Rami Khouri
The Daily Star (Opinion)
June 3, 2009 - 12:00am

President Barack Obama has an opportunity on his visits to several Arab countries this week to clarify American strategic aims and core policies in the Middle East. However, to do so he will have to make a few key decisions that his government has avoided to date. The most important on the conceptual level is to break free from the psychological chokehold of religion that continues to constrain American thinking vis-a-vis the Arab world and other Muslim-majority societies.

As he wanders in Arab-Islamic lands, he should be guided less by the ghastly images of the 9/11 attacks, and more by his two seminal experiences in Chicago as a community organizer and law professor. Law and rights, not terror and revenge, should be the lenses through which he encounters the Arab-Islamic world.

Obama should stop wasting his and our time telling us how much Americans admire Islam, and instead focus on two things: clarifying whether the United States understands the legitimate grievances of ordinary men and women in the Arab-Asian region - most of whom are Muslims - and positioning the US on a policy path that helps to reduce rather than aggravate those grievances. He can praise the Islamic faith 10 times a day, but that will have zero impact on the Osama bin Laden types who want to attack American interests. Rather, he should grasp why hundreds of millions of Arabs and other Muslims have rejected the bin Laden terror approach and have instead lined up behind "resistance" movements and ideologies that are focused heavily on defying the United States, Israel and conservative Arab regimes.

Three significant issues face the people of the Middle East and the interests of foreign powers in the region: the Arab-Israeli conflict, the "resistance front" headed by Syria, Iran, Hizbullah and Hamas, and the lack of democratic, rule-of-law-based governance systems in most Arab countries. To his credit, Obama has started to reshape US policies in the region with his outreach to Iran and Syria, and calling for an absolute freeze on Israeli settlements in order to re-start Arab-Israeli peace negotiations. However, a huge contradiction may doom this approach.

Simply stated, the US cannot realistically hope to move closer to Iran and Syria while also boycotting Hizbullah and Hamas. The structural constraint in American policy in the Middle East is that it has always subordinated relations with the Arab world to its primary alliance with Israel. Washington often does sensible things in the region, but when Israel comes into the picture American rationality turns into mush, so that Washington pushes for democratic pluralism and elections where it can, but then boycotts democratically elected movements like Hamas or Hizbullah because they fight against Israel. The US goes to war to implement United Nations resolutions in Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan, but sits on its hands on Israel-Palestine resolutions.

Obama's team seems to have realized that this approach has failed, which is why we may be witnessing an initial adjustment in US policy on Iran, Syria and Arab-Israeli peace-making. This policy will hit a brick wall soon, however, if it continues to adhere to Israeli red lines. A better yardstick - and this should form be at the heart of Obama's speeches in the Arab world - is to articulate core values that drive US policies in the region, and to continue adjusting these policies to align with those values.

This means first and foremost treating all people and countries equally, according to a single standard of law and morality. Obama's Muslim father and his own years as a child in Indonesia are interesting psychologically and culturally for the US president, but meaningless for US foreign policy today. More significant, Obama must recall his days as a law professor at the University of Chicago, or as a community organizer on the south side of Chicago, when he battled oppression and racism to help achieve a single standard of law, services and opportunity for all the residents of that city. He did not preach to south Chicagoans about the depth and wealth of African-American culture or the power of Christianity and Islam; he worked for housing loans, quality education, safe streets and other policy issues that affirm the equal rights of all Americans, and that mattered to the men and women living in south Chicago.

Public speeches are not good platforms for policy-making. However, they are suitable for articulating values. No offense, but nobody in the Middle East really cares about Obama's ancestors or youth years, or his views on other religions. What we care about - and what the US president should explain on this trip - is whether the US government believes that habeas corpus and the Fourth Geneva Convention, for example, apply with equal force to Arabs as well as to Israelis.


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