Friday, September 05, 2008

The Arabs and Obama

The Arabs and Obama

By Azmi Bishara
Al-Ahram Weekly, Egypt, Issue 911 [August 21-27, 2008]

The Obama phenomenon is a new and major development in US political life. Media people over there like to call it a breath of fresh air. It has injected new life into politics, inspired higher levels of public interest and voter registration, and supplied copious fodder for the media machine.

A major feature of this year's campaign season in the US is the American public's thirst for settling scores with the Bush administration's deception of the American people after 11 September, its military adventurism and its application of neoconservative ideology in American policies overseas. The Obama phenomenon feeds this thirst, while the candidate himself, the aspirant to presidential rank and power, benefits from this climate without having to offer anything really new -- apart, that is, from a rhetorical flare that contrasts strikingly with Bush's leaden tongue, and a talent for judicious arguments that never exceed the bounds of political correctness, that pay lip-service to democratic debate but that are carefully pitched not to offend anyone from the right.

He "sympathises" with African Americans out of work and he "feels for" white women who feel threatened by crime. He's smooth. He's very clever at sound bites. He inspires admiration and threatens no one. Vote Obama and win pain-free change. Vote Obama and ease your conscience without the trouble of introspection. Obama: two films for the price of one.

The American public's revenge for allowing themselves to be duped into war and then voting Bush into power for a second -- and even more disastrous -- term comes very late in the day. In the single election round in which their fury is being vented and their plagued consciences wrung, one senses a surge of self-purging reminiscent of that which produced the John Kennedy phenomenon. On that occasion, the white American conscience sought to purge its guilt for its racist past and create a pretext for reconciliation between the grandchildren of slaves brought over from Africa and the American establishment. But Obama is not a descendant of slaves; nor is he representative of the suffering of African Americans. He is a relatively well- to-do son of an African who emigrated to the US centuries after the era of slavery. To mainstream whites in the US he is an offer too good to refuse. With him they can ease their conscience without having to work to end racism, and all they have to do is not vote for McCain. It's easy and cheap. In fact, since, to the Republicans' great detriment, McCain only reminds voters of how Bush will look in 20 years' time, it's bargain basement cheap.

On the other hand, what the Obama campaign has stirred among American youth is something new. Here we find an enormous surge of interest and eagerness to participate in the democratic process. It is an angry and relatively quick response to the spread of ultraconservative values and vengeful militarism, as well as a reflection of a resolve to put paid to such unspoken taboos as electing a woman or a black man to power. This is an unquestionably important development in American society. Undoubtedly, too, it is one that the ruling establishment will contain through the machinations of its military- industrial complex, its banks, media and cultural institutions. As for Obama, the person, he is perfectly contained in that establishment. In fact, he has fought for years to be contained in it, and he has shown that he can be quite nimble at changing his positions in order to facilitate the establishment's digestive process.

In a sense, then, Obama is "less black" than Rice in that he is not as representative of the African American experience, not that her appointment as secretary of state did anything to alter American foreign policy. True, we are talking about a ministry and not the presidency, but even the appointment of an African American woman to that position would have been inconceivable 40 years ago. Also, Rice did not have to deny her Islamic heritage as Obama has done. She did need all those verbal acrobatics and rhetorical hairpin turns in order to prove that she was part of the establishment. She is a product of it. Nor did she treat a Muslim ancestry as a taint on her reputation, since she had no such ancestry. But Obama did, as did his campaign managers, publicity contractors, Zionist supporters, and experts in the undercurrents and intrigues of domestic politics. Obama regarded his Muslim parentage as a flaw, which is to say he failed in the racism test with respect to Arabs and Muslims.

As a person Obama is certainly not new. He is an ambitious politician, a young man who needed a huge amount of opportunism, thickness of skin and very flexible principles to get where he is. In addition, all the emphasis on how Christian he is makes a mockery of American secularism. It also appears that in order to become an American president you have to declare, like a Christian revivalist, "I've opened my heart to Jesus!" But the popular tide that is carrying Obama, the social base on which his popularity rests, has some noble features, at least nobler than he is.

Elections can mean change in US policies, or more precisely they reflect changes whose time has come. The election of Bush for a second term was an expression of a political change, as were the elections of Reagan and Roosevelt. However, when it comes to the foreign policy of this superpower, change is limited by the interests of this power, and these are set by the establishment, the special interests groups that surround it, and their instruments for shaping public opinion. There is nothing altruistic about this process, regardless of the peoples it affects.

The change at hand through the present election may be to define the period for the direct US military presence in Iraq in the framework of the security agreement between the two countries. This dangerous agreement will probably remain intact for several administrations to come. However, the change will not include a shift in policy towards Israel, for one, and hence towards the Palestinian cause. There is no need, here, to enumerate the well-known reasons why Israel is so important to the US that it is more of a domestic issue than a question of national security. Washington's stance towards the Palestinian cause will not change as the result of the internal mechanisms of American politics. Inside the US, Israel always wins. Only outside pressures brought to bear on American interests at home and abroad can produce such change, as occurred in Iraq, for example.

Yet the Arabs have a persistent, ever regenerating Arab quirk that, in spite of an unbroken stream of disappointments at the hands of American presidents, whenever an election year comes up they inevitably fall prey to the illusion that it holds promise for the Palestinian cause. Ever since some conspiracy theorists put it about that "the Jews" killed Kennedy because he wanted to solve the Palestinian cause, the same mentality or naïve pattern of behaviour would repeat itself, even in the Arab press. So, from one election to the next we find the Arabs pinning their hopes on this candidate or that, following his fortunes in the campaigns and, come election day, sitting on the edges of their seats in anticipation of the results.

What is surprising, however, is that this quirk has latched on to Obama. His stomach turning grovelling to ingratiate himself to AIPEC, Israeli leaders and Zionist ideas, in general; his complete sympathy for the situation in Siderot, without an inkling of understanding for the situation in Gaza; and his parroting of the Bush administration's clichés about terrorism and about the Palestinians not only betray the extent of his opportunism but also the magnitude of his disdain for the Arabs, regardless of whether he truly believes what he says about Israel.

Not that he has encountered a unified Arab front to make him take heed or, at least, to offer him some advice. Of course, he must have heard some contradictory advice from the Arabs, and his advisors would have conveyed to him equally conflicting reports of Palestinian hopes and expectations. And, naturally, he would have heard about that initiative on the part of Arab states that excel at undermining each other, instigating mutual antagonisms and promoting their own agendas in secret about achieving some kind of justice for the Palestinians. Which is perhaps the major reason why the Arabs should not expect promise from any American president -- they have yet to establish this promise among themselves. There is not a single reason in the world why the Arabs should anticipate a change in a situation in which so many factors favour Israel when the Arabs are doing nothing to tip the scales in their direction.

The Arabs' chief weakness is that they are disunited, fragmented, lacking a common agenda and lacking the resolve and power to back any joint decision or action they take. So even when propelled by some impending crisis to meet and come up with a joint statement, they fail to back those words with concrete action.

There are no shortcuts. The Arabs will not see change in their favour until they do what is needed to make their presence felt as a cohesive and forceful factor in the international arena. Meanwhile, as things stand, there is, indeed, something new in the US. Sadly, there is nothing new with the Arabs.

Azmi Bishara is a Palestinian Christian politician with Israeli citizenship. He served in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, from 1996 until he resigned in April 2007.

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