests is largely agreed to be a reaction to the poorly made and undeniably insulting film “Innocence of Muslims”. The majority of observers, Muslim or not, recognise the offence the production caused and therefore can comprehend the angry response. However, there is no doubt that a vacuum of opportunity has arisen from the current crisis for Islamic fundamentalists to espouse their ideology by exploiting the already angry crowds, encouraging the unnecessary violence and disorder that has allowed the protests to run out of control. The influence of such radicals has become increasingly clear after black flags more commonly associated with Al Qaeda have been erected over many Western embassies.
…‘us’ against ‘them’…
However, underlying the whole crisis appears to be a fervent anti-Americanism that connects the two very different provocations mentioned above. This was the mind-set that Obama sought to change in 2009, and yet 3 years on appear on our television screens daily with every burnt US flag.
It is at this point that my generalisations risk crossing the boundary to paint a convenient picture of ‘us’ against ‘them’. America’s relationship with Islam is not a romantic clash of civilisations, or an ideological confrontation that will take no prisoners. Harmony remains absent not because of an underlying incompatibility, but a fundamental misunderstanding between a minority that it allowed to take precedence. The fight against extremism should be shared by American and Arab alike in a bid for co-existence. To quote the Egyptian activist Ahmed Salah, “My message to Americans is this…Never forget that in the battle against extremism and the struggle for peace and justice, you are not alone…only by reaching out to those who risked their lives for the goals of the Arab Spring, rather than casting the entire region as an enemy, will this battle be won.”
…the alienation and antagonism of Muslims around the world…
And therefore, as the number of US marines in the Middle East increases, as discourse and communication falter and distrust breeds, the battle against extremism slips further towards defeat. Thus far American foreign policy (not helped by the recent film) has succeeded in the alienation and antagonism of Muslims around the world. Obama’s recent announcement to face up to the extremism in Libya and elsewhere undermines long fought for independent sovereignty for its abuses any notion of sustainability. US hegemony, whilst providing security to some, offers no hope for the future and simply corrupts the opportunities of this new generation, empowered as they have been from the Arab Spring. Avoiding a repeat of the last ten years will only happen with sustainable change.
Attempting to find a rationale behind the chaos currently unfolding in the Middle East requires all kind of assumptions and generalisations to be made by Western commentators. An outside observer can only provide an exterior analysis, formulated through reproduced online accounts, a basic understanding of Islam, Twitter feeds, satellite television-and perhaps some personal experience. This author is no different-for real analysis best head to the streets of Cairo, Khartoum, Sanaa or apparently now even Sydney.