FRONT PAGE CONTRIBUTOR
Iraqi Center is Perfect Location for Barack Obama's Address from an "Islamic Capital"
Sources close to Barack Obama have said the President-elect plans to make a speech from an Islamic capital somewhere in the world within 100 days of his inauguration. This announcement prompted a flurry of speculation amongst reporters, pundits, and bloggers about which capital the Democrat would choose.
Names like Riyadh, Kuwait City, Tehran, Damascus, Amman, and Ankara were thrown out by media, and discarded for various reasons. The Wall Street Journal‘s James Taranto even half-jokingly suggested Mecca, though the city remains officially closed to all non-Muslims (something which Obama is not, as evidenced in part by the 20 years he spent in the pews of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s church).
Leaving aside the obvious jokes about Obama flying to Dearborn, Michigan (which has been referred to as the Muslim capital of the U.S.) to give a quick speech, or traveling to his childhood home of Jakarta, Indonesia and simply staying there, the question of where that address – which the New York Times‘ Helene Cooper says aides are describing as a “high-profile speech that would seek to mend rifts between the United States and the broader Muslim world” – should take place, assuming it should be at all, is a compelling one.
If handled correctly – a conditional which hinges in large part on choosing the right place to give the proposed address – I believe then-President Obama could send a very powerful message about America’s willingness to deal openly, honestly, and as equal allies with Muslim nations who comport themselves in a manner consistent with America’s interests and values.
Sending a Message to Oppressors
This stipulation would rule out current popular choice among media prognosticators: Cairo, Egypt.
“Egypt is perfect,” Cooper wrote in the Times. “It’s certainly Muslim enough, populous enough and relevant enough. It’s an American ally, but there are enough tensions in the relationship that the choice will feel bold. The country has plenty of democracy problems, so Mr. Obama can speak directly to the need for a better democratic model there.”
The “democracy problems” Ms. Cooper glosses over are far more than just a passing concern. Three years ago, Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak promised nationwide parliamentary elections, a positive development coming on the heels of the first contested presidential election since the 1952 overthrowing of Egypt’s ruling monarchy. Unfortunately, “the election was marred by widespread violations, fraud and the arrest and detention of hundreds of opposition supporters,” wrote Saad Edin Abrahim in the Los Angeles Times shortly after the election. That campaign of intimidation resulted in a voter turnout of barely 20 percent, and Mubarak’s allies maintaining their dominance of Egypt’s government.
Mubarak’s utter disregard for an honest democratic process should rule out Cairo as an option for an Obama speech that takes anything other than an overtly critical and disapproving tone – and that is clearly not what the President-elect’s aides have in mind for this address.
Baghdad the Clear Choice
If Egypt – which Cooper called “perfect” – will not work, then what will?
Fortunately for Obama, outgoing President George W. Bush has left his successor a Muslim capital which truly is the perfect place for his address to the pan-Muslim world: Baghdad, Iraq.
A Muslim state by any reasonable definition of the word, Iraq has become, outside the tiny state of Israel, the only functioning democracy in an incredibly volatile region of the world where the U.S. has myriad interests.
Further, the move to normalize relations with Iraq saw a significant development in the last week, when the Iraqi government approved two landmark agreements with the U.S.
The Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) and its counterpart, the Strategic Framework Agreement, have cemented the American-Iraqi relationship as an alliance of “independent, equal states of sovereignty,” as the preface to the SOFA describes them, by defining the conditions of American forces’ operations in, and withdrawal from, Iraq. The agreements are intended to “normalize the U.S.-Iraqi relationship with strong economic, diplomatic, cultural, and security ties” and to serve “as the foundation for a long-term bilateral relationship based on mutual goals,” said President Bush, shortly after the agreements were approved.
Landmark Developments in Iraq
The passage of these agreements, which Charles Krauthammer called “the single most important geopolitical advance in the region since Henry Kissinger turned Egypt from a Soviet client into an American ally,” represents a landmark development in U.S.-Iraqi relations and in the Middle East as a whole.
The fact that the SOFA was passed by an Iraqi parliament made up of Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds – groups which (especially the former two) were perpetuating a sectarian bloodbath within their own country – speaks volumes about how far Iraq has come in such a brief time. The only opposition to the SOFA in parliament was the minuscule Sadrist bloc, which, after hinting at it for over a year, finally showed itself to be entirely irrelevant.
The recognition and establishment successful, democratic Iraq which is a stalwart U.S. ally would truly be a transformational event in the Middle East – and, by choosing Baghdad as a location for his first major Presidential address on foreign soil, Barack Obama could make it clear to the U.S. and the world – particularly the Islamic world – that he understands the importance of the new Iraq, and that America stands ready to join in an equal partnership with any nation, Muslim or no, which is willing to embrace freedom and peace with its neighbors, and to join the fight against terrorism.
Leave Grudges at the Door
Writing in the Times, Cooper declared Baghdad ineligible as a speech site, because it “could appear to validate the Iraq war, which Mr. Obama opposed.” Hopefully then-President Obama and the foreign policy advisers he is surrounding himself with have a more realistic outlook on foreign affairs than an insulated employee of the New York Times.
If he is to have a remotely successful four (or eight) years in office, Obama must be able to put his pre-presidential views on issues like the invasion of Iraq aside and, in true statesmanlike fashion, embrace the Iraqi democracy as the ally it now is – even if it did come about as a result of decisions and policies put into place by his predecessor, and even though Obama stridently opposed the strategy that brought the postwar to its successful near-end, and which made that successful democratic government possible.
In fact, embracing the new Iraq in such a public way as to use its capital as a pulpit from which to address the pan-Islamic world would send an even more powerful message to the world because of Obama’s opposition to the invasion itself. Speaking from Baghdad would show that, while he may have disagreed with the decisions made from Day 1 of the Iraq war onward, President Obama recognizes the value of the democratic state that resulted from that effort and is ready to extend his hand to continue (and to strengthen) the growing alliance between Washington and Baghdad.
Finally, a decision by President Obama to speak from Baghdad as an equal to, rather than a superior of, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki would send a loud, clear message to the Islamic world that Iraq is not a U.S. puppet state, but that is stands in sovereign equality to an America that is ready and willing to stand on equal footing with any Muslim nation that opens itself to democratic governance and actively repudiates terror both within its borders and without.