FRONT PAGE CONTRIBUTOR
Obama Should Have Gone To Baghdad
The President Missed A Golden Opportunity To Support A Nascent Democracy
Though it falls outside his original target of being within 100 days of taking office, President Barack Obama is keeping a pre-inauguration promise by “mak[ing] a major speech from an Islamic capital” this week in Cairo, Egypt.
Obama made what was considered by many to be the safest (and most “obvious”) choice in selecting Cairo for his “high-profile speech that would seek to mend rifts between the United States and the broader Muslim world.” Unfortunately, by deciding to play it safe, a president whose life to this point has revolved around an obsession with being “historic” missed out on a truly historic opportunity.
Cairo “Feels Bold”
Last December, when the incoming administration first floated the idea of Obama making a major speech from an Islamic capital, pundits, and bloggers alike immediately zeroed in on Cairo as the “perfect” choice – one that is safe, but “feels bold,” in the words of New York Times reporter Helene Cooper.
“Egypt is perfect,” wrote Cooper. “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” Cooper and her allies in the media paid lip service to in their pronouncements of Cairo’s perfection are far more than just a passing concern. Just over 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 overthrow of Egypt’s ruling monarchy. Unfortunately, “the election was marred by widespread violations, fraud and the arrest and detention of hundreds of opposition supporters,” Saad Edin Abrahim wrote in the Los Angeles Times shortly after the election. That campaign of intimidation, which included the arrest and imprisonment of Mubarak’s chief challenger, resulted in a voter turnout of barely 20 percent and in Mubarak’s allies maintaining their dominance of Egypt’s government.
Baghdad the Clear Choice
If President Obama was as committed to actually being historic as he is to talking about being so, he would have taken advantage of the opportunity left him by former president George W. Bush and made his appeal to the pan-Muslim world from 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 has seen significant progress in recent months, with as evidenced by the Iraqi parliament’s approval of two landmark agreements cementing the American-Iraqi relationship as an alliance of “independent, equal states of sovereignty.”
The Status of Forces and Strategic Framework Agreements, which were passed by a parliament made up of sectarian officially “normalized the U.S.-Iraqi relationship with strong economic, diplomatic, cultural, and security ties” and will serve “as the foundation for a long-term bilateral relationship based on mutual goals,” said President Bush in an address shortly after the agreements were approved.
These agreements were passed by an Iraqi parliament made up of Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds – groups which had been fighting a bloody sectarian war against their fellow countrymen speaks volumes about how far Iraq has come in such a brief time.
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
Cooper summed up the “problem” posed by Baghdad as a potential speech site for President Obama in December, writing in the Times that speaking from that particular Islamic capital “could appear to validate the Iraq war, which Mr. Obama opposed.”
Rather than falling prey to such a petty, small-minded concern, Obama and his advisers should have recognized that this was one of several reasons why Baghdad was the perfect location for his pan-Islamic address.
Speaking from Baghdad would have publicly demonstrated the self-proclaimed “non-ideological,” “post-partisan” Obama’s ability to put aside his pre-presidential view on the invasion of Iraq aside and, in true statesmanlike fashion, embrace the Iraqi democracy as the ally it now is. Embracing and honoring the new Iraq in such a public way would have sent an even more powerful message to the Islamic world because of Obama’s opposition to the invasion itself, and because of his opposition to the shift in military strategy that pulled Iraq from the depths of sectarian war and made it what it is today.
Further, such a decision would have demonstrated that the inexperienced American president understands the value of the democratic state that resulted from an effort he opposed, and would have sent the message that Obama truly was what he constantly makes himself out to be: a high-minded statesman who is willing to put partisan ship and petty squabbles aside and to work for the purpose of building and maintaining alliances with members of the international community (in this case, with Iraq).
Tabula Rasa on Israel-Palestine
Iraq is unique in another significant way: it presents the lone location in the Muslim world from which the problem of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can be addressed free of clouding by the current regime’s statements actions. With the great emphasis Obama has put on “solving” the squabble he sees as the root of all Middle Eastern conflict to this point in his presidency, Baghdad offers an unmatched opportunity to address the Muslim world in general, and the Israel-Palestine conflict in particular, from the capital of a nation whose fledgling government has no history of supporting one side or the other in that millennial struggle.
Egypt can make no such claim. Though it has been party to peace talks and treaties with the Jewish state in the past, it was also an aggressor in the Six Days’ War against Israel, and its northern territory currently houses tunnels through which arms are sent into the blockaded Gaza Strip, where Hamas terrorists employ them against Israeli civilians in the southern cities of Sderot and Ashkelon. Further, senior Egyptian officials have gone on the record accusing the “Jews of Palestine” (modern Israel) of “killing children, old people, and women and ignoring taboos,” and of injecting civil Judaism with “their poisons, which are against all humanity.”
Egypt, in other words, has clearly staked out its position on the Palestinian side of the conflict between the Israeli population and those who virulently – and often violently – oppose them.
From providing cash payments to the families of Palestinian suicide bombers who died to kill Israeli civilians, to sending surface-to-surface missiles over Jordan and into Tel Aviv during the first Gulf War, the Iraq of Saddam Hussein was a similarly avowed enemy of Israel and supporter of Palestinian terrorism. However, with the overthrow of Saddam and the accession of a democratic government that has few if any ties to the late tyrant, Iraq is now the one nation in the entirety of the Middle East whose slate is virtually blank when it comes to Israel-Palestine policy and interference. In a region as polarized around a single issue as the Middle East is on Israel-Palestine, this virtue provides Baghdad with a value too great to be expressed in mere words.
Standing as Equals
Finally, a decision by President Obama to visit Baghdad as an equal of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki would have sent the crystal-clear message to an Islamic world suspicious of American motives 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 respects the rights of its people and those of other nations, and that actively repudiates terror both within its borders and without.
Obama’s choice of location for this address could have sent a powerful message to the Islamic world that the face of the Middle East was changing. Further, he could have used this opportunity to signal 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.
Unfortunately, in ultimately deciding to pass up Iraq with all its attributes in favor of a member of the Middle East’s “old guard” that has as few relevant attributes and as poor a record on human rights and honest democracy as Egypt, a president who is desperate to be “historic” and “transformational” missed a golden opportunity to be just that.