Obama’s Misguided Outreach

Obama’s Misguided Outreach
By Amir Taheri
New York Post | Friday, January 30, 2009

In his "first message to the Muslim world" Tuesday, President Obama on
Al-Arabiya TV invited the Is lamic Republic in Iran to "unclench its
fist" and accept his offer of "un conditional talks."

A few hours later, after Obama had appeared on the Saudi-owned
satellite-TV channel, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told a
crowd of militants that no talks are possible unless the United States
met a set of conditions.

He demanded a formal apology for unspecified US "crimes" against Iran
and the Islamic world. The crucial condition, however, was that
America should withdraw its troops from other countries, "taking them
back to their own territory."

The contrast couldn't have been greater. Obama tried to be as
conciliatory as possible - asking only for an "unclenching" of the
Iranian fist - a change of style. Ahmadinejad asked for concrete US
moves, notably a global military retreat that would leave the Middle
East at Tehran's mercy.

In the understatement of the year, Obama said: "Iran has acted in ways
not conducive to peace and prosperity in the region." He also claimed
that Iran's support for terrorists, though "not helpful," is a thing
of the past - yet Tehran was running guns to Hezbollah and Hamas even
as he spoke.

ON Al-Arabiya, Obama did something more interest ing: He cast himself
in the role of a bridge between America and the Muslim world, a kind
of honest broker between two camps in conflict.

To hammer in the point, he recalled the Muslim part of his own family
background and his childhood in Muslim Indonesia - a topic he'd
carefully avoided during the campaign. He also asserted that America
is a land of "Muslims, Christians, Jews" and others - making sure to
mention Muslims first.

At times, Obama sounded like a marriage counselor. He said his job is
to communicate to Americans that "the Muslim world is full of
extraordinary people who simply want to live their lives and see their
children live better lives." On the other hand, he said, he'd also
tell the Muslims that "Americans are not your enemy."

Obama looked to the past rather than the future to give such
platitudes a tinge of political vision. He said he wanted a return "to
the same respect and partnership that America had with the Muslim
world as recently as 20 or 30 years ago."

The problem is that few people in the Muslim world will welcome his
back-to-the-future approach. Thirty years ago, Obama was a teenager in
Indonesia. Vice President Joseph Biden, however, was already a senator
and a champion of President Jimmy Carter's strategic retreat.

What was happening during what Obama seems to regard as the "golden
age" of Carter's leadership? US diplomats were held hostage in Tehran
and daily humiliated with mock executions. Soviet troops were annexing
Afghanistan to the Evil Empire. Saddam Hussein was preparing to invade
Iran, starting an eight-year war that claimed a million lives. Mecca
was under siege by the ideological antecedents of Osama bin Laden.
Syrian troops were preparing to march into Lebanon.

OTHER features of this "golden age": the seizure of power by mullahs
in Tehran, the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, the
coming to power of communists in the Horn of Africa, the military coup
in Turkey, the first Islamist terror attacks in Algeria, unprecedented
waves of repression in Egypt and Saudi Arabia and the imposition of
military rule in Pakistan.

During the same period, and its immediate aftermath, dozens of
Americans from many walks of life were seized as hostages and
sometimes brutally murdered in several Muslim countries. The US
ambassador in Sudan was murdered; the CIA station chief in Beirut
abducted, taken to Tehran and killed under torture.

A similarly dark picture could be drawn of the situation 20 years ago,
when America was arming the mujahedin in Afghanistan while Saddam
Hussein was preparing to invade Kuwait.

And the first President George Bush was then trying to court the
Iranian mullahs in much the same way as Obama is trying today. But the
mullahs were training and arming Hezbollah units in Lebanon and
opening channels to Palestinian radicals who would soon re-emerge as
Hamas. Saddam was gassing thousands of Kurds to death, while Turkey
was dragged into a full-scale war on Kurdish communist secessionists.
Meanwhile, the Libyan terror network was killing American GIs in
Europe and blowing up US jetliners over Western skies.

No - that was no golden age, either.

THE truth is that the Middle East is not much better off than at any
time since its emergence as a geopolitical unit after World War I.
Thanks to the transformation of America from a power guaranteeing the
deadly status quo into one that supports reform and change, the region
has started to experience new currents of democratization.

Afghanistan and Iraq have been liberated, their peoples given a chance
to build new systems of their own choice. The Syrians have been kicked
out of Lebanon. Libya has been disarmed. Egypt has been forced to
allow multiparty presidential elections. More than a dozen Arab states
have adopted constitutions and introduced some form of electoral
politics. Kuwaiti women have won the right to vote and get elected.

Iran's democratic forces are encouraged to launch their campaign
against the mullahs. The Islamists have been roundly defeated in
Algeria, Egypt, Yemen and Saudi Arabia.

For the first time, the question of democracy is top of the political
agenda in virtually every Muslim state.

Obama should remember that he is the president of the United States -
not an impartial broker. It was unfortunate that he described himself
as a bridge. For a bridge has no personality of its own and cares
little about who might cross it and in which direction.

IF this was meant as the first direct contact between Obama and the
Mus lim world, the Al-Arabiya interview must be rated as a missed

Obama's remarks about the Israel-Palestine issue were so trite as to
merit no analysis. He said he was sending former Sen. George Mitchell
to listen to all sides - as if the world has not been hearing their
stories for more than six decades.

The president appeared apologetic, offering no hope for
democratization and economic development. He made no mention of the
economic meltdown that is creating unprecedented mass unemployment in
many countries of the region.

Nor did he offer any support to democratic forces facing crucial
elections in Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, the Palestinian
territories, Egypt and Algeria this year.

He had nothing to say about the thousands of Iranian workers who have
been thrown into prison solely because they created independent trade
unions. Nor did he mention Iranian women's courageous "a million
signatures campaign" or the series of student revolts that have been
crushed by the mullahs with exceptional violence.

Nor was there any nod toward reformers in Saudi Arabia and Egypt or
the heroic Lebanese democratic leaders who are fighting to preserve
their nation's independence from Iran and Syria.

Obama didn't call for the release of the tens of thousands of
political prisoners held in more than two dozen Muslim countries or a
moratorium on executions that each year cost the lives of hundreds of

CASTING himself in the role of a "bridge" and dreaming of a return to
an illusionary past, Obama appeared unsure of his own identity and
confused about the role that America should play in global politics.
And that is bad news for those who believe that the United States
should use its moral, economic and political clout in support of
democratic forces throughout the world.