Cast back to those heady first days of the Obama administration. One can well imagine how the thinking went inside the White House. Here is the first black president of the USA, a man with connections in the Muslim world and a “black power” background – surely he can achieve things that no other US president could attempt, bringing his unique perspective to bear on some of the world’s most intractable problems. He can reach out a hand of friendship to the Muslim world, seek a new understanding, dispel deeply-ingrained suspicions, turn a new leaf. Hence his speech in Cairo on 4 June 2009. “It’s worth a try” must have been the feeling within the administration at the time.
“This,” as Scott Wilson reminded us in the Washington Post, “was the change that Obama had promised — a new approach to old problems.”
Now, of course, the effort seems to have been doomed from the start, and the outcome has been truly devastating. As Charles Krauthammer puts it:
“From Tunisia to Lebanon, American schools, businesses and diplomatic facilities set ablaze. A US ambassador and three others murdered in Benghazi. The black flag of Salafism, of which al-Qaeda is a prominent element, raised over our embassies in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Sudan…. Iran repeatedly defies US demands on nuclear enrichment, then, as a measure of its contempt for what America thinks, openly admits that its Revolutionary Guards are deployed in Syria. Russia, after arming Assad, warns America to stay out, while the secretary of state delivers vapid lectures about Assad meeting his international “obligations.” The Gulf states beg America to act on Iran; Obama strains mightily to restrain - Israel.”
Some commentators, viewing the past from today’s perspective, now condemn Obama as an out-and-out enemy of Israel from the start. That is scarcely a sustainable point of view. Despite this attempt of his at establishing a “new deal” with the Muslim world, Obama never turned his back on Israel, as he reminded his Jewish electorate last March, at the annual AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) conference:
“…you don't just have to count on my words. You can look at my deeds. Because over the last three years, as president of the United States, I have kept my commitments to the state of Israel. At every crucial juncture at every fork in the road we have been there for Israel. Every single time.”
And he went on to enumerate them. US-Israeli military and intelligence cooperation never closer; joint exercises and training never more robust. Despite a tough budget environment, US security assistance to Israel has increased every year. And there’s the administration’s record on the Israeli-PA peace process. Despite a variety of setbacks, throughout 2010 the administration persisted, and indeed achieved a worthy success in September when it brought the parties to the same table, pledged to achieving an agreement.
That too, though, quickly fell apart – and the Obama administration, through its repeated insistence on a construction freeze throughout the West Bank and East Jerusalem, forced Mahmoud Abbas into a corner on the issue, and thus bears a share of the responsibility for its failure. Abbas was left unable to fudge the issue − as it had been fudged so many times in the past, without affecting PA-Israeli negotiations. For truth to tell, construction in West Bank areas that are virtually certain to remain in Israel’s hands in any final settlement is not an issue worth scuttling peace talks over − while Israeli construction in areas likely to be handed over to a new sovereign Palestine could only be of eventual benefit to them.
Black mark there, then, for Obama. But subsequently, by word and deed, he has shown that he remains Israel’s friend. As he put it, fairly and memorably, in his AIPAC speech:
“When the Goldstone report unfairly singled out Israel for criticism, we challenged it. When Israel was isolated in the aftermath of the flotilla incident, we supported them. When the Durban conference was commemorated, we boycotted it, when one-sided resolutions are brought up at the Human Rights Council, we oppose them. When Israeli diplomats feared for their lives in Cairo, we intervened to save them. When there are efforts to boycott or divest from Israel, we will stand against them. And whenever an effort is made to delegitimise the state of Israel, my administration has opposed them. So there should not be a shred of doubt by now when the chips are down, I have Israel's back.” [or in English English: "I stand behind Israel".]
Where Obama failed from the start was in recognising the nature and the aims of the Iran administration, and the extent to which extremist Islamist views, such as those of the Muslim Brotherhood, had captured Muslim public opinion across the Middle East.
A final verdict on Obama’s “engagement” with the Muslim world? Brave, but foolhardy. And if fate and the American electorate grant him a second term as President, the world will doubtless discover that that lesson has been well and truly learned.